Mediocrity Plus

Since winning their second World Championship in 1991, the Minnesota Twins have acquired a firm reputation among baseball fans as an overachieving mediocrity, and, before fading in the final month to post a 78-84 won-loss record, last year was no exception. A small-market team that refuses to roll over and play dead, the Twins delight purists of the game by the way they sweat the details, pushing their offense hundreds of extra bases further each year through shrewd, aggressive baserunning and selfless hitting to the opposite field, while denying those advantages to opponents by playing alert, fundamentally sound defense.

With the obvious exception of owner Carl Pohlad (the banker who pretends not to know the difference between a gift and a loan), the Twins' braintrust also honors the game by being relatively candid about how it is trying to improve the team and then backing it up with ambitious performance goals. Less than two years after general manager Terry Ryan signalled a massive rebuilding project by auctioning off the three most prominent members of his pitching staff--a time that has also seen the retirement of Kirby Puckett and a massive accumulation of high-priced talent by big-market franchises in Cleveland, Chicago, New York, and Baltimore--the Twins come into the 1997 season somewhat outrageously claiming that they have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. Before debunking this as mere nonsense--pointing out, for example, that the team's starting pitchers are among the worst in the league--let's consider some of the assets that might justify such a David-and-Goliath scenario.

Begin with Chuck Knoblauch, at 28 the world's best second-baseman and the epitome of the Twins' hard-nosed savvy. If you want to know why the Twins' offense didn't really miss Puckett that much last year, consider that the pint-sized Knobby actually had a higher slugging percentage in '96 than Puck compiled in his final season. The game's best leadoff hitter, Knoblauch reached base 45 percent of his at-bats last season, led the league in triples, stole 45 bases, and improved his power numbers for the sixth year in a row. On defense, he committed only eight errors and had the highest fielding percentage in the league at his position. There is simply no downside to his game except the spectre of injury: A tenacious hitter who battles the pitcher on every at-bat, Knoblauch fearlessly crowds the plate so he can drive the outside strike into right field. One result is that he was the best two-strike hitter in the league last year with an average of .311; another is that he was hit by pitches 19 times, often on the hands. A broken bone on Knoblauch's body would doom whatever slim playoff hopes the Twins now entertain.

Injuries used to be the bane of designated hitter Paul Molitor, but in his first season with the Twins the 40-year-old St. Paul native missed just one of 162 games. The result was a league-leading 225 hits and 113 runs batted in. Like Knoblauch, Molly is as smart as he is talented, a gap hitter (he had just nine home runs) whose compact swing and sharp reflexes make him uniquely adept at parsing out late-breaking curve-balls and split-fingered sinkers. A class act who both exudes amiability and commands respect, Molitor was as valuable in the clubhouse as he was in the batter's box, particularly after it became clear that Puckett wasn't coming back.

As good as they were, it is unreasonable to expect Knoblauch and Molitor to upgrade their production in '97. If the Twins are to make the leap into playoff territory, it will have to be on the strength of emerging young talent and new acquisitions. The most prominent addition to this year's club is free agent catcher Terry Steinbach, like Molitor a Minnesota native who turned down more lucrative offers from other teams to finish his career at home. Steinbach hit 35 homers last year, more than twice as many as any Twins player. But it was also more than twice what Steinbach had ever hit before, and the Twins will be happy if he launches 20-25 dingers, and, more importantly, helps teach 24-year-old starters Brad Radke and Frank Rodriguez how to pitch. When was the last time the Twins had a catcher who could really stroke the ball and call an intelligent game for his pitcher--Earl Battey?? No doubt landing Steinbach was a coup; he's the most persuasive argument for marked improvement in this year's team.

Much of the emerging young talent is concentrated among the starting outfielders, with 28-year-old left-fielder Marty Cordova the senior citizen of the trio. Cordova's 16 homers were 50 percent fewer than the 24 he had during his '95 Rookie of the Year campaign, but he hit 32 points higher, belted 19 more doubles, and knocked in 27 more runs in '96, while striking out less. It's entirely possible we'll see his '95 power coupled with his '96 consistency at the plate this year.

In center field, 25-year-old Rich Becker rebounded from an atrocious start with a strong final five months of the season. Becker doesn't hit left-handed pitchers very well, but his plum position between right-handed maestros Knoblauch and Molitor in the batting order ensures that he won't see too many of them. Defensively, he covers a lot of ground and threw out more baserunners than any outfielder in the league last year. With him in center, Steinbach catching, and the double-play combination of Knoblauch and shortstop Pat Meares beginning their fourth year together, the Twins are well-fortified up the middle defensively, the proverbial hallmark of a solid ballclub.

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