5. Minnesota Twins
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Their young, spunky lineup returns mostly intact. Is that a good thing?
By Mark Bechtel
After hitting .229 with just 32 RBIs in 118 games as a rookie two years ago, Mientkiewicz avoided a sophomore jinx in 2000, but only because he got pink-slipped to the minors two weeks before the end of spring training. In Utah, however, he rediscovered his stroke and earned a place on the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, for whom he hit two walk-off homers, including a solo shot against Korea in the semifinals. Those heroics made the 27-year-old first baseman something of a celeb. At SI's Sportsman of the Year awards show, he hobnobbed with another Olympian, hockey player Mike Eruzione, an athlete Mientkiewicz had idolized while growing up in Toledo. "I remember watching the  Olympics on my shag carpet in Ohio and getting teary-eyed," says Mientkiewicz, whose family had season tickets for the Toledo Gold Diggers, Eruzione's pre-Olympic minor league outfit. "That's the biggest thing that stuck out in my mind as a kid: Mike standing on the gold medal stand."
With the front office's decision not to re-sign Ron Coomer, Mientkiewicz showed up this spring secure in the knowledge that the first baseman's job was his. He isn't the only Twin more at ease in 2001. "There's an optimism in [manager] Tom Kelly that hasn't been there in a few years," says lefthanded pitcher Eric Milton. "Usually he's not much of a rah-rah, talkative, give-you-a-lot-of-praise kind of guy." The reason for the change is fairly simple. "We have people in position," says Kelly, launching into a recitation of the Twins lineup a full three weeks before Opening Day. "I haven't been able to say that in a long time. This isn't like previous spring trainings, where we'd hold a tryout camp."
Another reason for Kelly's upbeat spring is owner Carl Pohlad's uncharacteristic willingness to loosen the purse strings. Minnesota locked up Milton for four years at $21 million in February, seven months after signing Brad Radke to a four-year, $36 million extension. If nothing else, the Twins boast a righty-lefty combo that includes a former 20-game winner and the owner of a perfect game. Milton, who twirled the no-no against Anaheim in 1999, allowed just 11.5 base runners per nine innings last season, the fifth-best average in the league.
Aside from Mientkiewicz, the only newcomer to the starting lineup is 21-year-old second baseman Luis Rivas. The lithe, 5'10", 175-pounder has surprising pop in his bat but is still unpolished in the field. The same can't be said for Mientkiewicz, who led American League first basemen in fielding percentage in '99. And he's finally started to hit: In addition to batting .334 in Salt Lake City, he showed signs that he could handle major league pitching. After returning from Sydney in September, he put together multihit performances in each of the Twins' final three games. (He didn't have more than two consecutive multihit games in '99.) The lefty is no threat to hit more than 15 homers, but these days that's par for the course in the Twin Cities, where most of those old Homer Hankies are being used as crying towels. Last year the Twins were the only major league team without a player who hit 20 homers.
Even if he's not the second coming of Kent Hrbek, Mientkiewicz has a good enough stick to solidify the Twins lineup. "Being sent down was the best thing that could have happened to me," he says. "Before, I was just trying to be a big league player. Now I'm really concerned about getting the team to .500 or better."
He and the Twins still have quite a ways to go, but they finally seem pointed in the right direction.
Issue date: March 26, 2001