Another Ride on the Roller Coaster

Can the up-and-down Twins deliver another division title?

But of course nothing with this Twins team is ever that consistently cut and dried. They started out like a great burning thing, hitting the ball all over the park, running the bases with abandon, and scoring scads of runs. Early on, they were leading the league in batting average, hits, and runs. In April they averaged just over six runs a game, and had 14 games in which they scored six or more, compared with just three games with three or fewer runs scored. Sure, they were up against the sievelike pitching staffs of noncontenders like Detroit, Cleveland, and Kansas City, but the most striking thing was that the Twins needed almost every one of those runs all the same. Because as has so often been the case during Ron Gardenhire's brief tenure, the roster was being eaten away by injuries (in the first few weeks Joe Mauer, Matthew LeCroy, and Torii Hunter were all on the disabled list) and the starting pitching was getting hammered. The team earned-run average for April was 5.00, and, uncharacteristically, the defense was as bad as the pitching (21 errors in 22 games). Yet precisely because of all those runs, the Twins managed to go 15-7 in the season's first month.

Almost predictably, just as the starting pitching started to get straightened out the Twins' hitters went into a collective swoon. The team's ERA declined markedly in both May (4.34) and June (3.94), yet in those same months the offensive production slumped to 3.8 runs a game in the second month, and 4.26 in the third (a number that was padded by a rare 16-run outburst against Tampa Bay in the month's first game). Following the Chicago sweep Minnesota had played 77 games, and had scored three or fewer runs in 28 of those contests.

After the offseason exodus of Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, Kenny Rogers, and Eric Milton, lots of Twins fans, myself included, fretted about the state of the team's pitching staff, which had been rejiggered with an assortment of castoffs and question marks. There are still concerns about the fifth starter, but that's not unusual for this or any other team. And for the most part, the rest of the staff has performed admirably. After slow starts, Brad Radke has been masterful (despite which he is just 4-4), Johan Santana has been dominating (he leads the American League with 112 strikeouts), and Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan have been nothing short of spectacular. The bullpen--most notably J.C. Romero, whose erratic performances earned him a brief demotion to Rochester--has been shaky at times, but as a staff Twins pitchers have mostly held up their end of the bargain. The team ERA of 4.36 is the best in the division, and fifth in the AL, behind only Oakland, Boston, Seattle, and New York.

Not bad, really, for a team that traded or let go the American League leader in wins (Kenny Rogers), a guy who's tied for the league lead in victories in the National League (Eric Milton), and two of the best relievers in the game in Eddie Guardado (15 saves and a 1.19 ERA in Seattle) and LaTroy Hawkins (11 saves and a 2.23 ERA with the Cubs). The good news for the Twins is that Nathan has been as good as Guardado ever was, Rincon has admirably assumed the Hawkins role in the pen (which has been prematurely handed to Romero), and Carlos Silva, who was acquired in the Milton trade, has been a pleasant surprise.

The problem, of course, is that despite a decent team ERA the Twins have been outscored and out-hit, by a substantial margin. In the Central only hapless Kansas City has scored fewer runs than the Twins, and Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit have all scored at least 50 more. Given the putrid offensive production it's frankly amazing that the Twins have been able to remain in contention.

For four years now we've been waiting for one of the Twins' core group of veterans to really emerge as a true superstar. It hasn't happened and doesn't look like it's going to happen. All of the guys who've been established as the cornerstones of this team--Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie, Cristian Guzman, Luis Rivas, and Doug Mientkiewicz--have tantalized just enough in the past to now qualify, to a greater or lesser extent, as disappointments. With the possible exception of Rivas, who is still just 24, each of those players is now at an age where you can reach some reasonable conclusions about their strengths and limitations. And the one obvious conclusion is that they're a streaky and inconsistent bunch, prone to prolonged slumps and occasional flashes of brilliance. None of them has managed to take their game to a level where they can carry the team on their backs for any kind of a sustained stretch.

Generally, at this stage of their careers, you can't expect players like virtually every one of these guys to get incrementally better from season to season. All of them should be in their prime, that period when baseball players usually put together the sort of performances for which their careers will ultimately be measured. Yet Koskie (31 years old), Mientkiewicz (30), Jones (29), and Hunter (28) have all thus far taken a step back this season. None of them has come even remotely close to playing to previous levels or expected potential. Mientkiewicz in particular has been terrible--after hitting .305 in April he slumped to .240 in May and .150 in June, and going into the holiday weekend he was batting just .234, with an OBP of .326 and a slugging percentage of .330.

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