The Twins were one of the game's most pleasant surprises in 2008, riding a loaded young starting rotation to 88 wins before falling to the White Sox in a one-game tiebreaker. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins all had breakout seasons, leaving expected ace Francisco Liriano to play late-season catch-up.
If not for an ill-advised bout of loyalty toward washed-up sunk cost Livan Hernandez, the Twins might've beaten out the White Sox for the AL Central crown and made some noise in the playoffs with their deep pitching and the deadly duo of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
Power. The Twins managed to finish third in the AL in runs scored despite finishing last in homers. They can thank their .305 team batting average with runners in scoring position, a mark that was far and away the best in the league and is a long shot to be replicated next season. A full year of health for Michael Cuddyer would help a lot, as would a breakout season from Delmon Young -- if only to make the Twins feel better about giving up Matt Garza.
Even with improved production from the outfield, though, the Twins need to upgrade the left side of their infield. At shortstop, Brendan Harris can't field and free agent Adam Everett can't hit; at third base, Brian Buscher is a cheap, adequate placeholder, but the Twins' courting of Adrian Beltre and other third basemen suggest that they'd like to upgrade. Meanwhile, Pat Neshek's injury last season exposed the Twins' lack of depth in front of Joe Nathan. Minnesota might have enough pitching depth coming up from the minors to fill that hole, though.
The Twins' free agents also play the positions where the team needs the most help. Minnesota tends to be frugal when it comes to pursuing free agents -- sometimes with ugly results. The Twins kept the likes of Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Hernandez in the rotation too long after giving them free-agent deals, costing them crucial games in the standings. Look for Minnesota to address most of its bullpen needs in-house, with a trade a possibility to address the holes on the left side of the infield.
Anthony Swarzak, Kevin Mulvey and Philip Humber could all be valuable bullpen additions or trade bait depending on how the Twins approach Hot Stove season. The Twins don't have enough depth at other positions to open trade talks.
Swarzak, Mulvey and Humber are merely the three pitching prospects closest to the big leagues. Deolis Guerra is a right-handed teenager with an electric arm, while Tyler Robertson is a talented lefty who could be a factor down the road if he can overcome injuries. There aren't any hitting prospects in the high minors who are ready to make the leap, either, with center fielder Ben Revere still a couple years away.
If the Twins do little more than stand pat this offseason they should still be dangerous, especially if Cuddyer and Neshek bounce back from injuries and Young takes a step forward. Solid bullpen contributions from the next wave of pitching prospects combined with one well-placed trade for a shortstop or third baseman would make the Twins the favorites to win the division in 2009.