Another Ride on the Roller Coaster

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

For the Twins' sake, and ours, here's hoping history doesn't have to repeat itself.

As Minnesota headed into the Fourth of July weekend on the heels of a three-game sweep at the hands of division rival Chicago at the Dome, it was almost painful to recall where this team was last year at this time--or, more accurately, where it was going, which was downhill in a hurry.

Last week's losses to the White Sox left the Twins at 41-36, two games behind Chicago in a race that should leave the rest of the mediocre (but improved) division in the rearview mirror by late August. Last season, at almost exactly the same point in the schedule, the Twins were 41-35 and in first place in the Central Division. They were also in the midst of being swept by the Sox in Chicago, en route to a 1-12 freefall that included eight straight losses leading into the break for the All-Star game. The Twins essentially spent the last two weeks of the first half digging themselves into a giant hole and the first 10 weeks of the second half climbing out of it. To their credit, after their obviously much-needed layoff for the break, they immediately pressured Chicago by winning five straight. They then proceeded to rip off an 11-game winning streak in September to bury the White Sox and claim their second straight division title.

This season it appears local fans could be in for another sustained nail-biting stretch of alternately infuriating and exhilarating baseball from this alternately infuriating and exhilarating team. Over the last several seasons, after all, the Twins have built a proven track record for maddening inconsistency and bad luck--not to mention stretches of incredibly bad performance. Granted, baseball's a game of collective and individual streaks and slumps. But there may be no team--certainly no successful team--that has ridden a wilder roller coaster than the Twins.

With the exception of last year's sublime September run, there really hasn't been a single sustained stretch throughout the team's ascendancy where the Twins have been firing on all cylinders, and this year has been no different. This club can't seem to sustain a healthy balance of solid pitching and offensive production. Something, or somebody, is always out of whack or out of commission. Just three months into this year's schedule we've already lived through a tale of two seasons. Maybe it's been more than that, actually--I've lost track. I can tell you it's already felt like a very long year.

 

As satisfying as the 2003 season was in many ways, it concluded on the sort of discouraging note--a first-round playoff loss to the Yankees, in which the Twins scored just six runs in four games--that made one wonder if this team was fated to be Major League Baseball's version of the Timberwolves. There were a couple of problems with that notion, of course: Oakland already pretty much has that role locked up, and the Twins don't have a single player of Kevin Garnett's stature. Not even close. What they have, in fact, is a core group of players whose games most closely mirror Troy Hudson's: by turns marvelous, maddening, muddled, and injured.

That fact was plainly evident against the Yankees in the postseason, and has in fact been plainly evident against the Yankees over the last couple of seasons. Shannon Stewart was magnificent after coming over in a midseason trade with the Blue Jays, but his inflated value to a team like the Twins was apparent during the playoff series with New York, when, batting in the leadoff spot, he went six-for-fifteen with two walks, yet registered exactly zero runs.

That's not Stewart's fault, of course, nor can he be blamed that Twins fans--and the Twins' front office--fell madly, irrationally in love with him. And so in a flat free-agent market when few other teams expressed serious interest in Stewart, Minnesota rewarded him with a three-year contract and is paying him $5,500,000 this season. This for a player whose main value at this point is his career .368 on-base percentage. The dirty secret about Stewart, obscured in last year's mostly justified hosannas, is that he's not much of an outfielder, and couldn't throw out Pigmeat Markham trying to score from second on a sharp single to left. He's also 30 years old and has a history of leg ailments that caused Toronto, his former employer, to fret about his durability, particularly after a number of successive games on artificial turf.

Hindsight, of course, is whatever it is that people say it is, but Stewart, who was off to a solid start, went down early with plantar fasciitis and has already missed 46 games. Plantar fasciitis (an inflammation of the tendon that connects the heel to the toes) is a worrisome injury for any professional athlete, but especially for a guy who had already lost most of the traction on his wheels and was no longer any kind of a serious threat on the base paths. After topping out at a career-high 51 swipes in 1998, Stewart managed just four stolen bases (in 10 attempts) last year.

As fine a hitter as Stewart might still be, the foolishness of the Twins tossing such a huge chunk of their discretionary income in his direction can be illustrated by the compelling saga of Lew Ford. Ford started the season at Triple-A,and was an early call-up when Torii Hunter was sidelined with a hamstring injury. He's easily been the Twins' most consistent hitter in the first half, has been superb patrolling left field, and is a dark-horse candidate to make a trip to the All-Star game. Yet despite his surprising and encouraging success--he's essentially been the player the Twins were hoping Stewart would be, and then some--the team is still not scoring runs. It often feels like Stewart versus the Yankees all over again, only spread out over three months.

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.

There's no doubt Mientkiewicz is a wonderful defensive player, and the Twins rightfully love his glove, but the fact that they gave him a contract extension in the offseason (he's making $2.8 million this year) is worrisome, particularly since 23-year-old Justin Morneau is in his second season of tearing up Triple-A pitching.

Gold Glovers are a great thing for a team to have, but at some point this team, which hasn't had a 30-homerun hitter since 1987 (and a 40-homer guy since 1970), is going to have to make a commitment to getting some legitimate power threats into the lineup. You have to wonder what sort of player, or players, the Twins might have been able to land with the more than eight million dollars they gave to Stewart and Mientkiewicz over the winter.

So, forget about pitching help: If Terry Ryan decides to get gutsy and creative in the next couple of months and can bring himself to part with some of the team's minor league talent and an established player or two, let's hope he'll finally land the Twins a banger for the middle of the order.

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