On the red carpet
The Twins were named the organization of the year by for the second time in three years.
Gardy gets it
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has managed the team for three years and has won three division titles. No other Twins manager had done that because no other Twins team had done that. He was rewarded with a two-year contract extension believed to be worth $2 million, another record for a Twins manager.
League of Nations disbanded
In 2001, the Twins relied on their “League of Nations” infield — American Doug Mientkiewicz, Venezuelan Luis Rivas, Dominican Cristian Guzman and Canadian Corey Koskie — to contend. This year, if Rivas doesn’t win a starting job, none will be in the opening day lineup.
Koskie has built a house in the Twin Cities near his friend and former Twin Terry Steinbach, and when he signed with Toronto, he took out a half-page ad in the Minneapolis Star Tribune to thank fans and the Twins organization for their kindness.
When Oakland failed to make the playoffs in 2004, the Twins became the only low-revenue team to have made the playoffs the past three years.
Big man in city
This winter, Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter was given the key to his hometown of Pine Bluff, Ark., for his charitable work with children.
Ups and downs
Reliever J.C. Romero set a team record by not allowing a run for 36 innings from June 26 through Sept. 11.
The Twins have won the last three AL Central titles by a combined 26.5 games over the second-place team.
The Twins have won three straight AL Central titles. They have fought off challenges from the White Sox, Royals and Indians, and in 2005 may have to fend off the increasingly competent Tigers. And despite the overhaul of their infield, the Twins look up to the task. Their reign has been characterized by pitching depth, excellent fielding and intelligent management. Their fielding may be in decline, but their pitching depth and management’s ability to piece together a competitive team on a tight budget are hallmarks of what may be baseball’s best organization.
After pitching poorly into late May last year, Johan Santana established himself as the most dominant pitcher in the AL and won the Cy Young Award. Santana should enter this season healthier, stronger and more confident, a year after coming into 2004 worrying about his surgically repaired elbow. The Twins resigned Brad Radke, who was much better in 2004 than his 11–8 record indicated. Carlos Silva emerged last year as an innings eater, and the Twins expect Kyle Lohse to rebound from his horrid season. Joe Mays, returning from Tommy John surgery, will be the fifth starter, if healthy. The rotation could be one of baseball’s best.
Last year’s bullpen was expected to be a weakness. Instead, Joe Nathan established himself as one of baseball’s best closers and Juan Rincon as one of the league’s best setup men. What was most surprising was that the bullpen excelled despite the failures of perhaps its most talented member — lefthander J.C. Romero, who earned a midseason demotion and floundered late, almost single-handedly costing the Twins home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Twins expect hard-throwing righthander Grant Balfour to emerge as a late-inning threat this year, and they re-signed Terry Mulholland to be a spot starter and innings eater.
Second baseman Luis Rivas fell out of favor with the organization but was re-signed to compete for a starting job. Shortstop Cristian Guzman left in free agency. Entering spring training, both positions remained in flux. If Michael Cuddyer will play either second or third. If Cuddyer plays third, then Rivas could re-emerge at second base. The competition at shortstop will be between rookie Jason Bartlett, Juan Castro and Nick Punto. Bartlett will win the job if he looks competent. These positions are open for the first time in the Twins’ recent reign. Guzman’s smooth fielding will be missed, but the Twins are likely to get more offense out of these positions this year. Neither Guzman nor Rivas provided power or respectable on-base percentages.
First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and third baseman Corey Koskie were cornerstones — strong personalities in the clubhouse and excellent fielders. Justin Morneau, who’s capable of hitting 40 homers this year, took over at first base when Mientkiewicz was traded to Boston last July. Although the Twins will miss Mientkiewicz’s glove, Morneau improved as a fielder as he grew comfortable last year. Third base is open, with either Cuddyer, free agent acquisition Eric Munson or prospect Terry Tiffee the likely replacement. None is Koskie’s equal as a fielder, but Munson could come close to replacing Koskie’s bat. Tiffee, although not a top prospect, was impressive when called up during the pennant race last year.
The Twins managed to keep their talented outfield intact by resigning right fielder Jacque Jones. Other than pitching, this is where the Twins have spent their money, securing Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter and Jones. Stewart is a valuable leadoff hitter who missed time with plantar fasciitis last year. The Twins rarely play well when he’s out of the lineup. Hunter is their Gold Glove centerfielder and spiritual leader, a player willing to sacrifice his body to make a catch or flatten a catcher. Jones has excellent range. Offensively, Stewart is a known commodity and Hunter has reached a plateau; Jones, if healthy, is the one who could emerge as an elite hitter. Teammates like to say he’s an adjustment or two from becoming a 30-plus home run hitter. This unit is a team strength.
In his few healthy stretches last year, Joe Mauer looked like a budding All-Star. Scouts project him to be a .320 hitter with power and a high on-base percentage, and a Gold Glove winner. Health is the only question. If he can return to full strength, he could be the best player on a good team, bat third, and make the lineup, defense and pitching staff better. But health will remain a question until he spends a month behind the plate. The Twins signed Mike Redmond to be his backup after Henry Blanco left in free agency.
The Twins don’t have the money to spend on their reserves and DH spot, so they are forced to use young players. They often use the DH as a way to rest an outfielder’s legs or get a bench player some at-bats. With the outfield set, Lew Ford will probably be the opening-day DH, but he can also play all three outfield spots. He’s a better fielder than Stewart, so Stewart could wind up at DH if his feet give him problems. If Mauer has trouble with his knee or Morneau has trouble with his glove, either could DH. Matthew LeCroy will be the third catcher, backup first baseman and occasional DH. Redmond is the backup catcher. Augie Ojeda is an exceptional-fielding utility infielder, and Juan Castro will compete for either a middle infield starting job or a utility role.
The Twins cut loose David Ortiz when he was struggling, and Ortiz led the Red Sox to a World Series title. But that was a rare mistake by Twins GM Terry Ryan. The Twins have one of baseball’s best scouting staffs, and Ryan is among the game’s best GMs. The Twins are the only low-revenue team which has made the playoffs each of the last three years, and, despite continuing losses of veteran players, Ryan has positioned them to make the playoffs again in 2005. Manager Ron Gardenhire could have won the Manager of the Year in any of his three seasons, and probably deserved it last year.
This is an admirable organization that looks prepared to win a fourth straight division title, even as Cleveland’s impressive youth movement and Detroit’s aggressive free-agent signings provide a threat. The Twins’ infield defense figures to lag this year, but, given decent health, they should score more runs and field one of baseball’s best 11-man pitching staffs. They have accumulated a remarkable collection of talent — due to a solid farm system and some shrewd trades — and team owner Carl Pohlad is lucky to be able to field a contender every year for less than $60 million.