Four months ago, the Minnesota Twins were headed for extinction, told they couldn't compete in today's game, that they were a drag on the baseball industry.
Today, the Minnesota Twins have the largest lead of any first-place team, seven games ahead of the Chicago White Sox, and are one of the best stories MLB has to offer.
The amazing thing about the Twins isn't that they're in first place. Many people predicted them to win the AL Central this year, coming off an 85-77 season in a division filled with flawed teams. They didn't lose anyone of significance over the winter, and last year's team was a young one, so predicting improvement didn't take much courage.
No, what's amazing is that the Twins are in first place despite getting very little from the core of last year's team. The Twins are 43-33 despite having almost as many things go wrong this year as went right in 2001:
Doug Mientkiewicz and Corey Koskie provided desperately-needed power in 2001, combining for 41 home runs and a .476 slugging average. This year, they have 10 home runs and a .402 SLG.
The front of the rotation was great. Joe Mays, Eric Milton and Brad Radke were three of the top 25 starters in the game. They made 101 starts and threw 47% of the team's innings, posting a composite 3.80 ERA. This year, the three have an ERA of 5.72. Only Milton has stayed in the rotation all season; Radke and Mays have made 13 starts between them.
- Cristian Guzman was one of the most exciting players in the game last year, at least in the first half. This year, he's hitting .258/.274/.338, with an unacceptable six walks in 302 at-bats. He's been injured, but there's no injury that's going to limit a player to one walk every two weeks.
Nevertheless, the Twins have been able to make up for the lost production by all of these players, as other homegrown Twins have picked up the slack:
The missing power? Found, thanks to what may be the best outfield in baseball to date. Torii Hunter has been driving the ball to all fields and is slugging .560, with 18 home runs. Hacker Jacque Jones still is a bit shy in the plate-discipline department, but his .502 slugging average would have led the Twins in 2001.
The right fielder by committee has been the big surprise. Dustan Mohr, Bobby Kielty and Brian Buchanan have hit a combined .297/.370/.472 while splitting the playing time, and the better two of the three—Mohr and Kielty—are in line to get most of it going forward.
Last year, the Twins' biggest problems were a lack of power and the back of the rotation. Well as the front three pitchers have struggled and been unavailable, the Twins have gotten some great work from some of the same guys who failed them last year, and forced the ill-fated trade of Matt Lawton—the team's best hitter—for Rick Reed.
Five pitchers—none of them Matt Kinney, who flopped in spring training—were tried in the #5 spot last year (#4 spot, too, after Mark Redman was dealt). No one managed to make a positive contribution, all costing the Twins about a half-win relative to replacement level.
This year, Kinney, Kyle Lohse and, especially, Johan Santana are keeping the Twins in games two days out of five. That's a huge improvement, and a credit to the depth this organization has in young pitchers.
- The Twins' bullpen has been the best in the AL, hands down. Five of the top 20 relievers in baseball this year wear the TC on their cap, and that's with two of last year's prime contributors, Bob Wells and Jack Cressend, getting battered.
You know, my best friend Mike is a Twins fan. We grew up arguing the merits of Don Mattingly vs. Kent Hrbek. I would tell him the 1987 championship was tainted because the Twinkies got by thanks to having the home-field advantage—remember, the 1987 World Series was the first in which the home team won every game—and a freak-show ballpark.
After many years of being irrelevant, the Twins are good again, and I feel pretty happy for Mike. He has a team full of homegrown talent to root for, one that has done what supposedly only the wealthy teams can do: win despite not having everything go their way. Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan deserve a ton of credit for letting the farm products play and picking up free talent like Tony Fiore and Mike Jackson to support the young core.
Can they keep it up? Remember, the Twins could improve in the second half just by getting healthy. The bullpen is likely to return to earth, but if Mays and Radke can pitch, Santana and Lohse will be free to go to the pen and lighten the load on Fiore and J.C. Romero. The Indians aren't going to make a run this year, and the White Sox seem determined to do everything wrong.
The Twins and the Mariners in the Division Series, perhaps playing for the right to take on the A's in the ALCS? That, friends, would be a series worthy of a blue ribbon.