Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Bonus Material: Who Are These Guys?

Note: I have been having some computer problems tonight and don't have time to formulate a proper entry. I'm going to the game tonight (hopefully) so that will make for an interesting column tomorrow I hope. In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy the following, scheduled to appear in the April 22 issue of the St. Olaf school newspaper "The Manitou Messenger". I had to dumb down the content a bit to appeal to a wider audience, but I still think its a pretty good summary of the Twins season thus far.

Quick, name the Twins’ top performers so far this season. Torii Hunter? Not exactly. Corey Koskie? Not even close. Johan Santana? I wish.

The surprises keep don’t stop there. The Twins are only 13 games into this young season (through Monday) yet they’ve already had five key players land on the disabled list, including one-third of their entire starting lineup. And here’s perhaps the biggest surprise of them all: the Twins are still remain tied for first place in the American L Central, and they wouldn’t be there without major contributions from such household names as Henry Blanco, Jose Offerman, Lew Ford, Joe Roa, and Aaron Fultz.

I know what you’re thinking: didn’t Jose Offerman retire like, four years ago? Since when do the Twins have Henry Blanco? Who are the other three guys? Who the heck are ANY of these guys?

“These guys” are the glue holding together a team that is only a shadow of its former (2003) self, one decimated by free agency, trades, and injuries. Tightfisted owner Carl Pohlad wouldn’t pony up the dough this winter to re-sign relief pitchers LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski was traded to save money and make way for “├╝ber-prospect” Joe Mauer. Pitcher Eric Milton was also traded for monetary reasons.

The Twins recovered and thought they had adequately filled those holes going into spring training, but then the injury bug decided to bite- and boy, what a bite it took. Fifth starter Rick Helling broke his leg in early March. Reliever Grant Balfour injured his shoulder a week before the season started. Then the carnage turned brutal: catchers Mauer and Matthew LeCroy took the fall in the season’s third and fourth games respectively, and All-Star centerfielder Torii Hunter was injured only a couple days later. The Twins were just entering a relatively easy part of their schedule and could ill afford to fall too far behind in the standings.

As it turns out, Twins fans had nothing to worry about. Blanco, a 32 year-old backup catcher with a career .219 batting average, has looked like the second coming of Johnny Bench by hitting .344 with 3 homeruns and 10 RBI in Mauer’s absence. Offerman has shown a knack for coming through in the clutch and is hitting over .300. “Sweet” Lew Ford (recently called up from AAA) has been absolutely lights-out as Hunter’s replacement, hitting .407 with 2 homers and 8 RBI in his first eight games. Journeymen relievers Fultz and Roa have pitched a combined 15 innings and allowed only 3 runs. Whoever said “help comes from the most unlikely of sources” sure wasn’t kidding!

Meanwhile, the old standbys Doug Mientkiewicz, Shannon Stewart, Brad Radke, and Jacque Jones have also been playing well of late. Set-up man J.C. Romero looks to have successfully rebounded from a sub par 2003 season and has returned to the form that made him one of the game’s top relievers in 2002. Although the starting pitchers have struggled somewhat thus far, the Twins are currently the best hitting team in the American League. This is an offense that has the potential to score a lot of runs this season, enough to make up for any possible shortcomings on the mound.

The Twins may have won the last two AL Central titles, but is 2004 shaping up to be a dogfight to the bitter end. Each of the Twins’ opponents has their own obvious strengths and weaknesses. The Chicago White Sox have always had plenty of talent, but have never been able to put it all together and usurp the Twins. The Kansas City Royals, this year’s trendy pick to win the division, have a potent offense but serious question marks in their pitching staff. The Cleveland Indians have some good young players, but are still at least a year away from contention. The Detroit Tigers made some key free agent acquisitions over the winter in a desperate attempt to improve on last year’s 119-loss season, but they are still woefully lacking pitching depth. The Twins, despite their losses, have an excellent chance to make it three in a row.

Slowly but surely, the Twins are even getting healthy again. Hunter returns this week, and LeCroy soon after (Mauer had minor knee surgery and will require about two more weeks of rehab). In the meantime, our “super-subs” are playing well beyond expectations and keeping the team right were it belongs: at the top of the standings. Personally, I don’t care if these “no-names” are supposed to be good or not. In sports, it all comes down to winning. As long as you win, it doesn’t matter what your name is.

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