Fans of the Minnesota Twins will recall a marketing campaign about 7 years ago that encouraged fans to come out to the Dome and ‘Get to Know ‘Em.’ Anchored by the veteran presences of Brad Radke and Matt Lawton and with the fresh faces of Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Cory Koskie, Doug Mientkiewicz, Cristian Guzman and a relatively unknown rule five pick up by the name of Johan Santana, fans undoubtedly felt that the team had a lot of gelling to do… yet there was a feeling of excitement and promise.
After dealing with a decade of baseball inferiority and the unfulfilled promises of Marty Cordova and Chuck Knoblauch, there was a glimmer of promise in this young group. Most of you know how this story ends… Four division championships in five years. Not a bad run for our ‘Get to Know ‘Em’ crew.
As we approach week three of the 2008 campaign, I can’t help but be reminded of that 2001 team. The similarities are striking, if not more encouraging. This time around the veteran core consists of former MVP Justin Morneau, former batting champ Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Nathan and a well-traveled Livan Hernandez. The young faces of Carlos Gomez, Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and eventually Francisco Liriano make up the future division championship potential that was provided by Jones, Hunter, et al in 2001. There actually seems to be more to be excited about with this group.
So what is the difference? Expectation. There were no expectations of that 2001 team other than to avoid getting contracted by MLB. That 2001 group set a precedent, and one that most Minnesota sports fans aren’t used to dealing with. They set a precedent of winning. That’s what faces this new group of Twins, and though most reasonable fans are going to allow this team to grow and gel together, the level on fan patience may not be what it was in 2001.
As with the 2001 team, this one is going to rely on some x-factors. Seven years ago it was pitching. Unlikely candidates Joy Mays and Rick Reed stepped up to provide rotation support for Radke and Eric Milton. The bullpen got an unexpected boost from Jack Cressend and Johan Santana and used the combination of Latroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado to preserve late inning leads.
This year, it seems that it will be pitching once again that determines the success of the club. Boof Bonser brings back memories of Kyle Lohse in that he seems to be ‘that guy’ with big expectations that always seems to fall just short of taking his game to the next level.
Bonser spent a better part of the off-season conditioning and working on his control. It has been these two things that have held him back thus far. After a couple of starts, it would seem like there has been some progress made on those fronts. Now fans will wait and see if he can pull it all together.
Scott Baker is this year’s Joe Mays. He will be expected to step up and shoulder the load behind the veteran Hernandez. He’s certainly proven to be capable, but now he needs to show he can also be consistent.
Of course the biggest x-factor will be the return of Francisco Liriano. So much of this team’s future rides on that young man’s left arm. Most people will tell you that it takes two full seasons to return to form after having Tommy John surgery, and it looks like the Twins are taking that as gospel. Although fans are anxious to see Liriano in big league action once again, the Twins certainly are in no hurry to push him along. They intend to be cautious with Liriano and rightfully so.
Even when he eventually returns to the big league rotation, I think fans can expect Liriano to be limited, both from a pitch count standpoint and from using his most devastating pitch (and the pitch that put the greatest amount of strain on his arm), his slider. He has been working hard to develop his changeup to help take some of the load off of that arm, and Twins pitching coach, Rick Anderson, is pleased with the progress so far saying that his changeup has the potential to be every bit as good as Johan Santana’s.
The bullpen, on paper, seems to be every bit as good, and likely better than that of the 2001 team. Pat Neshek and Joe Nathan should be very capable of keeping the Twins on top in the late innings. The veteran core of Juan Rincon, Matt Guerrier, Dennys Reyes, and Jessie Crain promise to be solid inning eaters and a deep set of arms should the young starters struggle.
Defense will be an interesting thing to watch. Of course it was defense and timely hitting that propelled the Twins to all of those division titles, and though I don’t think this group is as defensively sound, they should still find themselves among the top fielding teams in the game.
The foundation of defense lies in the middle of the field. Adam Everett, Nick Punto and Brendan Harris will take shifts anchoring things up the middle for the infield, and Carlos Gomez has already shown his ability to use his speed on the defensive side in center field. As long as the other guys can field their positions, this group should take some of the big play pressure off of them.
As for hitting, the Twins lineup is every bit as potent as it has been during its run of division titles. The injury to Michael Cuddyer is no doubt a big blow to the club, but at least for the time being, Jason Kubel looks to be willing and capable of picking up the slack. The Mauer, Morneau, Young combination should have no trouble generating runs, sspecially if the speedy Gomez continues to consistently set the table.
Joe Mauer could be looking at a career year in terms of RBIs if Gomez continues to hit and run the bases at his present clip. The bottom of the order is also strong. With the likes of Craig Monroe, Mike Lamb, and Brendan Harris (who I personally believe is going to develop into a fine five-tool player) the team has both high on-base and RBI potential.
So will this team compare to that team of 2001? Are we on the brink of starting another string of central division domination? Only time will tell. There are no certainties in baseball and thank goodness for that. If there were, that 2001 campaign likely would have been the franchise’s last, as it seemed like contraction was imminent.
Not to bust out a Yogi Berra-like quote, but baseball is a game where things happen. Star players get injured… Johan Santana’s emerge out of nowhere… individual players have ‘flash in the pan’ seasons. This new group of Twins will likely face all of these sorts of challenges and pleasant surprises. Ron Gardenhire will, without a doubt, have them ready to deal with these things as they arise.
As you probably know, after a storied run and a Sports Illustrated cover story, that 2001 team fell just short of making the playoffs. But a foundation was set and there seemed to be a lot of energy in Twins baseball. That’s what I think any Twins fans should hope results from this season. It was that foundation and energy that brought four division titles to Minneapolis. It’s a foundation and energy that I think this team possesses, but it’s early; they need time to grow together as a team.
It’s going to be fun to watch this team mature and improve. It’s also going to be painful at times, but that’s what draws us to sports. That’s why we take the time to ‘get to know ‘em.’ Because you can’t have expectations until you’ve been allowed to formulate an opinion.
Contributed by Doug Martin