Ready, Set...Oh No?
Two weeks into a season of the highest expectations and already the natives are restless. Relax, people. Things could hardly be better for the Minnesota Twins. A year after receiving a complete organizational makeover that made Greta Van Susteren's facial reconstruction look like the quick work of a shaky Glamour Shots intern the Twins are still trying to get used to their flavor-of-the-month status. They're nobody's shaggy dog story this year, and nothing they do short of complete implosion is going to surprise anybody. Truth be told, even a full-scale meltdown wouldn't be all that shocking. Crazy, inexplicable stuff like that happens all the time in baseball. And this is still a very young team, and you don't have to look very hard at the box scores and statistics so far to see that the Twins are struggling a bit with those growing pains.
Still, Twins fans should get down on their knees and thank Bud Selig, Al Kaline, and the ghost of Walter Johnson for the woeful Detroit Tigers. At this moment it's Tuesday afternoon and the Twins are sitting relatively pretty at 6-6 (they were 7-5 at this point last year), and looking at 16 more games with the Motown Malaise, including a four-game series to close out the season. The schedule makers have blessed the Twins with 13 of their last 55 games against the Tigers. Toss in a six-game mid-season breather against Milwaukee, and if Minnesota can get to the All Star break in any kind of shape at all I like their chances. After this weekend they'll be done with the Yankees (against whom they're 0-9 in their last three series, including last week's visit to the Bronx in which they scored four runs in three games), and their last 20 games are all against their rivals in the decidedly mediocre Central Division. Yes, Kansas City is 10-1, but unless the Royals are the small-market thumb God chooses to stick in Bud Selig's eye this year -a decent enough prospect, actually-they'll have their inevitable meeting with gravity.
Meanwhile, how about those Tigers? As bad as the Twins were all those years, they were never this bad. Please don't make me look, but I'm pretty damn certain we were never subjected to a team this pathetic. Minnesota fans who might feel compelled to crow about the team's selection as Baseball America's organization of the year might want to keep in mind that Detroit nabbed that honor as recently as 1997, and fat lot of good it -or their new ballpark-did them. After a 1-10 start (including a nine-game losing streak to kick off the season) the Tigers have a team batting average of .160, with a .214 on base percentage. They have been outscored 60-20, and have hit just three home runs. The closer you look the uglier it gets: Detroit has 11 extra base hits, and have eight guys hitting under .200. Exactly one player -Ramon Santiago-is hitting over .250. Manager Alan Trammell is saying all the expected things -his team is trying, and you can be damn sure the Detroit Tigers aren't going to roll over-but he's not exactly busting his nuts to manufacture runs. Sure, a few base runners would be nice, but the Tigers have two stolen bases, and have been caught four times.
The defending Central Division champions haven't exactly been busting down the fences, but compared with those numbers the Twins offensive production looks like the 1927 Yankees. Granted, they're hitting just .246 as a team (with a disgraceful .295 OBP), and to say that a handful of regulars are struggling would be something of an understatement, but this is still a team with an embarrassment of riches. What we're seeing so far is a young, aggressive team struggling to become more patient at the plate, and it hasn't been terribly pretty so far -and just flat out isn't going to work for everybody-but, as they say, it's a work in progress. All Star centerfielder Torii Hunter, coming off a breakout season during which he scuffled after the break, is the most visibly floundering Twin. Hunter was rewarded for his 2002 season with a five-year, $30 million contract extension during the off-season, and he's clearly pressing. Always the streakiest of Twins, Hunter is off to easily the worst start of his career. Through the first 12 games he was hitting an embarrassing .116, with an OBP of .167 and a slugging average of .186, all lows among Twins regulars. As early as the Toronto series during the first home stand Hunter was already venting his frustration.
"They're after me to be more patient, and I'm trying," he said. "But it sure as hell doesn't seem to be working. I need to swing the bat. I've got to hack. I don't want to be no .300 hitter; I want to hit bombs."
Jacque Jones, meanwhile, whose 2002 development (and production in the leadoff role) played as big a part in the team's success as Hunter's contributions, is off to the kind of start his outfield partner had last season. While Jones will never be a prototypical Ricky Henderson-style leadoff hitter, he has demonstrated an increasing willingness to be more selective at the plate. He's only drawn two walks thus far, but Jones is taking more pitches, and the slightly more patient approach is already paying off; Jones is batting a team-leading .364, with an OBP of .388 -but if a guy's hitting .364 who really gives a rat's ass what his on base percentage is? It's interesting to compare the production of Hunter and Jones after the All Star break last year, and if those numbers mean anything to this year's club it will be the worst sort of good news-bad news scenario. After the break Jones went on a tear, hitting .322 with a .514 slugging average and 14 homeruns. Hunter, after carrying the team through the first couple months of the season, cooled off considerably in the second half, batting just .263 with nine homers. If you break the numbers down even further and just compare the last two months, the breakdown is even more glaring: In August, Jones hit .302 with eight homeruns, while Hunter managed just two homers and his average fell to .224. Hunter followed up his lousy August with an equally tepid September (.234, three HRs). Jones, on the other hand, was the hottest Twins hitter in the last month, hitting .369 with two homeruns. While Jones and Hunter are pals, there are essential temperamental differences between them that have become more apparent since last year's break. Hunter is among the most mild-mannered of Twins. Even when frustrated he's an amiable guy to be around. Jones is a different guy altogether, high-strung and moody. He's as overtly fiery as Hunter is mellow, and he seems driven by competition both on the field and in the clubhouse; Jones often seems rankled by the comparisons with Hunter, and to his credit he has channeled that frustration into his performance, becoming in the process a better all around player than he was last year at this time. That rivalry is a good thing for the Twins, and it'll be interesting to see if Hunter can elevate his own game in kind.
There are plenty of other questions to be addressed as the season goes along, some of them lingering from last season. Who the hell should be the right fielder? Is Matthew LeCroy the second coming of Brian Buchanan or the Twins designated hitter far into the future? How good can Johan Santana, Juan Rincon, and Kyle Lohse really be? Can Doug Mientkiewicz -Gold Glove or no Gold Glove-ever be a major league hitter, and how much rope do you give him with Todd Sears and Justin Morneau waiting in the wings? Is this the best Twins bullpen of all time? Why isn't Bobby Kielty in the lineup -somewhere-every day? Is Rick Reed the most frustrating pitcher you've ever seen, or what?
We'll get to those questions somewhere down the road. But for now, the Tigers are in town, and it's good to be back.
IN HIS LAST four starts dating back to last year's playoffs, Reed is 0-4, and has pitched 20 and-a-third innings, given up 15 earned runs, and nine homeruns. THROUGH THE FIRST 12 games the Twins have hit into 12 double plays, and stranded 73 runners. They didn't turn a double play in their first eight games, and have only three on the season. On the plus side they do have 21 two-out RBI. BOBBY KIELTY IS hitting .375 with a .423 OBP and a .542 slugging percentage, despite which he has only 24 at bats. The Twins are batting .210 with runners in scoring position; Kielty is hitting .444 with RISP, including 3-6 with RISP and two out. JOHAN SANTANA, JUAN Rincon, and Kyle Lohse are all 24 years old. Last season, splitting time between the starting rotation and the bullpen, Santana struck out 137 batters in 108 and-a-third innings, the best ratio in the AL among pitchers with at least 100 innings, and second best to Randy Johnson in the majors. Thus far in 2003 he has fanned 15 and walked three in 11 innings. Lohse is 2-0, and has struck out 10 while walking only one. Rincon, in six relief innings, has seven strikeouts and no walks. The bullpen has a 1.75 ERA, compared with 4.86 for the starters. WHEN WILL DOUG Mientkiewicz start to sweat? Justin Morneau is off to a fast start at AA New Britain, batting .381 with two homeruns. Meanwhile, at Fort Myers, phenom Joe Mauer is being out hit by older brother Jake for probably the first time since he learned to swing a bat. Jake is hitting .250 to Joe's .184.
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