It looks like an old imported beer can sitting on Ron Gardenhire's desk -- aluminum, 12 ounces, the kind the Twins' manager might crack open to celebrate a win. But pick it up, and it delivers a sudden, surprising jolt of electricity. From golf balls that explode to beer cans, cellphones and pens that shock, nothing around Gardenhire's office is as it appears. The same could be said for his team.
Heading into last season, the knock on Minnesota was that its strong pitching staff would receive little run support from a lineup devoid of natural power hitters. Then Justin Morneau cranked 34 homers en route to winning the AL MVP, and Joe Mauer became the first catcher to win the league's batting crown, hitting .347 in his second full season. On June 7 the Twins looked overmatched in the AL Central, standing in fourth, 11 1/2 games back of the pace-setting Tigers; from then on Minnesota went 71-33 and won the division title on the last day of the season.
Now it seems Gardenhire will try to pull another fast one on his Central rivals, trotting out a pitching staff depleted by the loss of last year's rookie sensation Francisco Liriano, who's most likely out for the season after Tommy John surgery, and the retirement of innings-eater Brad Radke. The only reliable starter is lefthander Johan Santana, the AL Cy Young winner in 2004 and '06. Santana says he feels even stronger this spring than he did last year when he led the league in innings (233 2/3), strikeouts (245) and ERA (2.77) and tied the Yankees' Chien-Ming Wang for most wins (19).
After Santana, however, the joke could be on Gardenhire. Carlos Silva's performance in 2006 dropped (11-15, 5.94, compared with 9-8, 3.44 in '05) because his sinker didn't. "We need that sinkerball," his manager says. After intense off-season training to regain his '05 form, the righthander told pitching coach Rick Anderson, "You watch, everyone will like me again." Much-traveled free-agent pickups Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson, each of whom last had a winning record in '03, are competing to plug holes in the rotation with Matt Garza, Boof Bonser and Glen Perkins, all of whom are short on big league experience (a combined 156 career innings) but are thought to be long on promise.
Getting to the sixth or seventh inning with a lead will be the goal each game for the Twins, who boast the majors' best bullpen (2.91 ERA and 2.48 walks per nine innings, both league lows), in particular the setup man-closer combination of Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan. Pat Neshek, a hard-throwing righty with a sidearm delivery, would be the primary setup man for many other teams.
Gardenhire shouldn't have to conjure up offense either. The entire 2006 lineup, which topped the majors in batting average (.287), is back. Although it's unrealistic to expect Mauer to hit .340 consistently, Morneau could make the jump from .321 last year to that territory. "He had a difficult April and May," general manager Terry Ryan says of the period when Morneau hit .244. "Just think what he could do if he pieces together six full months." Outfielder Torii Hunter's numbers could also rise as he enters the final year of his contract. The rest of the order isn't known for its power, but White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen calls them "piranhas" for the way they nip their way around the bases.
With a handful of marquee players and a payroll that consistently ranks in the bottom half of the majors, Gardenhire has won four division titles in his five seasons managing in Minnesota. But that shaky rotation tempers expectations this year. Five out of six would be something of a shock. -- Melissa Segura
Issue date: March 26, 2007