Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Sad End to a Spectacular Ride

People will be compelled to focus on the negatives here in the aftermath of the Twins' 2008 season. And that's understandable. Just two wins at home against the Royals in the final series of the regular season and they'd currently be gearing up for the postseason. Just one less blown lead from the bullpen during the summer months and they'd be on their way to Tampa Bay to take on the Rays. Just two runs against John Danks on Monday night and they'd have vanquished their hated AL Central foes. The Twins came so close, but came up just short. It's tough to take as a fan.

But certainly, it's not as tough to take as the 2007 season, where the team had given up hope on a playoff berth around the All-Star break, and made that clear by making salary-dump moves around the trade deadline. Nor is it as tough to take as the 2005 season, where the team's miserable offense robbed them of any chance at being legitimate contenders in the division, and also robbed Johan Santana of a Cy Young Award he so clearly deserved.

In spite of its deflating finish, this 2008 season was an incredible one. The Twins carried roundly low expectations, having entered the season with a rotation filled with inexperienced pitchers that lacked legitimate big-league experience and a patchwork offense that would seemingly need some time to gel. They exceeded all of those expectations by hanging near the top of the division for the entire year, and ultimately forcing the first one-game playoff in franchise history. And while they came up on the short end of that contest, they played hard and gave their fans something to be proud of. Nick Blackburn, who has struggled on the road and against the Sox this year, gave a valiant effort, taking a shutout into the seventh inning before making one mistake to Jim Thome that ended up deciding the game. Michael Cuddyer, playing on a bad ankle, charged home on a fly ball to short center and railed A.J. Pierzynski when Ken Griffey Jr.'s throw beat him to the plate. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau both failed to reach base in the game -- the first time all year that has happened -- but considering all they had done all year to get the Twins to that 163rd game, it's difficult to harbor resentment.

The playoffs are a lot of fun, and it's unfortunate that we fans won't be able to cheer our favorite team on during these dramatic weeks. But this season presented plenty of excitement for fans. Blackburn's impressive rookie campaign has quickly turned him from a middling prospect into a legitimate big-league starter and a building block for this rotation down the line. Francisco Liriano's strong performance down the stretch after returning to the minors in August gives hope that he can return somewhere close to the level he reached back in 2006 and be an ace for this club. Justin Morneau delivered tons of huge hits, carried the team through rough stretches, won the Home Run Derby and scored the winning run in the All-Star game. Joe Mauer won another batting title. Denard Span put together a brilliant campaign and cemented himself in the team's plans going forward.

There are a lot of negatives clouding our vision right now in the wake of a hugely disappointing final five days of this 2008 season. But once those dark clouds start to dissipate, the light will shine on what was an excellent overall year and on the promise that lies ahead. These five young starters all finish the year healthy and will all be relatively inexpensive for years to come. The bullpen, cause of so much frustration during the summer months, finished strong and shows beams of light in the form of Jose Mijares and in the potential return of Pat Neshek. Delmon Young, Carlos Gomez and Michael Cuddyer -- among others -- can only be expected to improve upon what were decidedly disappointing offensive seasons. And this team enters the offseason considerably under budget. A solid core is in place, and Bill Smith has the means to build around that core and put an even better team back on the field in 2009.

When previewing the American League back in March, I predicted that the Twins would finish third in the Central, and summed up my capsule on the team by stating, "The Twins can compete if a number of things go right, but realistically this is probably about a .500 team." Over the course of the season, a number of things did go right. But in the end, a few too many things went wrong. Right now, that stings. Eventually, it'll be easier to look on the bright side.