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Who's in First?

For a first-place team, this year's Twins have played a surprising number of games that have been frustratingly reminiscent of the wretched teams from the truly dark years at the tail end of the 1990s--and frustrating in almost exactly the same ways. Insufferable starting pitching. Shoddy situational hitting. Stranded runners galore. Lousy production from the heart of the order and the corner positions. Remember those years? Probably not, and for good reason.

There have been a lot of games where this club has just not looked like a very good baseball team. And when you take a hard look at what's transpired thus far, it's kind of hard to believe that the Twins are 32-25. Even harder to believe is that three-and-a-half game cushion that separates the Twins from the White Sox and the Indians, the teams that are supposed to contend with Minnesota for the division title.

On those increasingly frequent days when it seems like the sky is falling, however, we can all take comfort in the fact that it's apparently falling faster and harder on the rest of the muck-grubbing underachievers in the American League's Central Division. The Indians, though, seem to have pulled out of their early freefall, and have gone 8-2 over their last 10 as they come into the Metrodome for a three-game series. The White Sox, meanwhile, have run into a brutal little skid of their own.

The Twins struggles have been cast as a team valiantly overachieving in the face of adversity. There's some truth to that: You can't discount the injuries that have kept a steady cast of starters moving in and out of the trainer's room and onto and off of (and back onto) the disabled list. You might wonder what the hell is going on, however. Brad Radke pulls a groin, goes on the DL, and promptly pops it again in his first start back. Righthander Joe Mays, arguably the Twins' best pitcher (and an All Star) last year, went on the DL after his April 14 start against Detroit, and we haven't heard much from him since; despite the fact that more than six weeks have now passed, there's been no talk of surgery or a rehab assignment, and at the moment he doesn't seem any closer to returning to the rotation, let alone to a regular throwing regimen. We did learn that he's headed off to California to visit the fourth specialist he has seen since he was injured. Forgive a skeptical fan if the Mays saga is starting to suggest early and unmistakable symptoms of that most frightening of baseball maladies, the head case.

Ditto at the moment for any number of players the Twins were counting on this year. Where is Luis Rivas, and when can we expect him back in the freaking lineup? And what is wrong with Cristian Guzman--or should we just conclude that he also might be nothing more than a head case, one with a bad attitude and a worse work ethic? As for Rick Reed, sorry, but when you're making $7 million a year and you hurt your neck--or acquire a stiff neck--sleeping on a plane, I think you should probably at least try to gut it out, if only for the sake of appearances. Paying customers and all, you know. There might be a kid in the stands who has never seen Rick Reed pitch.

You could go on and on with this stuff, and it's maddening. Toss out the Twins outfield, catching tandem, and relief corps (or much of it, anyway), and you're looking at disappointments of one sort or another across the board. I don't think there has been a more unproductive infield in the league: You can add up the numbers of the whole crew (throw in designated hitter David Ortiz for good measure), and you still don't have the production of one really great player, one Alex Rodriguez --or one Torii Hunter for that matter. Once again, I'll concede that the injuries have taken a toll; Koskie, Mientkiewicz, Guzman, and Ortiz have all been slowed by injuries, but they have well over 100 at bats apiece and have shown little improvement.

There's no denying that Mientkiewicz is a tremendous asset at first base, but his offensive production has left much to be desired; so far he has posted numbers that would be merely decent for a second baseman (.259 batting average, .395 slugging percentage, 25 RBI, and only 3 home runs). Among everyday AL first basemen, only Anaheim's Scott Spiezio and Boston's Tony Clark have put up comparably lackluster numbers. Mientkiewicz has drawn a team-leading 34 walks, for a solid .383 on-base percentage; maybe he's the guy to fill the lead-off spot if Jacque Jones falters, but he sure hasn't shown anything close to the sort of pop you want to see from a number-three hitter in the lineup.

We're still waiting for Koskie to look comfortable at the plate again. After a slow start, he appeared to be just settling into a groove when he pulled his hamstring and went on the DL. He has been tentative at the plate since his comeback. The same can be said for David Ortiz, who has looked terrible since coming off the DL following arthroscopic knee surgery. Typically a hot starter, and counted on as a legitimate power threat coming out of spring training, Ortiz has managed merely four home runs, and his batting average has sunk to .223.

If you're looking for the real disappointment--and by far the most conspicuous one--you have to start with the pitching rotation. Each of the four front-line starters (Radke, Reed, Mays, and Eric Milton) pitched more than 200 innings last year, and their combined salaries (more than $22 million) constitute more than half of the Twins' payroll. This year the starting rotation is averaging a miserable 5.33 innings per start, and only Milton is anywhere close to a 200-inning pace. Last season Radke, Milton, and Mays each averaged more than 6.5 innings per start, and Reed was right behind them at 6.32.

The bullpen has already thrown 206 innings this year, compared with only 304 for the starters. And despite the 100-inning difference, the starters have only 20 more strikeouts than their colleagues in the pen; and the bullpen's ERA is lower than the starters' by nearly two runs per game. When you factor in manager Ron Gardenhire's reluctance to allow his starters to throw more than 100 pitches, those potentially disastrous numbers raise serious concerns about the long-term health of the Twins' relief corps.

But while they haven't come close to playing the sort of consistent, balanced baseball Gardenhire was already pining for back in April, this team is in first place. They're playing in what is, at the moment, a truly lousy division, and you really do have to think--you really do--that their best baseball is ahead of them. Which is certainly a nice thought as the season moves into the summer.

 

NOTES:

As impressive as Phillies pitcher Robert Person's two-home-run, seven-RBI performance was over the weekend, any such offensive display by a pitcher always recalls the ultimate trivia question regarding pitchers as hitters: What pitcher holds the major-league record for RBI in a single game? (Answer below.)

As the season grinds on and the Twins continue to wear down their bullpen, it'll be interesting to see if general manager Terry Ryan will decide to unload some of the team's minor-league talent in exchange for another arm. Minnesota has never had more potential stockpiled in its minor-league system, and a number of the most promising prospects are offensive players with a similar package of skills (Michael Cuddyer, Michael Restovich, Justin Morneau, and Joe Mauer, among others).

What has happened to former Twins wunderkind Andy McPhail, and why does Don Baylor still have a job? This week Contraction Watch moves down the lake to Chicago, where the woeful Cubs--with their nearly $76 million payroll (including $12.5 million to Moises Alou and Todd Hundley, who are hitting about a buck-fifty with four home runs between them)--are 22-33, and most disgracefully, 1-6 against the Brewers.

Have you looked at the numbers Curt Schilling is putting up? Through 12 starts this year, he has averaged nearly 8 innings per, while striking out 130 and walking only 8. The guy's on a pace to pitch close to 300 innings with almost 400 strikeouts. He's actually making Randy Johnson's numbers look (almost) pedestrian.

TRIVIA ANSWER: In a game against the Giants on July 3, 1966, Braves pitcher Tony Cloninger hit two grand slams and a single, for nine RBI. Cloninger, now a pitching coach for the Red Sox, was also the only pitcher ever to serve up a World Series grand slam to another pitcher, when Baltimore's Dave McNally connected off him in 1970.


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