Who's in First?

Despite balky starting pitching and an infield that collectively swings a small stick, the Twins hang in there

For a first-place team, this year's Twins have played a surprising number of games that have been frustratingly reminiscent of the wretched teams from the truly dark years at the tail end of the 1990s--and frustrating in almost exactly the same ways. Insufferable starting pitching. Shoddy situational hitting. Stranded runners galore. Lousy production from the heart of the order and the corner positions. Remember those years? Probably not, and for good reason.

There have been a lot of games where this club has just not looked like a very good baseball team. And when you take a hard look at what's transpired thus far, it's kind of hard to believe that the Twins are 32-25. Even harder to believe is that three-and-a-half game cushion that separates the Twins from the White Sox and the Indians, the teams that are supposed to contend with Minnesota for the division title.

On those increasingly frequent days when it seems like the sky is falling, however, we can all take comfort in the fact that it's apparently falling faster and harder on the rest of the muck-grubbing underachievers in the American League's Central Division. The Indians, though, seem to have pulled out of their early freefall, and have gone 8-2 over their last 10 as they come into the Metrodome for a three-game series. The White Sox, meanwhile, have run into a brutal little skid of their own.

The Twins struggles have been cast as a team valiantly overachieving in the face of adversity. There's some truth to that: You can't discount the injuries that have kept a steady cast of starters moving in and out of the trainer's room and onto and off of (and back onto) the disabled list. You might wonder what the hell is going on, however. Brad Radke pulls a groin, goes on the DL, and promptly pops it again in his first start back. Righthander Joe Mays, arguably the Twins' best pitcher (and an All Star) last year, went on the DL after his April 14 start against Detroit, and we haven't heard much from him since; despite the fact that more than six weeks have now passed, there's been no talk of surgery or a rehab assignment, and at the moment he doesn't seem any closer to returning to the rotation, let alone to a regular throwing regimen. We did learn that he's headed off to California to visit the fourth specialist he has seen since he was injured. Forgive a skeptical fan if the Mays saga is starting to suggest early and unmistakable symptoms of that most frightening of baseball maladies, the head case.

Ditto at the moment for any number of players the Twins were counting on this year. Where is Luis Rivas, and when can we expect him back in the freaking lineup? And what is wrong with Cristian Guzman--or should we just conclude that he also might be nothing more than a head case, one with a bad attitude and a worse work ethic? As for Rick Reed, sorry, but when you're making $7 million a year and you hurt your neck--or acquire a stiff neck--sleeping on a plane, I think you should probably at least try to gut it out, if only for the sake of appearances. Paying customers and all, you know. There might be a kid in the stands who has never seen Rick Reed pitch.

You could go on and on with this stuff, and it's maddening. Toss out the Twins outfield, catching tandem, and relief corps (or much of it, anyway), and you're looking at disappointments of one sort or another across the board. I don't think there has been a more unproductive infield in the league: You can add up the numbers of the whole crew (throw in designated hitter David Ortiz for good measure), and you still don't have the production of one really great player, one Alex Rodriguez --or one Torii Hunter for that matter. Once again, I'll concede that the injuries have taken a toll; Koskie, Mientkiewicz, Guzman, and Ortiz have all been slowed by injuries, but they have well over 100 at bats apiece and have shown little improvement.

There's no denying that Mientkiewicz is a tremendous asset at first base, but his offensive production has left much to be desired; so far he has posted numbers that would be merely decent for a second baseman (.259 batting average, .395 slugging percentage, 25 RBI, and only 3 home runs). Among everyday AL first basemen, only Anaheim's Scott Spiezio and Boston's Tony Clark have put up comparably lackluster numbers. Mientkiewicz has drawn a team-leading 34 walks, for a solid .383 on-base percentage; maybe he's the guy to fill the lead-off spot if Jacque Jones falters, but he sure hasn't shown anything close to the sort of pop you want to see from a number-three hitter in the lineup.

We're still waiting for Koskie to look comfortable at the plate again. After a slow start, he appeared to be just settling into a groove when he pulled his hamstring and went on the DL. He has been tentative at the plate since his comeback. The same can be said for David Ortiz, who has looked terrible since coming off the DL following arthroscopic knee surgery. Typically a hot starter, and counted on as a legitimate power threat coming out of spring training, Ortiz has managed merely four home runs, and his batting average has sunk to .223.

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