Mediocrity Plus

Since winning their second World Championship in 1991, the Minnesota Twins have acquired a firm reputation among baseball fans as an overachieving mediocrity, and, before fading in the final month to post a 78-84 won-loss record, last year was no exception. A small-market team that refuses to roll over and play dead, the Twins delight purists of the game by the way they sweat the details, pushing their offense hundreds of extra bases further each year through shrewd, aggressive baserunning and selfless hitting to the opposite field, while denying those advantages to opponents by playing alert, fundamentally sound defense.

With the obvious exception of owner Carl Pohlad (the banker who pretends not to know the difference between a gift and a loan), the Twins' braintrust also honors the game by being relatively candid about how it is trying to improve the team and then backing it up with ambitious performance goals. Less than two years after general manager Terry Ryan signalled a massive rebuilding project by auctioning off the three most prominent members of his pitching staff--a time that has also seen the retirement of Kirby Puckett and a massive accumulation of high-priced talent by big-market franchises in Cleveland, Chicago, New York, and Baltimore--the Twins come into the 1997 season somewhat outrageously claiming that they have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. Before debunking this as mere nonsense--pointing out, for example, that the team's starting pitchers are among the worst in the league--let's consider some of the assets that might justify such a David-and-Goliath scenario.

Begin with Chuck Knoblauch, at 28 the world's best second-baseman and the epitome of the Twins' hard-nosed savvy. If you want to know why the Twins' offense didn't really miss Puckett that much last year, consider that the pint-sized Knobby actually had a higher slugging percentage in '96 than Puck compiled in his final season. The game's best leadoff hitter, Knoblauch reached base 45 percent of his at-bats last season, led the league in triples, stole 45 bases, and improved his power numbers for the sixth year in a row. On defense, he committed only eight errors and had the highest fielding percentage in the league at his position. There is simply no downside to his game except the spectre of injury: A tenacious hitter who battles the pitcher on every at-bat, Knoblauch fearlessly crowds the plate so he can drive the outside strike into right field. One result is that he was the best two-strike hitter in the league last year with an average of .311; another is that he was hit by pitches 19 times, often on the hands. A broken bone on Knoblauch's body would doom whatever slim playoff hopes the Twins now entertain.

Injuries used to be the bane of designated hitter Paul Molitor, but in his first season with the Twins the 40-year-old St. Paul native missed just one of 162 games. The result was a league-leading 225 hits and 113 runs batted in. Like Knoblauch, Molly is as smart as he is talented, a gap hitter (he had just nine home runs) whose compact swing and sharp reflexes make him uniquely adept at parsing out late-breaking curve-balls and split-fingered sinkers. A class act who both exudes amiability and commands respect, Molitor was as valuable in the clubhouse as he was in the batter's box, particularly after it became clear that Puckett wasn't coming back.

As good as they were, it is unreasonable to expect Knoblauch and Molitor to upgrade their production in '97. If the Twins are to make the leap into playoff territory, it will have to be on the strength of emerging young talent and new acquisitions. The most prominent addition to this year's club is free agent catcher Terry Steinbach, like Molitor a Minnesota native who turned down more lucrative offers from other teams to finish his career at home. Steinbach hit 35 homers last year, more than twice as many as any Twins player. But it was also more than twice what Steinbach had ever hit before, and the Twins will be happy if he launches 20-25 dingers, and, more importantly, helps teach 24-year-old starters Brad Radke and Frank Rodriguez how to pitch. When was the last time the Twins had a catcher who could really stroke the ball and call an intelligent game for his pitcher--Earl Battey?? No doubt landing Steinbach was a coup; he's the most persuasive argument for marked improvement in this year's team.

Much of the emerging young talent is concentrated among the starting outfielders, with 28-year-old left-fielder Marty Cordova the senior citizen of the trio. Cordova's 16 homers were 50 percent fewer than the 24 he had during his '95 Rookie of the Year campaign, but he hit 32 points higher, belted 19 more doubles, and knocked in 27 more runs in '96, while striking out less. It's entirely possible we'll see his '95 power coupled with his '96 consistency at the plate this year.  

In center field, 25-year-old Rich Becker rebounded from an atrocious start with a strong final five months of the season. Becker doesn't hit left-handed pitchers very well, but his plum position between right-handed maestros Knoblauch and Molitor in the batting order ensures that he won't see too many of them. Defensively, he covers a lot of ground and threw out more baserunners than any outfielder in the league last year. With him in center, Steinbach catching, and the double-play combination of Knoblauch and shortstop Pat Meares beginning their fourth year together, the Twins are well-fortified up the middle defensively, the proverbial hallmark of a solid ballclub.

The wild card in the outfield is 25-year-old Matt Lawton, who was only so-so last year but tore the cover off the ball in spring training, displaying a firmer physique and a more aggressive attitude. The speedy Lawton is an average fielder at best and, unless he continues his torrid hitting, figures to platoon with veteran Roberto Kelly (who feasts on left-handed pitching) when Kelly returns from an injury in late April or May.

The final two areas of strength for the Twins stem from their relievers in the bullpen and their manager in the dugout. The boneheaded gambit of using Rick Aguilera as a starter is finally history, and Aggie can take his calm, confident composure, his gimpy knee, and his reliable split-fingered fastball back to the 9th inning, where he is one of the ten best closers in baseball. (As a starter he was just another schmoe surrendering more than five runs per game.) With Aguilera in place, the Twins don't have to transform one of their three quality set-up men--right-handers Mike Trombley and Dan Naulty and lefty Eddie Guardado--into a closer. New veteran lefty Greg Swindell hasn't pitched well in years, but all Swindell has to do is retire a left-handed batter or two early in the game so manager Tom Kelly can save Guardado for more crucial situations. Finally, don't overlook rookie Todd Ritchie, whose 90-plus m.p.h. fastball finally was harnessed during the Arizona Fall League last season.

If Ritchie and Swindell pan out, the Twins will have their deepest collection of relievers in franchise history. And if a couple of them falter, well, Kelly probably handles his bullpen better than any manager in the league, as Tom Edens, Carl Willis, and a dozen other relievers who were successful in Minnesota and nowhere else can attest. It's just one of the many ways in which Kelly's enormous preparation and blue-collar personality excel at wringing extraordinary performances out of ordinary players.

So much for the good news. Despite all the aforementioned virtues, the Twins will be fortunate to win as many games as they lose in '97, let alone make the playoffs. There are minor reasons why they will falter, such as a lack of outfield depth (expect to see more keystone cops-style antics from infielders Ron Coomer and Denny Hocking playing out of position in the outfield again this year), and not enough punch at the traditional power-hitting positions of first- and third-base (rookie Todd Walker and young Scott Stahoviak have some talent, but can't compare with tandems like Thome and Williams in Cleveland, Palmiero and Ripken in Baltimore, and Thomas and a healthy Ventura in Chicago).

But what really sabotages the Twins' prospects is the same thing that did the club in last year--putrid starting pitching. If you believe the baseball truism that pitching is 80 percent of the game, then the Twins are about 40 percent screwed. They enter the '97 season with a starting rotation comprised of a couple of still developing 24-year-old kids, a creaky old veteran whose fastball can barely break a pane of glass, and two duck-and-cover left-handers who would have trouble making the major league roster of most ballclubs.

The ace of the staff, young Brad Radke, has the tools and temperament to be a solid number-three starter on a playoff contender. With an above-average curve and change-up to go with an ordinary fastball, Radke relies on mixing speeds and moving the ball around with pinpoint control. There's precious little room for error in his methods--for two years in a row, he has yielded more homers than any pitcher in the league. But he's a smart, dogged competitor, an overachieving mediocrity deluxe. He and Frank Rodriguez need to have spectacular seasons for the Twins to reach the playoffs.

The third starter is 36-year-old free agent signee Bob Tewksbury, an ideal Tom Kelly pitcher in that he works efficiently, keeps the ball down, and has permitted fewer walks per nine innings than any starter in baseball over the past five years. Even during his two masterful seasons in '92 and '93, when he won 33 games, Tewksbury didn't have a fastball to speak of, and rarely struck anybody out; guile is his game, via everchanging speeds and locations on his pitches. In that sense, he could be a valuable counsel to Radke, who deploys a similar strategy. But Tewksbury is past his prime, and on his fourth team in the past four years. His role is to eat innings and pitch decently enough to give the offense a chance to win.  

The two left-handers at the bottom of the rotation are, for the most part, dreadful. Rich Robertson shows occasional brilliance--he had three shutouts and five complete games last year--but more often creates instant disaster. Among the pertinent stats, Robertson lost 17 games, never won back-to-back starts all season, and walked more batters than he struck out in '96. He has the submediocre arsenal of someone who needs to be a control pitcher, but he has no control, having led the league in walks last year.

If anything, Scott Aldred is worse. The Twins picked Aldred up on waivers last year after he'd been released by Detroit, the pitching staff with the worst earned run average in the history of modern baseball. By encouraging him to use his curveball more often, the Twins were able to coax three wins and some respectable pitching out of Aldred during the second half of the season, but during spring training the hitters have adjusted and he is getting shelled again. It is a measure of Kelly's desperation that he effusively praised Aldred's performance last week after the left-hander surrendered five runs in barely half a game's work.

In fact, the Twins' are notorious for failing to develop quality starters (this year's crop of hot prospects that failed to make the team as scheduled included Travis Miller, Dan Serafini, and LaTroy Hawkins), and Kelly must shoulder a lion's share of the blame. As many others over the years have already pointed out, part of the problem is Kelly's unyielding loyalty to pitching coach Dick Such, but part of it is Kelly's self-defeating impatience and irritability with players who have more talent than dedication or common sense. Kelly is masterful at handling middle relievers because he knows how to motivate the drone bees, the scrubs of the ballclub. He praises Aldred's mediocre performance because Aldred takes instruction well. (And why shouldn't he? He wouldn't be in the majors today if it wasn't for Kelly.) Radke, too, earns his respect because Radke is maximizing his potential.

But Kelly has never been adept at turning around talented underachievers like Frank Rodriguez. There is no question that Rodriguez has more raw ability than anyone in the Twins starting rotation. Last year, despite his inconsistency, he led the team in wins. Kelly uses the stick far more than the carrot when dealing with Rodriguez. Last year, upset with Rodriguez's lack of focus, he even banished him to the bullpen for a while. The travesty of using Aguilera as a starter while deploying Rodriguez in relief was a natural outcome of Kelly's churlishness. The behavior continued in spring training this year, when Kelly refused to say the obvious, waiting until a week before the season started before naming Rodriguez his number two starter. If these tough-love tactics worked as well as the rest of Kelly's managerial moves, it would be one thing; but they haven't. Rodriguez remains maddeningly inconsistent, an enigma with a huge impact on the team's playoff chances. Given the dearth of bona fide major league pitchers, the Twins need Rodriguez more than Rodriguez needs them.

Even if both Radke and Rodriguez were to dramatically improve this year, the Twins would have an uphill battle wresting a playoff position away from the likes of Cleveland, Chicago, Baltimore, Texas, Seattle, Toronto, and New York. But if Kelly still has them in contention around late July, don't be surprised if Pohlad okays a deal that mortgages some of the team's future for the sake of staying in a pennant race, maybe trading a couple of those hot shot prospects that never pan out for a high-priced veteran pitcher in the last year of his contract. Yes, it would fly in the face of Twins tradition, especially in terms of budgetary expenditures. But it doesn't take a banker to realize that the best way to lobby for a new stadium is with a winning baseball team.

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