Ask Athletics pitcher Tim Hudson about one of his peskiest opponents, and he makes it sound as if the team's hitters are waiting for him with bats in hand, ready to inflict fresh torment.
"If you don't put 'em away, they'll come back and bite you," Hudson says. "You may think you have 'em in hand, then all of a sudden, they're back in the game."
The world champion Angels? Nope. Hudson is talking about a team that beat the A's in both of his starts in last year's Division Series, a team that advanced to the American League Championship Series, a team that, in this new age of baseball possibility, can play David without fear of getting crushed by every free-spending Goliath.
He's talking about your next World Series champion, the Twins.
Go ahead, raise your eyebrows to the top of the Metrodome. Every time I tell baseball people my choice, they stare at me as if I were nominating Ozzy Osbourne for president. Even the Twins are aghast, perhaps because the last time they were picked for something, Commissioner Bud Selig was targeting them for elimination.
"You're crazy," first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz tells me.
Catcher A.J. Pierzynski agrees, prattling on about the other American League powers. General manager Terry Ryan tells me I have applied the "kiss of death." Manager Ron Gardenhire chuckles at my pick and says, "That's your prerogative."
Come November, "Gardy" will be begging me to write his book.
Only center fielder Torii Hunter seems to appreciate that I might be onto something rather than simply on something. "Why would you be crazy?" he asks. "We're still a young team. We've still got room to improve."
Several teams underwent striking makeovers this offseason, but that doesn't mean they're better. The N.L. champion Giants, the Braves and the Red Sox are almost unrecognizable after shuffling pieces largely for economic reasons; four of the Giants' eight starting position players are new, as is manager Felipe Alou. The Mariners, Diamondbacks and Mets are too old to elevate their play. And the Yankees have become a Rotisserie-style outfit that bears little resemblance to their recent championship clubs, which were greater than the sums of their parts.
The Twins' projected $56 million payroll will be the highest in the A.L. Central.
The Twins had the seventh-best run differential in the A.L. last season but the fourth-best record. The Twins outscored their opponents by only 56 runs, yet finished 94-67. The rival White Sox outscored their opponents by 58 runs, yet were 81-81.
"They (the Twins) had a lot of the, quote, 'baseball bounces' last year,' new White Sox closer Billy Koch told reporters after joining the team. "It was almost like they never had any bad luck."
Koch is wrong -- the Twins had terrible luck with injuries to their starting pitchers, and each of their four starting infielders went backward offensively. I'm picking them because I think they will play better. And if you think I'm crazy, tell me which of the following arguments makes no sense:
--The starters will be more effective. Left-hander Eric Milton is out four to six months after undergoing knee surgery, but the Twins still figure to be in better shape than they were last season, when Brad Radke and Joe Mays combined for only 38 starts, Milton was out nearly a month and no Twins pitcher threw 200 innings.
None of the Twins' starters is as good as the White Sox's Colon and Mark Buehrle. None can dominate a postseason, although Mays pitched a masterpiece against the Angels inthe ALCS. Still, the rotation is deeper and more experienced than the White Sox's. And there's no reason to believe the Twins could not exceed the Angels' mediocre postseason performance -- five innings per start, a 5.38 ERA.
You want upside? Kyle Lohse won 13 games in his first full season, and left-handed reliever Johan Santana represents a terrific sixth option. Veterans Radke and Rick Reed are control pitchers who benefit from the Twins' superior defense, and left-handed newcomer Kenny Rogers fits the same mold. Rogers, 5-3 with a 3.08 career ERA in the Metrodome, had the league's fourth-highest ground ball-to-fly ball ratio last season.
--The three left-handed relievers will provide a unique edge. Santana, setup man J.C. Romero and closer Eddie Guardado aren't merely lefty specialists; they held right-handed hitters to a combined .210 average last season. "Most teams don't bring in left-handers to face good right-handed hitters," says White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, a right-handed hitter. "But their left-handers aren't coming in with average stuff. They throw gas."
The Twins lose their advantage when Santana moves into the rotation, depriving Gardenhire of the option of using Santana in a setup role when Romero needs rest. Guardado was hit hard in the postseason after earning a team-record 45 saves, but if he stumbles, the Twins again will have the depth to compensate.
The depleted state of the rotation forced Twins relievers to work 524 innings last season, most in the A.L. Romero and right-handers LaTroy Hawkins and Tony Fiore all pitched more than 80 innings and finished with ERAs below 2.80. They won't need to duplicate those numbers if the rotation is healthier.
--The offense will be more dangerous.
Most of the Twins' regulars are in their late 20s. They're finally established enough to make adjustments without fear of failure. As long as they stay healthy -- a problem for their infielders last season -- they should only improve.
The Twins' run totals the past three seasons -- 748, 771, 768 -- were remarkably stagnant for a team that improved its number of victories from 69 to 85 to 94. The White Sox's Koch voices a common sentiment, saying the Twins "frustrate you as a pitcher." But actually, their hitters don't frustrate pitchers enough.
The Twins ranked eighth in on-base percentage last season, ninth in runs and 12th in pitches per plate appearance. Their 56 percent stolen-base rate was the worst in the A.L., and they were 23-29 in games started by left-handers. Nearly all of those statistics reflect the struggles of a still-maturing unit. Twins hitters always will be aggressive, but Gardenhire says they are showing more patience this spring.
The Twins are developing several potential sluggers in the minors: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Restovich. And they have enough other prospects to make a midseason trade for a veteran pitcher or hitter. But for the moment, they need infielders Mientkiewicz, Luis Rivas, Cristian Guzman and Corey Koskie to rebound and right fielder Michael Cuddyer and DH Matthew LeCroy to emerge as viable right-handed threats. H The defense again will be the best in the majors.
Mientkiewicz contends that offense is less important for the Twins because their defense rarely gives opponents extra outs. "We preach defense first, offense second," he says. "If you ever watch one of our practices in spring training, by the time we pick up a bat, we're dead exhausted."
The Twins committed a major league-low 74 errors last season, 13 fewer than the second-place A.L. club, the Angels. Their ability to make both routine and spectacular plays separates them not only from the White Sox, but virtually every other club.
"They have so much range," Dodgers general manager Dan Evans says. "There aren't many teams that can compete with them athletically from a defensive standpoint. And speed plays both ways." --Chemistry matters. Angels shortstop David Eckstein sees the same unselfish qualities in the Twins that characterize his own team. "You don't have anyone over there with any type of ego," Eckstein says. "They play within the team concept. That's showing up big-time in baseball. You get a bunch of guys on the same page, you can win in this game."
The Twins, like the Angels, are largely homegrown. Gardenhire and his coaches also have longtime ties to the organization. The concept of family is vastly overrated in sports. But with the Twins, it might actually exist.
"It's a huge advantage for us," Pierzynkski says. "Our nine starters, I played with every single one of "em in the minor leagues. You can go up to somebody and say, 'Why don't you stop doing this? Why don't you try that?' You have that rapport for so long, it just comes naturally."
The Twins' shared history includes their 97-loss season in 1999, their conflicts with former manager Tom Kelly and their spirited defiance when Selig tried to eliminate the franchise. "We take pride in the fact that we took our lumps together," Mientkiewicz says. "We were bustin' our butts even when we were losing. We just weren't very good."
Well, they're very good now, and they're led by the irrepressible "Gardy," a manager equally adept at playing the roles of merry prankster and driven taskmaster. The Twins' clubhouse can be a rollicking place, with Jacque Jones dancing to hip-hop in one corner and Pierzynski exchanging barbs with a teammate in another. But the loose atmosphere is conducive to winning, and the Twins adopt a different demeanor on the field, playing the game hard, playing it right.
They'll hold off the White Sox in the Central, beat the Angels and Yankees in the playoffs and then face the Braves in a reprise of their classic 1991 Series. The Angels' Rally Monkey will appear on the Metrodome scoreboard at a big moment of Game 5, waving a Homer Hanky to signify a changing of the guard.
The free-swinging Pierzynksi will hit a pitch 6 inches over his head for a tie-breaking home run in Game 6. Koskie will make a diving stop at third to start a game-ending double play in Game 7. And Mientkiewicz finally will admit that I wasn't crazy after all.
The Twins' triumph will mark a turning point for the sport. All things again will seem possible, which is the way the game is supposed to be.
"We'll try to hold up our end," Gardenhire promised. "And we'll have fun doing it." That's the spirit, Gardy. See you at the parade.
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