Happy 4th of July Weekend!

Gone is Johan Santana, two-time Cy Young Award winner and considered by many to be the best pitcher in baseball. Gone is Torii Hunter, seven-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder, team leader and face of the franchise. Gone also is Carlos Silva, an unspectacular pitcher, but one who can be counted upon to pitch his share of innings.

Considering all that the Minnesota Twins lost during the offseason, it is easy to discount their chances of being a contender in the strong AL Central this season. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, for his part, isn’t making any predictions or concessions. “I’ll let other people decide if they think we can contend in our division this season,” Gardenhire said. “We obviously lost some very key players, but I also like the players we still have on this team. We have talent. We have guys who can play the game. The one thing I do know is I’ll take the team I have now and go into this season feeling good about what we can do. Whether we’ll be good enough to be a contender, only time will tell, but I do know that we aren’t conceding this season. We’re playing to win just like we do every other season.”

Minnesota has been winning quite a bit since 2001, when it broke a streak of eight consecutive losing seasons by finishing second in the AL Central with an 85-77 record. A year later, Minnesota won the first of four division titles in the next five years, before falling back below .500 and into third place last season with a 79-83 mark.

Coming off of a losing season and losing three key players would seem to make this the perfect time for the Twins to rebuild. Although they will be relying upon a bevy of young starting pitchers, the Twins nevertheless believe they still have enough talent to be competitive. While Santana (6.5 SNLVAR last season) is gone after having been traded to the Mets in the offseason and Silva (5.0) left for Seattle as a free agent, the Twins feel they can make up for the loss of their two top starters with their depth and youthful talent. The Twins are encouraged that left-hander Franciscio Liriano has returned after missing all of last season recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery. Liriano had 4.7 SNLVAR in 2006, when he was one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball. Beyond Liriano, for additional young talent the Twins have right-handers Scott Baker (3.1), Kevin Slowey (0.9), and Nick Blackburn (0.0), and left-hander Glen Perkins battling for two rotation spots. The righties split last season between the major and minor leagues, while Perkins lost much of the season to injury. All four face the prospect of moving back and forth between the big leagues and Triple-A Rochester. The Twins will also have right-handed prospects Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey, acquired from the Mets in Santana trade, waiting in reserve at Rochester.

For more experienced hands in the rotation, the Twins are counting on right-handers Boof Bonser and Livan Hernandez. Bonser lost his spot in the rotation in the second half of last season when he struggled to put up a 2.4 SNLVAR. However, he lost 30 pounds over the winter, and has looked sharp this spring while moving back into a regular starting role. Minnesota added veteran innings-eater Hernandez as a free agent to stabilize the otherwise relatively young rotation, one that isn’t ready to provide Gardenhire with a lot of innings. Hernandez had a 3.1 SNLVAR for Arizona a year ago.

Gardenhire was asked if he could see a season-long shuttle of starting pitchers between the Twin Cities and Rochester. Where the question could have been perceived as a knock on the Twins’ rotation, he turned it into a positive.
“If that’s the case, it’s going to mean we have a lot of guys down at Triple-A who are pitching well and knocking on the door of the major leagues. I think our starting pitching is going to be fine. There will be a few growing pains, but we have a lot of young pitchers with talent.”

From among the relievers who will have to back up that rotation, closer Joe Nathan returns to anchor the bullpen after a fine 2007 season, when he posted an outstanding 5.077 WXRL. He is ably set up by right-handers Pat Neshek (3.572) and Matt Guerrier (2.462).

Giving up runs wasn’t a problem for Minnesota last season as their average of 4.48 was fourth in the AL. Scoring runs was a different matter as the Twins’ 4.43 average ranked 12th in the 14-team league, and with Hunter gone as a free agent, simply maintaining that productivity might seem difficult. New GM Bill Smith, who replaced Terry Ryan late last season, has done major surgery on the Twins’ lineup as just four of the nine regulars return from a year ago: catcher Joe Mauer (.284 EqA), first baseman Justin Morneau (.280), right fielder Michael Cuddyer (.274) and designated hitter Jason Kubel (.269). The Twins are banking on a big year from new left fielder Delmon Young, who was acquired along with second baseman Brendan Harris from Tampa Bay in an off-season trade. Young has considerable promise, but his EqA was just .250 last season, while Harris posted a .267 mark. The left side of the infield has been imported from Houston, as third baseman Mike Lamb (.282) and shortstop Adam Everett (.208) were both signed as a free agents.

Potentially joining Young as a new prospect in the lineup could be center fielder Carlos Gomez. Although Gomez posted a .228 EqA in 139 plate appearances as a rookie last season, he was the centerpiece of the four-player package the Twins got from the Mets for Santana. How well Gomez fares in the leadoff spot could go a long way in determining how the Twins do this season. As Gardenire noted, smiling, “Carlos is an exciting player, in both good ways and bad ways right now. He has a lot of talent and he really believes in himself. At the same time, he’s prone to mistakes like most young players. We like excitement, though. Excitement is good and I think Carlos and the rest of these guys are going to create their share of excitement this year.”

The Padres and Dodgers were part of bringing baseball to a new frontier this weekend by playing a two-game exhibition series in Beijing. It marked the first time that major league teams have ever played in China, which will host the Olympics this summer.

The Padres certainly understood the importance of being trailblazers in the world’s most populous nation. “This is a big trip,” Padres Vice President (and Hall of Fame outfielder) Dave Winfield told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “This isn’t like going across the border into Mexico or even the Caribbean. It’ll be good for the young guys. I talked to some of them on the way over. It’s a new experience for them, something they ordinarily wouldn’t get to do.” Added Padres Chief Executive Officer Sandy Alderson, “Anytime you get outside the United States and kids get a chance to see a different culture, it’s a terrific and broadening experience. I see that kind of thing at the Olympics. I think it helps to mature players a little bit and gives them a better perspective on things.”

The Padres players appreciated the opportunity, and not just because they got to visit a section of the Great Wall. Among the top players who volunteered to make the 13-hour flight from spring training in Arizona were closer and all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, set-up reliever Heath Bell, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. “If baseball takes off in China the next 15 years,” first-game pitcher Justin Germano noted with pride, “I can look back and say that I started the first major league game in China.”

Slowly but surely, advanced statistical acronyms are starting to be used in major league clubhouses. Diamondbacks left-hander Doug Davis recently dropped WHIP on some reporters. After a spotty spring outing this past Wednesday against Oakland where he allowed only one run in four innings but walked four batters as he faced former teammate Dana Eveland, Davis told reporters, “That doesn’t help my WHIP. The walks, I hate them. It’s kind of typical Doug Davis, I guess you could say. At the same time, I want to reverse that, especially when my young padawan on the other side is out there throwing strikes.”

No, padawan isn’t the latest statistic or projection system invented by BP’s Nate Silver. A padawan is a Jedi knight apprentice in the Star Wars series, and Davis was referring to Eveland. The fellow southpaw was one of six players dealt to the Athletics in the Dan Haren trade in the offseason, and he’d pitched five shutouts innings and struck out seven going up against Davis.

Perhaps in contrast, first-year Kansas City manager Trey Hillman talked about SLG to reporters at the Royals‘ camp this past week when discussing how he also uses statistics as a guide to running the club, even if he isn’t quite ready to recite a verbatim definition of VORP. “I use statistics,” Hillman said. “but I don’t go that deep. I’m certainly not an expert in sabermetrics. If I go too deep into the statistical study, I lock up.” Yet, “OBP is a no-brainer. Get on base and have guys drive you in. Be aggressively disciplined in the strike zone, but take your walks. After that, it depends on what you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the middle of the lineup, which I consider three through seven, then I look for run production. So I go to SLG.”

NL Rumors and Rumblings: While the Dodgers have been linked to the TigersBrandon Inge and the White Sox‘s Joe Crede in trade rumors, their more realistic third-base target is Philadelphia’s Wes Helms, who is also reportedly drawing interest from Atlanta and Florida. The Phillies would like a left-handed reliever in return for Helms, and could have interest in San Francisco’s Steve Kline. … The Giants also have at least cursory interest in Inge and Crede. … Cincinnati would be willing trade infielder/outfielder Ryan Freel for pitching help. … Washington has interest in right-hander Jeff Weaver as a free agent, but is unlikely to go over $2 million for one year. … The Mets, in their search for outfield help after Moises Alou‘s injury, are looking at Toronto’s Reed Johnson and Shannon Stewart.

Pittsburgh is having rookie Steve Pearce concentrate solely on playing right field, although he came up through the minor leagues as a first baseman. … Nate McLouth has taken the lead over Nyjer Morgan in the competition to become the Pirates‘ center fielder and leadoff hitter. … San Francisco is leaning towards starting veteran Ray Durham at second base over Kevin Frandsen. … Rookie right-hander Jair Jurrjens has been so impressive this spring that he has locked up a spot in Atlanta’s starting rotation. … Bobby Howry has struggled so much in exhibition play that the Cubs will most likely start the season with either Kerry Wood or Carlos Marmol as the closer. … Milwaukee center fielder Mike Cameron is attempting to get a medical exemption in order to have his 25-game suspension for using amphetamines, which takes effect on Opening Day, overturned. … Colorado has decided that left-hander Franklin Morales, so impressive in last year’s postseason, will begin the season in the major league rotation. … Arizona wants right fielder Justin Upton to run more this season. … Florida’s starting pitching plans are so scrambled that right-handed prospects Burke Badenhop, Gaby Hernandez, and Chris Volstad could all begin the season in the rotation.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The A’s and the Cubs have been linked to Red Sox center fielder Coco Crisp in trade talks, but don’t expect any movement until he shows he is over his strained groin. … The Yankees are in search of a left-handed reliever, and have their eyes on Pittsburgh’s Damaso Marte and Colorado’s Brian Fuentes. … The Angels would consider trading outfielder Juan Rivera, who is drawing interest from Atlanta and the Mets, but they have told teams that outfielder Reggie Willits is basically off limits. … The Angels have some interest in Rockies utilityman Clint Barmes. … Baltimore is likely to name veteran left-hander George Sherrill as their closer this week, and are also trying to trade for Boston reliever Bryan Corey.

Left-hander Cliff Lee has pulled in front of lefty Aaron Laffey in the competition for Cleveland’s fifth starter’s spot … Brian Anderson is making a spirited bid to be the White Sox’s center fielder after failing to hold the job as a rookie two seasons ago. … Hideo Nomo has been so impressive in his comeback that he now has a legitimate shot to open the season in Kansas City’s starting rotation. … Right-hander Jesse Litsch will begin the season in Toronto’s starting rotation now that Casey Janssen is scheduled for shoulder surgery.

Odds and Ends: The Angels are the front runners to host the 2010 All-Star Game, but Kansas City and Tampa Bay have also made bids. … Cincinnati right fielder Ken Griffey told Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey during his visit to Reds‘ camp that he would prefer to wear a Seattle cap on his plaque in Cooperstown.

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