Morneau, Nathan welcome sight for Twins

Wednesday on "Baseball Tonight" (3:30 PM ET, ESPN) the Goodyear Express Tour looks at the Minnesota Twins, including news on Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau and how the Twins are shaping up heading into this season.

The Twins won 94 games in 2010, and while that sort of success is not unusual for this organization over the past decade, it was pretty exceptional. Those wins were accomplished with Justin Morneau playing just 81 games, and Joe Nathan missing the entire season with Tommy John surgery.

While the Twins' ability to bounce back from these devastating losses is a testament to the organization, what exactly they were missing shouldn’t be overlooked.

Morneau suffered a concussion on July 7 last year and missed the rest of the season. He took the field last week at spring training for the first time since the injury, but there is no set date for his return to Minnesota's lineup.

The Twins first baseman was the American League MVP in 2006, and a case could be made that he was the leading candidate to win the award last season. At the time of his injury, Morneau ranked either first or second in all of baseball in four categories: batting average (.345); on-base percentage (.437); slugging percentage (.618); and go-ahead RBI (19).

Minnesota Twins Last Season
Before/After Morneau Injury

Even without Morneau, the Twins actually played better following his injury on July 7.

Despite missing half of the 2010 season, no Twins position player was more productive in terms of wins above replacement than Morneau. His WAR was 5.3 in 81 games; the only other Twin last season with a WAR of at least five was Joe Mauer (5.1).

As for Nathan, it’s hard to argue that there’s been a better closer (at least statistically) since 2004. Among relievers with at least 400 innings pitched, Nathan ranked first from 2004 to 2009 in: saves (246); ERA (1.87); opponent batting average (.182); and opponent OPS (.526). Since 2004, Nathan’s had more saves, a lower ERA and more strikeouts per nine innings than Mariano Rivera.

Nathan’s WAR since 2004 is 15.1. Only Rivera’s is higher (17.1) in that span.

Since coming over to the Twins in 2004, Nathan’s presence has allowed the Twins to have one of the most productive/consistent bullpens. Over the past seven seasons, the Twins' bullpen has never ranked outside of the top half of the American League. In fact, their ERA (3.49), opponent OPS (.703) and WHIP (1.29) were better in 2010 without Nathan than in 2009.

All in all, what could be truly frightening for the White Sox, Tigers, Indians and Royals is how good the Twins could be with a full season of production from both Morneau and Nathan.

If Nathan returns to his status as one of the game's best closers, and Morneau picks up where he left off last July, the Twins could be in position to win their third straight American League Central title.