It's been a spectacular season up to this point for the Minnesota Twins, and if anything it's shown us that experience and veteran leadership might be a tad overrated. The outstanding performances of young players who have stepped up and gotten the job done begs the following question:
Will the success of the Twins in 2006 finally change the long-standing hesitance of Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire to put trust in their talented organizational youth?
When the Twins parted ways with Juan Castro and Tony Batista in the middle of the season, it appeared to many that the team was ready to concede 2006 in order to audition some young players for 2007 and beyond. They inserted Jason Bartlett at shortstop and planned to institute a Nick Punto/Terry Tiffee platoon at third. Considering that none of these three players had a career batting average exceeding .238 entering this season and Bartlett had been somewhat raw defensively in his rookie season, it looked like it might be a rough transition.
Rather than dragging the team down with their inexperience,however, the presence of these two--along with young pitchers like Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser, Pat Neshek and Matt Garza--has reinvigorated the team and miraculously pushed them back into playoff contention. Bartlett, who had struggled mightily in his first full season in '05, has been phenomenal both offensively and defensively. He's hit .326 while turning in numerous fantastic plays at shortstop. Punto had several years of experience prior to this season, but had never really been a regular starter and had very little experience playing third base. He stomped out any talk of a platoon by hitting .374 in July while providing steady defense at third, utilizing his quick reflexes to snag hot grounders that Batista simply waved at.
And those pitchers? Neshek has come up and given the Twins 32 2/3 innings of dominant baseball, baffling hitters with his unique delivery. Even though he's struggled in a few outings and has had some home run troubles, Neshek holds an impressive 2.48 ERA and has struck out 47 hitters while walking just six. Garza struggled initially, but he's given the Twins some good outings and he's certainly looked better (and been less of a pain in the arse) than Kyle Lohse when he was here. And then there's Bonser. He came up from the minors to make his major league debut in May, then after a while he was sent back down, and now he's back up and pitching quite well. Bonser's numbers (5-5, 4.52 ERA, .272 OBA, 71/22 K:BB) might not jump out as any better than average, but consider these facts: in his brief major league career, he's never given up more than five earned runs in a game and he's never given up double-digits in hits. Bonser has had some bad outings, to be sure, but let's not forget that guys like Silva and Lohse were giving up 7-9 ER in some of their April starts, and Boof is still learning to pitch in the big leagues. Most importantly, Bonser has posted a 2.37 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in three September starts, all Twins victories (and that ERA is inflated a bit by the fact that two earned runs were charged to him when Jesse Crain came in and gave up a three-run homer last week). Bonser is coming up big when the teams needs him most, establishing himself as a reliable starter in the absence of Liriano and Brad Radke.
Now, a rotation that features Bonser and Garza (21 career starts combined) is looking more intimidating than one that features Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina (518 career wins combined). Guys like Bartlett and Liriano, who Ryan refused to trust at the beginning of the season, have carried the team while high-paid veterans like Luis Castillo and Torii Hunter have played decidedly more of a supporting role.
Next year and in the years following, there will be more choices to be made as another influx of young talent nears ML readiness. Will Ryan be ready to name Jason Kubel the starting left fielder at the beginning of the season? Will Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey get a look next spring, or will Ryan seek an overpriced veteran in the off-season to round out the rotation?
However this season ends, I think the Twins' braintrust would be wise to carry away an important lesson from what has taken place and show more willingness to give a chance to young players that look ready to make an impact in the big leagues. If Ryan and Gardy haven't seen it this season, then they simply haven't been paying attention.