The world of baseball is an amazing and interesting place for a person to find themselves swept into. Whenever your love of the game develops, be it at 2, 20, or 40, this game we cherish can provide so much to so many.
For the casual fan it gives us a place to come together with friends; an opportunity to enjoy people playing a game that seems so simple that anyone, even you, could partake. For me, it provides hope that if I were given a uniform, placed in left field, and as long as a ball wasn't hit in my general direction, I could pass for a Major League player for as much as a full inning. No such disguise could be possible on a basketball court or a football field. It's a chance for a father to connect with a son, a place for college kids to share a dog and a beer, a place for older couples to spend an evening together watching the game they love. In 2006 we as fans were spoiled to have watched something even more enjoyable than the game itself -- we had a chance to see it at its finest. We marveled at simple execution at the plate and on the bases, and reveled in brilliant plays in the field. We watched with the unabashed joy of a child as grown men played "for the love of the game." Clutch base hits, timely pitching, career seasons, and brilliant rookies dazzled us and gave us something incredible to remember. The problem with a season like that however, is that there is always a "next season," and it can never live up to the lofty expectations created the year before.
Really, we as fans were doomed long before this season ever finished. Actually, the downward spiral began on the last day of last year's regular season. As the Twins won a hard-fought game against the hated White Sox, 40,000 fans sat for another hour to watch with breath held as the Tigers and Royals battled into extra innings. It was an incredible evening to be a part of... besides winning the game, the numerous chants of, "lets go Royals," that emerged from what is likely one of the tamest fan bases in all of baseball, and left no doubt that the day could hold in store something very special, and indeed it did. As the Royals singled home the winning run a city exploded, cheering on a team that never quit, that always seemed to come through and who, with characters like Mike Redmond, Nick Punto, and Jason Tyner playing significant roles, gave very average people reason to feel very proud. The fans cheered, the team rounded the stadium slapping high-fives reveling like school boys in what even they knew to be a very rare accomplishment. Terry Ryan was brilliant. The man had brought in Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser and Joe Nathan and they were all performing wonderfully. Ron Gardenhire was looking like a genius by moving journeyman Nick Punto to third base, and -- though he was far from prototypical -- his hustle, infield hits, and timely bloopers to left kept getting him on base and driving in runs. Heck, even the Pohlad family and organization had finally won us a new stadium which we could look forward to.
Then came this year and its lofty expectations. With the reigning MVP, Cy Young, Batting Champion, and perennial Gold Glover Torii Hunter all returning, it made most believe that even without rookie phenom Fransisco Liriano, this team could win it all....
Then reality hit. Hard.
It hit in the form of multiple injuries to star catcher Joe Mauer. It tumbled in like Michael Cuddyer rounding second base. It blew in like the breeze carrying yet another one of Justin Morneau's lazy pop-ups into foul territory for yet another easy out. I could go on with the lame similes, but I think you get the point. With pretty boy Mauer either out of the lineup or marginally effective and his promised power nowhere in sight, and with the likes of retreads Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz in the rotation the club stumbled out of the gate. They continued to stumble despite the season-long brilliance of Torii Hunter's bat, the reemergence of Carlos Silva as a capable Major League pitcher, and the long overdue promise of Scott Baker. When our 'little guys' got on base, the big guys struck out. When the middle of the order was racking up hits, they found there was no one rounding third. When Johan or Baker, or Silva, or Garza, or well, almost any of the Twins starters turned in a gem, the offense went to sleep. When the offense decided to pour it on, the pitching staff fell apart. Even our usually lights-out bullpen has faltered more than once.
The collapse hasn't ended on the field of course, things seem to be coming apart everywhere, including the clubhouse and front office. In terms of on-the-field decision making, many fans who once viewed Gardenhire as a possibly flawed but competent manager, now have reason for unabashed hatred with his insistence on playing the impotent Nick Punto, and unwillingness to give regular playing time to guys like Kubel, Buscher, and Casilla who will certainly have to be part of our future for at least the next season or two. Then there is the blame to be handed out to Terry Ryan, who I will forever defend as probably one of the two or three finest General Managers in baseball... possibly in all of sports. That said, in the past two seasons he's taken the extremely limited payroll he's had to work with, and done precisely nothing with it. Perhaps even worse. From the re-signing of Rondell White, to the contracts handed to the likes of Batista, Castro, Rincon, Ortiz and Ponson, amongst others, its starting to look like its been a while since he made a really GREAT move. Then of course there was the Castillo deal, one which was probably forced by ownership to cut payroll in what they saw as a lost season (notice the immediate waiving of Cirillo and trade of Ortiz that followed soon there after) and brought nearly nothing back for someone who was a talented player. Of course, being that few teams other than the Mets were interested, and they could put the screws to Ryan by simply sticking with Ruben Gotay who has been a revival, Ryan was left with little choice but to jettison a quality player.
I said all of that to say this:
While the Twins of 2006 gave us an incredible season, and the Twins of 2007 have invented new ways to lose, the truth of who this team is likely lies somewhere in the middle. While many predict gloom and doom for the offense next year, I think it is likely, almost to the point of mathematical certainty, that they will outscore this years squad by ~30 runs, even without Torii Hunter. This team still has boat-loads of talent, and what's most promising has been the performance of two players who were either irregular contributors, or ineffective at the beginning of this season. I speak of course of Jason Bartlett and Jason Kubel, whom I could make compelling arguments for as the teams 2nd and 3rd best players since June 1st. Both have hit near .300 with some pop, and Kubel in particular has shown a significantly improved eye at the plate, but I guess Mr. Nelson told you all about that yesterday didn't he? Combine that with a serviceable showing from Brian Buscher and rebound years that see the Twins trio of stars Mauer, Morneau, and Cuddyer play closer to their potential, and you have a significantly stronger, significantly more consistent, deeper lineup. If the Twins manage to sign a player like Mike Cameron (who's splits away from the pitchers haven of Petco Field have been pretty solid) to temporarily fill the hole left in center while a viable solution (be it the hated Span, the promising Joe Benson, or the exciting Ben Revere) develops, or another player presents himself then the blow of Hunter leaving will be significantly lessened.
On the other end, a full season of a bullpen that includes Perkins, Reyes, Crain, Guerrier, Neshek and Nathan should be as good or better than this season, when injuries too often forced the team to rely on players like Carmen Cali, Julio DePaula, Ramon Ortiz, etc... Combine that with a rotation that looks to be remarkably strong with Santana, Liriano, Baker, Garza, Slowey, and Bonser (who will likely find a new home in long relief) and you've got the makings of a very strong team. Will it be enough for us to overcome the Indians, and Tigers for a playoff spot? Well, that remains to be seen. But what seems certain to me is that this team is not dead. And that Torii Hunter's leaving will not doom our offense. And that Gardenhire isn't nearly as stupid as his constant playing of Nick Punto has made him look. Or for that matter, that Nick Punto's bat isn't AS BAD as his batting average suggests.
Does this club have weaknesses? Yes. The minor league hitting depth is weak to non-existent. Certain players in the lineup aren't ideal and there are holes that could stand to be filled with higher level players. Gardenhire isn't perfect (though I can't think of WAY worse options) and Bill Smith will almost certainly fail to live up to his predecessor. But in the reality of the world we live in, this is a team that can never fill all those holes the way we'd like. We'll never have an owner who goes George Steinbrenner to win, and stars like Johan, Hunter, Mauer, and Morneau will someday always command a higher salary than we'll be able to spend. But there is another reality, and it includes this team not being nearly as bad as it's seemed this year. It also includes a reality where this team can stay competitive well into the future given savvy trades, intelligent drafting, and sound leadership.
Likely this isn't the article that The Nicks envisioned when they asked me to contribute this week, surely they expected something more... objective. Something that discussed the Twins 14 strikeouts, the fact that they were one-hit through 5 innings by Javier Vazquez, the injury to Baker, the continued hammering of Boof Bonser, or in general what was yet another brutally pathetic performance. But after watching todays debacle, and hearing the complaints voiced by dozens, if not hundreds of the Twins faithful throughout this season, this article seemed appropriate to me. I leave you today with the words of wisdom handed down to me from my father, a Cubs fan: "There's always next year."