MINNEAPOLIS -- After playing 17 rookies last season, Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly doesn't believe his club will be hit by a second-year letdown.
''I'm not sure we had anybody who played well enough to worry about a sophomore jinx,'' Kelly said. ''You can't jinx something that wasn't great to begin with.''
With the youngest roster in the majors and the smallest payroll as well, the Twins predictably won the fewest games, scored the fewest runs, hit the fewest homers and drew the fewest fans in the AL.
The Homerdome? It's history.
Ron Coomer's 16 homers led the Twins last year, a number some Minnesota sluggers used to put up by May.
The Twins' brand of budget baseball actually seemed to be working last season until they swooned in September, losing 23 of their last 30.
''That was embarrassing,'' Coomer said. ''We gave it our best and were fighting Chicago for second place. Then we end up in last place.''
Kelly thinks some of the rookies relaxed after the minor league season ended because they were no longer in danger of being demoted.
''The ship sunk and it sunk fast,'' said reliever Eddie Guardado, the senior member of the team despite having just more than five years of major league experience.
''Everybody started to relax a little bit, and as soon as you think you've got this game wrapped up, it's going to slap you right in the face,'' Guardado said. ''I think it did that to a couple of guys and woke people up around here.''
When players arrived at Fort Myers this spring, Kelly greeted them by saying: ''The party's over.''
By the time camp broke, he had sent Doug Mientkiewicz, Javier Valentin and Chad Allen, three players who spent all of 1999 in the majors, to Triple-A Salt Lake.
''Now, we have total panic,'' Kelly said after his first round of clubhouse-shaking cuts. ''As you saw, there were like 18 guys in the hitting cage. I guess that's the way we have to do it to get their attention.''
Welcome to 2000, boys.
''You can't take anything for granted now,'' second-year pitcher Joe Mays said. ''T.K., the first day he came out and told us that. He said he was not going to take all young guys this year.''
Kelly said it wasn't fair to anybody to promote players ahead of their time as he was forced to do last season.
''We're not going to put up with some of the things we put up with last year,'' Kelly said. ''And we need to give the people of Minneapolis-St. Paul a better product than we gave them last year.''
Of the 10 rookies who broke camp with the Twins last year, only six remain. But there are two notable rookies heading north this year: stocky catcher Matt LeCroy, who has a paltry 32 games of experience above Class A ball but whose long-ball power is a dream to a pitching staff starved for run support, and infielder Jason Maxwell.
And the Twins still will rely heavily on last year's rookie class.
Mays, who had 20 straight scoreless innings during one spectacular stint last summer, is the fifth starter and left-hander Mark Redman is a cog in the closer-by-committee bullpen.
Outfielders Jacque Jones and Torii Hunter, shortstop Cristian Guzman and third baseman Corey Koskie, who led the team in homers this spring, are front-line players, too.
They're still green, but Coomer said the second-year guys should at least be over most of their growing pains.
''Your first year, everything's so new. It's the thing you've always wanted to do, put on a major league uniform,'' Coomer said. ''The newness is over now. They've been to all the stadiums, they've seen all the players. And hopefully that's all over and we can all be able to play some baseball.''
Kelly, in his 15th season, is in the final year of his contract and will wait until later this summer to decide if he wants to sign an extension or leave for a team with a bigger payroll.
''There will come a day where he and I will sit down and talk and see how things are progressing, whether or not he wants to stay and whether or not he's comfortable with me, with the organization,'' general manager Terry Ryan said.
The rotation, led by Brad Radke -- prime trade bait if his agent doesn't reopen contract talks -- and Eric Milton, looked fine this spring, as did the Twins' usually dependable defense.
''I'm hoping it's not a mirage down here,'' Ryan said. ''Because pitching and defense will keep you in a lot of games.''
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