Minnesota Twins center fielder Torii Hunter probably isn't one to do much formal dinner preparation, but he knows when the table is set properly.
Forget the salad forks and soup spoons, he's salivating over the combination of Shannon Stewart and offseason addition Luis Castillo at the top of the Twins' batting order.
"We have two guys at the top of the lineup that are going to set that table," Hunter said. "All we have to do is eat."
Things trended toward famine rather than feast last season, when the Twins scored an American League-low 688 runs. While the Twins' bats cooled, the team fell from its perch atop the AL Central, dropping to third after winning the division in each of manager Ron Gardenhire's first three years.
The Twins fell to 27-30 in one-run games, and general manager Terry Ryan made it clear at the beginning of camp in February that he wanted to forget about 2005.
"We need to play better defense — make the routine plays, hit the cut-off man," Ryan said. "We just didn't play our normal defense, for some reason. Historically, we've been quite good and efficient at not giving up extra outs, the type of stuff that doesn't show up in the box score.
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"It was amazing how little things hurt us a lot last year. That's why we had so many one-run games."
Ryan is hoping those types of mistakes are eliminated when the Twins take the field in their season opener today at Toronto. Johan Santana, the 2004 American League Cy Young Award winner, will make his first opening-day start against Roy Halladay.
The Twins made a number of moves in the offseason, none more important than snagging Castillo, a Gold Glove second baseman from the Florida Marlins. The switch-hitting Castillo, who enters the season hitting .293 over his 11-year career, is expected to be a boon to leadoff man Stewart because of his ability to handle the bat.
"There might be some better opportunities for me to do some things on the base paths," Stewart said. "With a guy like that, he's a good hitter that can handle the bat. It's going to be fun."
Perhaps the most intriguing moves of the spring came during the last week of camp. The Twins optioned shortstop Jason Bartlett, the 2005 opening-day starter, to Triple-A Rochester, opting for veteran Juan Castro. In the outfield, the Twins kept Jason Kubel with the club, and it looks like he'll get plenty of playing time early in the season. Kubel will share time with Michael Cuddyer and Lew Ford.
The other position battles were won with offseason roster moves. The Twins signed Rondell White (.313, 12 HRs, 53 RBIs with Detroit last season) as their designated hitter and brought in Tony Batista to play third. Batista played last season in Japan, though he hit 32 home runs and drove in 110 runs in 2004 with Montreal.
And perhaps the biggest addition will be Hunter, who broke his ankle last July in Boston and missed the remainder of the season.
Though the Twins do have a core of younger players — Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Kubel— next season's team could have a markedly different look. Some key pieces may not be back in the middle of the lineup.
This could be the last season for Brad Radke, who has spent all of his 12 major league seasons in Minnesota, Stewart, Castillo and, most importantly, Hunter.
"Every year I just do my job," Hunter said. "I'm not going to try to do more or try to do less. I'm going to play the game hard every inning and try to have some fun this year."
1. What about the offense?
What about it? It's still the biggest question mark. The Twins must score more than the AL-low 688 they pushed across last season. The Twins added Tony Batista, Rondell White and Luis Castillo to provide more speed and pop in the batting order. They'll also get back All-Star center fielder Torii Hunter from a broken ankle that sidelined him for the second half of 2005.
2. Is Batista the answer at third?
The Twins got a deal on Batista, who has produced in his 10-year major-league career with the A's, Orioles, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks and Expos before spending last year in Japan. Batista blasted 32 home runs for Montreal in 2004. If the Batista experiment fails, Minnesota still has options, namely Michael Cuddyer and Luis Rodriguez.
3. Did general manager Terry Ryan do enough in the offseason?
Only time will tell, but the Twins have a nice mix of young talent — Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel — and veteran leadership — Hunter, Stewart, White and Castillo. This team's strength is definitely on the pitching mound, so the Twins will go as far as those arms can carry them.
4. Where does Francisco Liriano fit in?
Liriano found himself in an embarassing spot last week when he was charged with DUI in Cape Coral. Still, he had one of the best arms in camp. If he hadn't missed time representing the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic, it's possible he could have beaten Scott Baker for the last rotation spot. For now, he'll be a solid lefty in the bullpen waiting for his chance to start.
5. Will this be Kubel's break-out season?
It certainly looks like it could be. Kubel started hitting the ball with more authority as the spring progressed, but that's to be expected from a guy that missed all of last season with a knee injury. The Twins are hoping to see the outstanding numbers he put up in 2004 at Triple-A Rochester — .343, 16 homers and 71 RBIs in 350 at-bats.