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The Year of Living Dangerously, Part III

Whatever else they may turn out to be, the 1996 Twins won't be predictable. Tom Kelly can't know who will be the ace of his starting rotation or the closer in his bullpen six or eight weeks from now--or for that matter, who will be at first, third, center field, or DH by then. The middle relievers are likely to be a group of mostly untested obscurities shuttling back and forth from the minor leagues. With 39-year-old Paul Molitor signed on as a designated hitter, can 35-year-old Kirby Puckett be an everyday outfielder again without wearing down? Will Chuck Knoblauch be traded before he gets the chance to depart via free agency? Will Kelly's loyalty to his unimaginative pitching coach Dick Such compel general manager Terry Ryan to get rid of them both?

If Such isn't incompetent, then Ryan must be: As the Twins' former director of player personnel, it was Ryan who recruited the steady parade of young pitchers with whom Such has compiled such a stunning record. In 1994, the 5.68 ERA of Minnesota's pitching staff was one of the 10 worst of this century--and in 1995 it was 5.74. This year's staff has more potential but even less major-league experience than its horrific predecessors.

One of the biggest stories of the offseason has been Rick Aguilera's re-signing--as a starter (and this from the team that converted him to a reliever in 1990 because of his tender arm). Aggie is a poised, superbly conditioned athlete, but the physical and psychological demands of the role he's taking on are different from the ones he has excelled at for the past six years, which is why this type of conversion has never really been successful. The Twins are counting on Aguilera to get them into the seventh inning of his starts, which works out to around 200 innings. His career high was 142 innings, 10 years ago. He hasn't been a starter since 1989. After compiling more saves during the '90s than anyone but Lee Smith and Dennis Eckersley (and blowing more saves than anyone but Jeff Montgomery), he was bothered by a sore shoulder last season. At the age of 34, he still needs to be able to blow his good, live fastball by the hitters often enough to get ahead in the count and induce them to chase his sinking forkball out of the strike zone. That won't be helped by the more economical windup and delivery he is working on to better hold opposing runners on base. To expect him to be as good a starter as a reliever is a huge gamble, and not a particularly wise one.

Another good argument against taking Aguilera from the pen is his replacement, Dave Stevens. Despite converting 10 of 12 save chances after Aggie was traded to Boston last July, Stevens remains scary. His two weaknesses are anathema to closers: He gives up a lot of homers (14 in just 66 innings last year) and regularly allows the first batter to reach base (at a .386 clip in '95, the fourth highest in the league). An illness just before spring training robbed him of more than 20 pounds and further slowed his progress. Aguilera says the Twins have pledged not to renege on their commitment to him as a starter, but if he or Stevens is getting hammered early in the year, the temptation to reinstall him in the bullpen will be great. Pat Mahomes is as wild as Stevens, and a couple of big, tall kids from the Dodgers organization, Dan Naulty and Greg Hansell, likewise aren't ready for the role. Eddie Guardado will be used to set up the closer; this could make him a bitter man.

The Twins' pitcher with the best shot at winning 15-18 games this year may not be Aguilera, but the 24-year-old prospect they got from Boston for him last summer. Frankie Rodriguez struggled with his control last season, but is developing at least two major-league breaking pitches to go with his nasty fastball. He's aggressive, and he does the little things--holds runners on, fields well, pitches inside--that help his cause. Rodriguez has had an excellent spring, and many people in the Twins organization expect him to blossom into the kind of stopper the Twins haven't had since Jack Morris's lone season here in 1991.

The feel-good story on the Twins' pitching staff last year was the emergence of 23-year-old Brad Radke, who made the jump from AA ball to become the team's ace (well, it's all relative) after Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson were traded. Of course, Radke got pulverized most of the season, yielding the most homers, the highest slugging percentage, and the second highest ERA among American League starters. The nature of the praise Radke received doesn't bode well for his future, either--if you're smart, competitive, mature, and your mechanics are good, then chances are the league is eating your lunch because you're not very good. With his fastball in the low 80s and his flair for the gopher ball, there don't seem to be too many ways Radke can improve on last year's 11-14 record. Sly lefty Rich Robertson and heralded second-year pitcher LaTroy Hawkins, who wilted in the spotlight last year, are the best bets to fill out the fourth and fifth spots in the starting rotation of a staff that--well, just imagine what they could do in Denver.

The good news is that there will be more than a few nights when five or six runs won't beat the Twins. Like Puckett, Molitor's early-season doldrums last year probably had more to do with the long layoff than the encroachment of old age. They will fill the three to four slots in the batting order; the biggest beneficiary will be centerfielder and number-two hitter Rich Becker, the perennial prospect who batted just .237 in his first extensive major-league action last year. He'll give up switch-hitting and bat from the left side this year. Being sandwiched between Knoblauch, Molitor, and Puckett is like being on TV between Seinfeld and Friends. With the speedy Knoblauch on base approximately 40 percent of the time, and notorious lefty-bashers Molitor and Puckett due up next, Becker should see plenty of right-handed fastballs down the middle. If he can't thrive under these circumstances, Kelly shouldn't hesitate to bring up Matt Lawton, a left-handed batter who made the jump from AA to hit more than .300 in limited action last year. The fourth outfielder will be Roberto Kelly, a high-caliber journeyman who feasts on left-handed fastballs. On the other hand, given TK's ineffable way with young players, it's entirely possible Kelly will end up with the starting job at some point.

Last season's AL rookie of the year, leftfielder Marty Cordova, will ensure that pitchers don't blithely work around Puckett. Cordova is particularly valuable as a home-run threat on a team with an overall shortage of power. After years of grumbling about it, the Twins also finally went out and signed some left-handed power to take advantage of the Metrodome's short right-field fence. Coming off a couple of severe hand and wrist injuries, ex-Phillies third baseman Dave Hollins came cheap, and former California catcher Greg Myers also was landed via the cut-rate injury plan. On the brink of the season opener, these signings seem less significant than they did during the winter. Myers has more pop in his bat than number-one catcher Matt Walbeck, but Walbeck is clearly superior on defense, particularly throwing out base-stealers. Hollins will hurt the team in the field as well. Nor is that the only strike against him: His spate of injuries continued through spring training, limiting his conditioning, and he's a switch-hitter who's better from the right side anyway.

If Kelly really wants more bounce to the ounce from the left side of the plate, he should consider bringing up 1994 first-round pick Todd Walker to play third. Walker hit 23 dingers in a tough AA pitcher's league last season, and while his defense is said to be middling at best, it probably isn't that much worse than what Hollins will do. If the Twins don't try Walker some games at third this year, it's likely a sign they expect to lose Knoblauch and move Walker back to his original position there. Kelly also has the option of flip-flopping Ron Coomer and Scott Stahoviak at first and third, with Molitor getting a few innings at first. Coomer is a stocky right-handed hitter with line-drive power. Stahoviak is better defensively at both corner positions, and hits left-handed to boot, but he's strictly a singles hitter.

As always, the x-factor will be Tom Kelly's attitude. Sometimes you get the impression that Kelly would rather break down a pampered college kid like Dave McCarty or rid the team of invaluable Jesus freaks like Greg Gagne and Brian Harper than figure out how to blend and motivate these varied personalities. Kelly's faith can be a potent elixir, as the dogged improvements of Pat Meares and Jeff Reboulet attest. (A humbled Rich Becker appears to be this year's pet.) But Kelly has had historic troubles doing the same with people for whom he has less natural sympathy--someone like LaTroy Hawkins, for instance. If Aguilera, Rodriguez, and Stevens come through, none of this will seem to matter. The Twins could play .500 ball. A more likely scenario: Rodriguez and Becker improve, Aggie and Stevens falter, the team goes 71-91.


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