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Ordinarily, sports fans can appreciate the Stanley Cup Playoff finals as the final pulsing of winter, and then turn full attention to Major League baseball, which is two months into its season. But not this year, at least in Minnesota.
The close battles to advance to the finals, which will commence firing next week, have enthralled those who watched the inner-conference battles. There has been some great hockey, with San Jose fighting the St. Louis Blues for the West title, while Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh matched skill and speed in the East.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, hopes are high for the Wild next season, with the hiring of Bruce Boudreau as the new coach. The question is whether the anticipation for the Wild can last until football starts, because the Minnesota Twins have shown precious little indication that they intend to offer anything in the way of competitive entertainment.
If you’ve been too uninterested to pay attention, the most exciting thing the Twin Cities media has been able to come up with regarding the Twins is whether they should tear up the entire team and bring up rookies from the minors, or whether we can hope against futile hope that something might still happen with these lads.
Frankly, there is no easy answer. When you look at the top 10 things that were supposed to lead the Twins to contention this year, they are frighteningly similar to the top 10 flops of the season. And that’s just so far, not even to the end of May. And it comes from yours truly, who is one of the stalwart glass-half-full observers willing to wait and see when it comes to trading players or firing coaches or managers.
Here are mine:
1. Joe Mauer’s return to form, proving that last year was an aberration and that he can, indeed, get back to hitting somewhere north of .325.
2. The emergence of Brian Dozier, who convinced many he was an elite second baseman during the first half of last year and conveniently overlooking an incredible post-all-star-game downfall. We know the diving, playmaking fielder and the solid run-producing hitter of the first half would make it go for the full season this year.
3. A full season from Miguel Sano, who thrilled fans with some colossal home runs last season -- sending baseballs out of parks at such a rate that we all were willing to overlook that Sano struck out over 100 times last season despite only playing half the year with the Twins. It was easy to project Sano would cut down on the strikeouts and propel his long-ball shots with greater frequency. I even heard somebody suggest that he could lead the American League in home runs!
4. The addition of Korean star slgger Byung Ho Park, who could be the perfect designated hitter if he could adapt his swing and his blasts from Korean to the U.S. game. We were convinced he would, because he came in as a veteran ready to rise to worldwide prominence.
5. A starting pitching staff that was patched up for last season but was woefully inconsistent would certainly add rhythm and consistency this season, and the top four even looked so promising that the team could take a chance on young Ricky Nolasco as the No. 5 starter. A full year out of Ervin Santana would surely lift Hughes, Gibson, and the whole staff to success.
6. A truly great outfield, measured on potential, would become a highlight for the Twins this season, especially with the lightning-quick Brian Buxton in center, and several quick, young guns along with him. Eddie Rosario, for example, was deadly accurate with his powerful throws from all three outfield positions. There was even room for a surprising maneuver to put Sano, a career third baseman, in right field. With all the rest of their assets, the Twins could easily put up with a few defensive shortcomings while Sano learned the position.
7. The relief corps was learning and developing last season, so Trevor May and a half-dozen others could easily hold the score until the 1-2 closer punch of Perkins and Jepsen could finish. Their competition should make both better, in fact.
8. Defensively, the outfield would be set and the infield would rise to elite status, with Trevor Plouffe at third, Dozier at second and Mauer at first providing the veteran corps of the whole team, and whichever young shortstop won the job would fit right in.
9. Despite last season’s travails, the camaraderie seemed outstanding, with the players all taking part in post-game dancing antics, complete with loud music and even a smoke-producing maching in the dressing room. How could that be anything but inspiring this season?
10. Manager Paul Molitor is every Minnesota baseball fan’s perfect skipper. Young, a great player who has a quiet demeanor to draw on as he brings his young crop of players into a cohesive, competiting outfit.
Then, in one of the cruelest letdowns in baseball history, here is this year’s reality:
1. Mauer hit so well the first month that we all were certain he’d take a run at the American League batting title, and it obscured how poorly the rest of the team hit. But the losses told all. And Mauer, switched from third to second to cleanup and to leadoff in Molitor’s desperate attempt to stop his slide, dropped, and dropped, and dropped. Down to .300, then below .300, and finally down to .260. Incredibly, he went something like 3-for-30 as a leadoff man before finally being moved.
2. Dozier started off playing like the dismal second half of last season. He flirted with getting it together a couple of times, but kept slipping, finally going down to .199 this week to earn a spot on the bench to think things through.
3. Sano looks out of place in right field, and he looks like the 200-strikeout guy more than a 30-homer threat at the plate. Sano impressed foes last season, but now they seem to realize that if you throw him a high fast ball or a hanging curve, he can hit it mighty distances; but if you pitch him anywhere else, he will very likely swing and miss. On Tuesday, Sano was hitting .230.
4. Park? Same explanation. Hits pitching mistakes out of sight, but doesn’t hit well-place pitches at all. His average was .220 as DH and occasional first baseman.
5. The starting pitching has been something of a cruel joke. Nolasco, No. 5, was the best of the lot in the first month, then he started trying to pitch too cute for his own good and dropped into the abyss. As of Tuesday, the Twins had a starting rotation in which nobody had more than one victory. Young prospects, like Duffey, have shown hope.
6. Sano, an experiment, was the only outfielder from spring training to play consistently. Buxton, the future superstar, was hitting so poorly that his fielding gems were quickly forgotten, and he was sent to the farm club. Rosario, for some unknown reason, can’t throw this year, for accuracy or outs, and his mental lapses while running the bases rivaled Sano.
7. As for the relief staff, Perkins couldn’t find his velocity but did locate a shoulder injury and is out. Jepsen inherited the closer role but has a 5.19 earned run average. Not good, when you only pitch one inning per appearance. May has some very good stretches, but also has a tendency to come out of the bullpen and immediately allow opponents to widen their lead. Nmes like Abad, KIintzler, Tonkin, Dean and Pressly have given hope, but not when the starters and closer are not doing their jobs.
8. The infield is not close to airtight defensively, and the three veterans are hardly hitting effectively, with Mauer at .260, Plouffe at .245 and Dozier at .199. Eduardo Nunez has been a bright light, although not mentioned in spring training. He is hitting .320 and consistently hitting the ball well and making the plays at shortstop. Suzuki is only at .220, but all of these guys have to realize that some of them should hit effectively, rather than protraying the kind of good-field-no-hit fill-in that a good team can carry.
9. Torii Hunter retired, and everybody points to his departure as the end of the Twins spirit and resilience last year. More likely, they just need a few sparks for some success, and a little success can build camaraderie in a hurry.
10. Molitor as manager is coming in for his share of criticism as well. He can try, but he can’t hit or run the bases or hit the cutoff men for his players, and his exasperation seems to be showing, even though he retains his quiet attitude. There is no need to change managers, although the team that has the worst record in the Major Leagues might become impatient enough to contribute to the team’s penchant for mistakes this season.