If It Looks Dead and It Smells Dead, Is It Still Alive?

Now pitching for Minnesota, Mark Prior: one of many things that might have been

It's one thing to be a fan of a truly bad team, and to make some sort of frustrated peace with futility. God knows, Twins fans have been there; we were there for such a long, time, that we were all probably guilty of overestimating the team's promise based on last year's division championship, a season that looks more and more like a mirage all the time.

Because lost in the heady success of last season was the notion that the Twins' title was, in fact, something of an aberration, hard as it may be to agree with Bud Selig about anything.

There aren't many teams that win a division title almost entirely on the back of their bullpen, but that's exactly what the Twins did last year--for God's sake, Rick Reed was the team's best starting pitcher; how good could they have been? Also, no Twin had a truly eye-popping offensive season in 2002. Twenty-eight players in the Major Leagues hit 30 home runs last year; 36 had more than 100 runs batted in, and 37 scored 100 runs. Not one Twin accomplished any of those feats. Torii Hunter looked like he was headed for a breakout year, but faded badly down the stretch; he was absolutely dreadful in the last couple of months--batting .224 with two home runs in August, and .234 with three homers in September, despite which he was rewarded with a gaudy new contract over the winter.

All of the optimism coming into this season was based on three things: the perception that a healthy rotation had to be much improved from last year, the assumption that most of the team's young players were only going to get better, and the fact that the Twins' minor league system was teeming with genuine prospects.

I'll address those assumptions in reverse order.

Yes, the Twins may be flush with young talent, but, alas, there are no middle infielders or pitchers in that crowded waiting room. As plenty of other people have pointed out, a shrewd front office would have addressed the Twins' clown-car outfield situation in the off-season, trading some of that young, surplus talent to address some of the team's obvious holes.

Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas have been mysterious backsliders of the worst sort, and I haven't heard a single convincing explanation for their steady decline at an age when players are supposed to be getting better. Guzman, an All Star two years ago, has always been an enigma, a player given to extended funks and inexplicable stupors. In fact, he hasn't been the same player since that All Star game. At this point he's a fairly serious liability, and Ron Gardenhire has seemingly done everything in his power to expose him as such. How else to explain the fact that Gardenhire has batted Guzman--who has a career on base percentage of .299--in the leadoff spot six times this year?

Rivas is an even bigger mystery. The guy is still only 23 years old, and two years ago pretty much everybody I talked to around the ballpark thought he was going to develop into a star. Last year, when I asked a number of Twins players and coaches who they thought played the game the right way, day in and day out, Rivas, with three mentions, trumped everybody; nobody else got more than one vote. So what the hell happened? I have to put this one in the "beats me" category and move on. It's a huge problem, though, and looming larger all the time, as it's becoming increasingly clear that both the coaching staff and the other players are losing patience and confidence in both Guzman and Rivas. I've yet to see any indication that the Twins' front office has any plans to try to remedy the situation.

The simple and discouraging conclusion regarding the second assumption--that the team's core group of regular players was only going to get better--is that it hasn't happened. Virtually every guy on the roster has been prone to maddening streaks and slumps, and there isn't one guy in the lineup who can be counted on to carry the team for any extended period of time. The logjam of spare-part outfielders, first basemen, and designated hitters has created a problem as well, with a whole bunch of guys struggling for at-bats, and clearly having difficulty adjusting to increasingly limited playing time. That's something you can lay in Gardenhire's lap, and it's one of those problems that isn't going to get any better, what with so many players of similar abilities--and at the same positions--waiting in the wings. Consider the weird dynamic that seems to have resulted with the call-up of Justin Morneau, for instance. The Twins were 35-26 and cruising along in first place when the phenom made his debut on June 10. They've gone 9-19 since, and it's been painful to watch the confidence leaching out of the kid with every at-bat. I'm certainly not going to blame Morneau for the team's meltdown; it's been strictly a team effort, but the Twins' clubhouse has been a different, strangely uptight place since his arrival, and his presence seems to have upset the comfort zone of a bunch of players who already had every reason to feel insecure.

Finally, the Twins' rotation may be healthier this year--they certainly have a robust ERA--but they have hardly been better, and I have no good explanation for the troubles. Their ugly numbers haven't been helped by Gardenhire's inexplicable reluctance to move Johan Santana, the most dominating pitcher on the staff, into the rotation until Joe Mays essentially forced his hand.

Five of the team's starters--Reed, Mays, Brad Radke, Kenny Rogers, and Eric Milton (who's on the disabled list)--are making a combined $28,900,000, nearly half of the Twins' payroll. The team's front office has gotten into the habit of handing out handsome contract extensions to every pitcher who has a halfway decent year. That's a product, I'm sure, of lingering insecurity from a long stretch in the desert, during which, under previous pitching coach Dick Such, the team routinely posted earned run averages in the stratosphere. It's bad business, though, particularly for such a famously tight organization.

In fact, the Twins' front office has made a number of questionable decisions, and almost all of them are products of either complacency or Terry Ryan's innate conservatism. At this point I don't think there's a single defense of the Twins' selection of local wunderkind Joe Mauer over Mark Prior that holds any water. I have no reason to think that Mauer won't someday be a solid major league player, perhaps even a star, but Prior is an All Star right now, and at 22 years of age is already dominating opposing hitters (145 strikeouts and only 31 walks in 124 innings pitched so far this year). And for a team that gave Joe Mays a $20 million contract extension to plead poverty on the Prior decision looks more ridiculous and indefensible all the time. Granted, the guy did command a big bonus, but his basic five-year contract is paying him less per annum ($1,450,000 this season) than all but three guys on the entire Twins' pitching staff.

I'm not sure where to look for a silver lining at the moment, other than the fact that the Twins do still have the luxury of playing in the American League central division. The White Sox went out and got Roberto Alomar and Carl Everett, and then proceeded to lose five of six to the woeful Tigers and Devil Rays. Kansas City has a staff ERA of 5.06 (including 5.55 from the bullpen). So as discouraging as things look for the Twins at mid-season, the good news is that they really don't have to get a whole lot better--they don't even have to get good to win another division title. What they can't do, however, is get any worse. And I mean that literally.

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