MANAGER RONGARDENHIRE sixth season with Twins
IT LOOKS like anold 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 itup, and it delivers a sudden, surprising jolt of electricity. From golf ballsthat explode to beer cans, cellphones and pens that shock, nothing aroundGardenhire's office is as it appears. The same could be said for his team.
Heading into lastseason, the knock on Minnesota was that its strong pitching staff would receivelittle run support from a lineup devoid of natural power hitters. Then JustinMorneau cranked 34 homers en route to winning the AL MVP, and Joe Mauer becamethe first catcher to win the league's batting crown, hitting .347 in his secondfull season. On June 7 the Twins looked overmatched in the AL Central, standingin fourth, 11 1/2 games back of the pace-setting Tigers; from then on Minnesotawent 71--33 and won the division title on the last day of the season.
Now it seemsGardenhire will try to pull another fast one on his Central rivals, trottingout a pitching staff depleted by the loss of last year's rookie sensationFrancisco Liriano, who's most likely out for the season after Tommy Johnsurgery, and the retirement of innings-eater Brad Radke. The only reliablestarter 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 heled the league in innings (233 2/3), strikeouts (245) and ERA (2.77) and tiedthe Yankees' Chien-Ming Wang for most wins (19).
March 25, 2007
After Santana,however, the joke could be on Gardenhire. Carlos Silva's performance in 2006dropped (11--15, 5.94, compared with 9--8, 3.44 in '05) because his sinkerdidn't. "We need that sinkerball," his manager says. After intenseoff-season training to regain his '05 form, the righthander told pitching coachRick Anderson, "You watch, everyone will like me again." Much-traveledfree-agent pickups Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson, each of whom last had awinning record in '03, are competing to plug holes in the rotation with MattGarza, Boof Bonser and Glen Perkins, all of whom are short on big leagueexperience (a combined 156 career innings) but are thought to be long onpromise.
Getting to thesixth 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 JuanRincon and Joe Nathan. Pat Neshek, a hard-throwing righty with a sidearmdelivery, would be the primary setup man for many other teams.
Gardenhireshouldn't have to conjure up offense either. The entire 2006 lineup, whichtopped the majors in batting average (.287), is back. Although it's unrealisticto expect Mauer to hit .340 consistently, Morneau could make the jump from .321last year to that territory. "He had a difficult April and May,"general manager Terry Ryan says of the period when Morneau hit .244. "Justthink what he could do if he pieces together six full months." OutfielderTorii Hunter's numbers could also rise as he enters the final year of hiscontract. The rest of the order isn't known for its power, but White Soxmanager Ozzie Guillen calls them "piranhas" for the way they nip theirway around the bases.
With a handful ofmarquee players and a payroll that consistently ranks in the bottom half of themajors, Gardenhire has won four division titles in his five seasons managing inMinnesota. But that shaky rotation tempers expectations this year. Five out ofsix would be something of a shock..
a modest proposal...
Last year'ssurprising run to the AL Central title was thanks in part to terrificproduction from homegrown players who had disappointed in 2005. Jason Bartlett,Michael Cuddyer and AL MVP Justin Morneau each had his best major leagueseason, and Minnesota, which scored 4.25 runs per game in 2005, averaged 4.94in '06. To stay on top in a killer division, the Twins will need DH Jason Kubel(left) to show similar improvement. Kubel, whose plate discipline and power toall fields has drawn comparisons with a young Edgar Martinez, batted only .241with 12 walks and a .279 OBP in 235 plate appearances. Minnesota doesn't needhim to be the AL MVP, but 35 doubles and a .370 OBP--totals in line with hisminor league production before a catastrophic knee injury in 2004--wouldprovide a boost to a club that likely will see offensive regression at somespots.
[This articlecontains tables. Please see hard copy or pdf.]
PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2006 STATISTICS
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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Complete gamethrown by the Twins in 2006. Their sole effort was a 2--0 loss to the Tigers inMay by lefthander Johan Santana, the game's most dominant pitcher. Minnesotatied with the Nationals for the fewest complete games in the majors, butbecause of a deep and hard-throwing bullpen the Twins had a 3.95 teamERA--second in the AL to the Tigers' 3.84.