Long Hot Winter

Yankee pitchers hand the Twins their heads
Craig Lassig

There were bad omens all over the place last weekend at the Dome. When I saw a grand piano being wheeled onto the infield before game three, I knew the Twins were in big trouble. Because a grand piano in the Metrodome could only mean one thing: Local schlock goddess and transmogrified department store diva Lorie Line would be performing the national anthem. Somehow Line, abetted by members of her "chamber orchestra," managed to turn that oft-butchered tune into a nearly unrecognizable Christmas carol, setting the stage for the nightmare from which I am still trying to awake.

Because, as you surely know by now, it was all downhill from there--both on and off the field.

By the time celebrity impersonator Craig Kilborn was called on to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch of game four, the damage was already done, and the half-hearted champagne celebration in the Yankees' clubhouse was a fait accompli.

The stock line out of the Twins' clubhouse leading up to the postseason was that everybody had doubted the team all year--which was nonsense, of course; there were scads of fans and experts alike who expected big things from this club coming out of spring training. I mean, yes, there was a point when people did start to doubt the Twins, but for obviously good reason. Yet down the stretch the fickle Minnesota baseball fans demonstrated once again that they were ready and willing to embrace a winner.

And then the Twins spent the last three games of their season erasing memories of that magical second-half surge and rekindling all those doubts from June and July. By December, of course, the scab will have become a scar, and come spring training there's a damn good chance that the Twins team we were prepared--too late--to love will no longer exist.

That's a dirty rotten shame, I suppose, even if it's not really such a bad thing. Because if the Yankee series demonstrated anything, it's that this is a club in need of a serious overhaul. I mean, how galling is it that ex-Twins Todd Walker and David Ortiz drove in just one fewer run for the Red Sox in the first four games of the Boston-Oakland series than the entire Twins team managed against the Yankees? And don't even get me started on Mark Prior, the Cubs pitcher whom the Twins passed over in the 2001 draft. Watching Prior's dominating performance in game three of the Chicago-Atlanta series made me physically ill.

Granted, Prior's complete-game masterpiece was still fresh in everyone's minds, but listening to the visiting national media and scouts at the Dome over the weekend, the clear consensus was that local wunderkind Joe Mauer--whom the Twins took ahead of Prior with the number-one pick--will be a nice player, but not a considerable upgrade over A.J. Pierzynski. No upgrade at all, in fact, several scouts told me. Mauer's numbers in the low minors last season translate almost exactly to the stats Pierzynski put up this year in the majors, and Pierzynski is one Twin who appears to be improving from year to year.

The Twins organization has a lot of tough decisions facing them this off-season, and there are plenty of directions they could go. They're going to have to figure out what to do with free agents Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, and Shannon Stewart, and need to decide whether to pick up Corey Koskie's option to the tune of $4.5 million next year. They also face questions regarding their under-performing middle infield of Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas, their backlog of promising young outfielders (not to mention first baseman Justin Morneau), and Doug Mientkiewicz--was his improvement this year for real, and can they live with his limited power in exchange for his defense and on-base percentage?

Kenny Rogers and Rick Reed (and his huge contract) won't be back, and I hope like hell the Twins didn't fall in love with Shannon Stewart to such an extent that they're going to throw huge free-agent money at him. I think everyone needs to realize that the Stewart we saw here the last several months represented the guy's absolute upside in every area. Yes, Stewart has a career OBP of .368, but he remains a defensive liability with a weak arm, and he's not the power threat the Twins desperately need.

Given the serious unlikelihood of Pohlad spending any of his money on marquee free agents, it sure seems like the Twins are going to have to get both gutsy and creative. As much as I love Koskie, he's been injury prone the last couple of seasons, and his power production has declined to the point where I think they have to let him go. I also hate to see the team give up on Rivas (who's still only 23) and Mientkiewicz, but I think the writing's on the wall (and Morneau's waiting in the wings). I'd love to see Ryan make a few shrewd trades to get some more production in the middle of the infield and also a durable fifth starter. And if they lose Guardado or Hawkins (or both) they're obviously going to have some serious holes in their bullpen. Yet those two guys are prime examples of failed, mediocre starters (and the major leagues are full of similar examples) who resurrected their careers in the pen.

As hard as optimism might be to come by at this time, I honestly believe that the Twins could substantially turn over their roster, get younger and more powerful, and actually be a better team next year. That might be wishful thinking of the most pathetic sort, but what choice do we really have? And isn't that what the long off-season is all about?

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