C Joe Mauer: One year ago, few players’ health issues were being watched as closely as Mauer’s were. Thankfully, his knee was never an issue all season, and he proved it with 13 stolen bases (more than three times his previous career total as a pro). A sore groin almost prompted the Twins to put him on the DL in late May, but it wasn’t enough of a hindrance for them to make the move. They also kept him fresh with frequent DH duties; Mike Redmond is a good fit as Mauer’s backup. But a tall catcher with a history of knee problems doesn’t escape injury concern with one banner year. Reports have been consistently great this winter, but he’s still a risk. The odds are against Mauer to remain a catcher for his entire career, despite his great receiving skills.
1B Justin Morneau: The guy can’t seem to catch a break. After a miserable 2004-2005 winter, Morneau probably never reached full health last season. He was beaned and concussed in April. In June his elbow flared up with bone spurs. Despite all this, Morneau’s isolated power still pushed .200, so he retains his lofty potential. The Twins opted against clean-up surgery on the elbow, but bone spurs always carry the risk of recurrence.
2B Luis Castillo: In the fantasy world, Castillo often gets a bad rap for the leg woes that have halted his base stealing. In real life, he’s still a very valuable player–the defense, average and batting eye remain–but the leg injuries loom large. Last year he dealt with hamstring, quad, knee and hip pangs. On FieldTurf, it should only get worse…though, as the most extreme groundball hitter in generations, the carpet will also sneak him some hits.
3B Tony Batista / Mike Cuddyer: Even with wrist and knee problems and a sometimes balky hamstring, Cuddyer is the better player. His lateral meniscus was repaired after the season. Cuddyer’s name has been bandied about for right-field duty, so whether Batista is any more than an experiment could depend largely on how Jason Kubel and Lew Ford look this spring. Cuddyer is a guy you cheer for, although White Sox and Indians fans are no doubt pulling for Batista.
LF Shannon Stewart: He endured a painful year, including a wall collision that banged up his right shoulder. It’s a chronic problem, and looks like the beginning of the end for Stewart. Compare this to Jeff Bagwell. Neither should be playing the field, and neither can really DH–Bagwell is stuck in the National League, while Stewart’s bat isn’t what you’d want from a designated hitter.
CF Torii Hunter: His broken ankle was a far better outcome than the torn Achilles that was originally reported. Hunter’s run-in with the wall trailed only the Mike Cameron/Carlos Beltran collision and Brian Roberts‘ elbow-shredding among the most gruesome injuries of 2005. He completed rehab without a hitch and says he’s at 90 percent. Hunter was stealing bases like crazy until the injury, but the limited mobility could nullify those gains. Watch his speed this spring.
RF Lew Ford
DH Rondell White: You know the drill. White hasn’t played more than 138 games since 1997, and there’s no reason the litany of injuries won’t continue to grow. The Twins are his seventh team in seven years. Two respect points if you can name the other six without looking.
RF/DH Jason Kubel: Kubel’s devastating knee injury is still shrouded in mystery. Despite some recent positives, no one has any clue about how his knee will hold up under even a lessened workload. Kubel could be a fantasy steal and a difference maker in the AL Central, but his knee is going to become the backstory to his career, much like Edgar Martinez‘s did.
SP Brad Radke: Typically one of baseball’s healthiest pitchers, he’s 33 now and things like last season’s sore neck and shoulder could become more commonplace. He pitched through the stiffness for several months until shutting down in September. Radke has had a winter to work out the kinks, but watch him this spring to make sure he’s not still hampered.
SP Carlos Silva: A torn meniscus wasn’t a major issue for Silva–it certainly didn’t affect his control–and the knee should be as good as new after a late-season procedure.
SP Kyle Lohse
SP Francisco Liriano: He’s been fully healthy since his trade to the Twins, who have a good record of developing pitching. The clean mechanics bode well, too, but Liriano is still a young pitcher and inherently risky. Green light Scott Baker could sneak into this slot with a big spring, but Liriano’s the favorite and can’t stay down long, if at all.
SP Joe Nathan
It’s no coincidence that this team’s strength is also its healthiest unit. The pitching staff once again was one of the league’s best, driven by historically sharp command. Not only will the Twins add a few wins by swapping out Joe Mays for Liriano (or possibly Baker), they also eliminate one of their biggest injury liabilities. Boof Bonser is another viable contingency. The Twins have become one of the best teams at developing pitchers, and pitching coach Rick Anderson certainly deserves some credit. Hard as it is to evaluate coaches, many Twins pitchers have overachieved during Anderson’s four-year tenure.
But the offense is another ball of wax. Bartlett is the only everyday position player unmarked by injuries. Looking closer at the lineup, Athletic Trainer Rick McWane has a long summer ahead of him. Mauer, Morneau, Castillo, Hunter and Kubel–quite possibly the Twins’ five best hitters–must all be monitored carefully. Should four or five play full seasons, the Twins will push hard for the Central title. Just two or three, and they’re probably also-rans like 2005. One or none, and they don’t stand a chance.
Stewart and White were impact players once upon a time, and as long as they’re healthy, they’re not liabilities in left field and DH. Speaking of liabilities, Batista could be banished if Cuddyer proves he’s able-bodied. Given the option, it only seems logical to keep a player like Cuddyer (plagued by knee and hamstring trouble) at the hot corner. Not only would his bat lose value in right field, he’d be chasing down triples on the Metrodome’s artificial surface and throwing his limbs full-speed into the big blue bag.
With so much of their injury risk concentrated in the field, the Twins are an oddity. They might thrive on pitching, but this year, the lineup’s overall health should determine how far they go.