Teams don't usually get better by losing their best hitter and best pitcher.
For the Minnesota Twins, the departures of Torii Hunter and Johan Santana likely mean that the streak of six winning seasons that ended last year is unlikely to be renewed in 2008. This year's club features a lineup full of new faces, an unproven rotation and a very solid bullpen.
Catcher Joe Mauer, first baseman Justin Morneau and outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are the only returning starters in a revamped lineup. The club parted with promising starter Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett in a big trade with Tampa Bay that netted left fielder Delmon Young and second baseman Brendan Harris. Free agent Adam Everett takes over for Bartlett at shortstop. He was signed from the Astros, along with Mike Lamb, who will man the hot corner. Carlos Gomez, the key player in the Johan Santana trade with the Mets, will try to replace Hunter in center field, while veteran outfielder Craig Monroe was signed as insurance.
If the lineup is young, the rotation is downright juvenile, a far reach from the Santana-Brad Radke-Carlos Silva years.
Apart from new addition Livan Hernandez, no Twins hurler has made even 50 career starts. Not that there aren't some intriguing names in the bunch, though.
Left-hander Francisco Liriano returns from Tommy John surgery to anchor a talented but inexperienced group that includes right-handers Boof Bonser, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey. The bullpen is more stable, with proven closer Joe Nathan working the ninth behind a solid array of set-up men, including Pat Neshek, Jesse Crain, Juan Rincon and Matt Guerrier.
Ballpark: The Twins will play in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome for only two more seasons, as Hennepin County is building a new facility scheduled to open in 2010. Once known as the "Homerdome," the Metrodome has been a moderate pitchers' park in recent years. It depresses runs by around 5 percent, home runs by right-handers by 11 percent and home runs by left-handers by 20 percent.
Top sleeper: Jason Kubel has fewer than 700 major league at-bats to his name, thanks mostly to knee surgery that cost him the entire 2005 season. His minor league track record suggests a high-average hitter with very good plate discipline, a touch of speed and potential 30-homer power. His fine 2007 second half suggests that fulfilling that promise might be a reality soon. Kubel's power, contact ability, walk rate and fly-ball tendencies continue to progress nicely. Expect him to emerge as a fantasy option this year.
Intriguing spring battle: The Twins' biggest question mark heading into 2008 is whether new acquisition Carlos Gomez will hit enough to man center field on an everyday basis. The speedster's defense is not in doubt, but at age 21, his batting eye and pitch recognition skills are still weak. If Gomez is overmatched, the Twins probably will turn to Craig Monroe, who will otherwise log plenty of at-bats backing up all over the outfield and at designated hitter. Keep an eye on Jason Pridie and Denard Span, a pair of unpolished 24-year-old rookies who will also be given the opportunity to make an impression in center field this spring.
Backup to watch: Monroe could be one of the American League's most valuable reserve outfielders. He can play center field if Gomez isn't ready to play everyday, but he'll also serve as the primary backup option at designated hitter and both outfield corners. Monroe's 2007 season was affected by a season-long knee ailment. The 28 homers he bashed in 2006 look like a career year, but prior to last year's drop-off, he had been a steady earner in the power categories. Monroe's batting average and contact rate have slipped for two straight years, and a modest rebound at age 30 is by no means assured. However, his history makes him a sound endgame gamble, and he should find enough at-bats to provide at least a solid late-round power boost.
Trainer's room: Joe Mauer was slowed by hernia problems last year, and Jesse Crain lost most of 2007 to shoulder surgery. Both say they're ready to go in 2008, but the big question will be how well Francisco Liriano comes back following Tommy John surgery. There's plenty of precedent to suggest he'll be effective this year and will regain 100 percent of his previously unhittable form by 2009. Liriano's rehab has reportedly been trouble-free, and he should be well worth a mid-round bid this year. Don't expect No. 1 starter numbers until next season, but he should be able to provide good enough numbers to make him a a worthwhile fantasy option.
Prospect to watch for 2008: The third overall pick in the 2004 draft, Phil Humber, was shipped to Minnesota in the Johan Santana trade. Humber had Tommy John surgery in 2005 and has been effective, though not dominant, since then. He's not regarded as a high-ceiling prospect, but he's a polished college product with good command of four pitches and is now more than a full season removed from his elbow surgery. If one of the Twins' young starters falters, Humber could get the call. He has the talent and makeup to surprise, and he bears watching in the spring.
Prospect to watch for the future: In line behind Humber for a rotation spot is top pitching prospect Anthony Swarzak. Like Humber, Swarzak is not a flamethrower but has good command of several plus offerings. The 22-year-old will begin the 2008 season by getting his first taste of Triple-A, where a good campaign would leave him well-positioned to compete for a rotation spot heading into 2009.
Future closer: Joe Nathan is a free agent at season's end, and while the Twins have actively engaged the 33-year-old in long-term contract talks, he might prove too expensive for a small-market team in rebuilding mode. If Nathan is traded midseason, look for submariner Pat Neshek to slide into the closer's role and succeed, provided that last year's elbow troubles are indeed behind him.
Baserunning philosophy: Under manager Ron Gardenhire, the Twins have consistently been among the league leaders in stolen-base attempts. Delmon Young, who comes over from the run-happy Rays, shouldn't see a big drop-off in stolen base opportunities, while other newcomers like Adam Everett and Brendan Harris could boost their modest value by chipping in a few steals in the club's small-ball offense. The big beneficiary of the green light, however, would be Carlos Gomez. The youngster has premium speed, and if he hits enough to keep the center field job all year, he could be a legitimate contender for the American League stolen base crown.
Will Harris is a fantasy baseball and college football analyst for ESPN.com.