Forget contraction. The Twins are way past that. No, the biggest threat to the Anti-Yankees as we know them—homegrown, low-budget, easier to root for than Forrest Gump—is their own success.
Over the winter penurious owner Carl Pohlad gave general manager Terry Ryan the green light to increase the payroll from $40 million to $55 million, allowing for contract extensions to be given to outfielders Torii Hunter (four years, $32 million) and Jacque Jones (two years, $7.1 million). But what about next year? The Twins must dole out about $10 million in guaranteed money to six players who are signed to long-term deals, and a total of five starting pitchers and every-day players will be eligible for salary arbitration. It will take another sizable boost in the payroll to keep the club together again. "Our window's not big," says first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, whose salary goes to $1.75 million this year (from $285,000 last season) and who is among those who will be eligible for arbitration after this season. "We realize that financially the organization can't keep everyone here, so this is the year for us. This is as good as it's going to get."
Last season Minnesota won 94 games, took the AL Central by 13� and knocked the A's out of the playoffs despite an underachieving, injury-plagued rotation and an infield that suffered a significant drop in production from the year before. Instead the Twins rode what they thought would be the team's weakest link entering the season: the bullpen. With no-names and young arms, the assemblage of relievers ranked second in the league in wins and fourth in ERA. "They carried us through the first half," says catcher A.J. Pierzynski, an All-Star in 2002 who will play for about $400,000 this year but then will be eligible for arbitration. At the All-Star break the Minnesota bullpen had 22 of the team's 50 wins—and the Twins had a 7�-game division lead.
Closer Eddie Guardado, a lefthander, and setup man LaTroy Hawkins, a righthander, anchor the bullpen and, in many respects, the team. The two are vocal clubhouse leaders and close friends, and they've been in Minnesota as long (10 and eight years, respectively) as any other current Twin except shortstop Denny Hocking (10 years) and righthander Brad Radke (eight years). "We've been spit on, we've taken our lumps and we've all worked very hard to get where we are here," says Guardado. An All-Star last year, he is not your conventional lights-out closer. His fastball rarely reaches 90 mph, and he doesn't have a good curve or changeup. But Guardado, who had failed as a starter and had been a serviceable middle reliever, revived his career in a meaningless September 2001 game: He started to throw the splitter and struck out the first two batters he tried it on. "I thought, Wow, better use that next year," recalls Guardado, who logged a franchise-record 45 saves in 2002.
As the Minnesota closer in 2001, Hawkins blew nine saves and had a 5.96 ERA. "I was tired of struggling," he says, "so I went back to kindergarten at the beginning of last year and tried to make it to graduation by the end of the season." Over the course of the year, during which he shared setup duties with lefthander J.C. Romero, Hawkins overhauled his mechanics. He scrapped his big leg kick and compacted his motion to become more consistent in his delivery. By year's end Hawkins was hitting the high 90s with his fastball—something he had never done in his first seven big league seasons—and he emerged as a perfect complement to Guardado.
Another surprise in last year's bullpen was lefthander Johan Santana, whose best pitch is a wicked slider. Though he was only fifth on the team in innings and wasn't called up until May 31, Santana, 24, led the Twins in strikeouts (137 in 108 innings), and his 11.38 K's per nine innings was second in the majors to Arizona's Randy Johnson.
Just as the corps of relievers was at the root of last year's success, so will it be key to a return to the playoffs this season—not to mention at the heart of how Minnesota's payroll will take shape in 2004. Next fall Guardado and Hawkins can become free agents, and Romero and Santana will be eligible for arbitration.