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RF Shannon Stewart
SS Cristian Guzman
3B Corey Koskie
DH Matt LeCroy
CF Torii Hunter
LF Jacque Jones
1B Doug Mientkiewicz
C Joe Mauer
2B Luis Rivas

SP Brad Radke
SP Johan Santana
SP Kyle Lohse
SP Rick Helling
SP Carlos Silva
CL Joe Nathan/ J.C. Romero

The AL Central is close enough–or rather, mediocre enough–that a small factor could make a big difference. It could be a breakout performance, a smart mid-season acquisition, or a key injury. The Twins have dealt with quite a few injuries, seeing their Redbook numbers creep up each year. Some may be the result of playing more “important” games, since the numbers suggest that poor teams have fewer injuries due to end-of-season replacements and ‘coasting.’ While any team can have a bad year injury-wise, this three-year trend is disturbing since there have been no significant changes in the park or even in the personnel.

The Twins, you’ll notice, have a distinctly “green” tint here in the THR. Does this mean their injury woes have turned? Perhaps. At the very least, two of the riskier players–Eric Milton and A.J. Pierzynski–were moved, and even the riskiest of Twins aren’t terribly risky. Moreover, the Twins are among the deeper teams in baseball due to their commitment to minor league development. While Joe Mauer is in the lineup after a quick, heralded rise from being the number-one overall pick, the names not listed but available include Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Lew Ford, Boof Bonser, Adam Johnson, and Jesse Crain.

Most of the concern on the team centers around the positions where there’s not an adequate replacement: shortstop and the end of the bullpen. Joe Nathan had a great season in San Francisco with no health problems, but he had a long comeback from shoulder surgery leading up to 2003. Even if Nathan fails to hold the job, the Twins have options, if not a better one. J.C. Romero has the stuff to close, but the University of Mobile product has yet to show the results. Add Juan Rincon and Micheal Nakamura to the mix and Nathan’s loss wouldn’t be devastating.

Losing Christian Guzman would be more of a problem. Some rumors that he was being shopped around in the off-season emerged, but as of yet, Terry Ryan hasn’t converted any of his minor league depth into filling the obvious holes in his lineup. Guzman has dealt with varied injuries, ranging from a sore back to bad hamstring to sore toe to sprained knees. None have kept him out of the lineup, but his ability to field seems the only thing affected. At 26, he’s frustrated Ron Gardenhire and is poised for a season where he returns to the promise of 2002 or slides and forces Ryan’s hand.

Johan Santana may have as much promise as any young pitcher in the AL, but he also closed out 2003 by heading in for a cleanup on his pitching elbow. The surgery was as minor as can be done on a young pitching elbow, so the yellow is the simple precaution of a young pitcher facing an expansion in his innings pitched. His use in relief has relieved many of the worries for a player this age, but going from 108 IP to the potential for 200 this season can tax anyone.

Doug Mientkiewicz returns from off-season wrist surgery to torture spell-check and editors everywhere and to seemingly block Morneau for another season. Minky’s surgery was more complex than the garden variety hamate bone fix and could sap some bat speed, but won’t affect his fielding. Given equivalent at-bats, Morneau could be better than Minky anyway, one of the cases where injury causes team improvement.

Corey Koskie also had wrist surgery, but simpler than Mientkiewicz’s. The injury, combined with a muscular back problem, sapped him of power almost completely, not allowing him to hit even a single homer over the last half of the season. That should come back quickly and Koskie is a relatively low-risk player for anyone and will fill the middle of the Twins lineup ably. Gardenhire knows to give him rest, especially at home, and that will certainly help.

The Twins have been rumored to be trying to deal Jacque Jones, but platooned properly, Jones would not only be a more valuable player, he’d likely avoid many of the leg problems he’s suffered with over the last two seasons. Both groin and hamstring problems have sapped him of some speed and range, but with the plethora of options available at corner outfield, the Twins are well covered.

To get out in front of some questions I anticipate, no, you can’t explain Luis Rivas’ struggles with injuries. No, there’s no greater injury risk for young catchers. Yes, I’m worried about Brad Radke’s K rate sliding. To sum up the Twins, one only needs to realize that health isn’t the biggest issue this team has, it’s depth. If it’s possible to have too much, this team might, but the Twins remain at the top of the AL Central mess in spite of it.