Wednesday, March 28, 2007

America’s Underdog

By Jimmy Rogers

The start of every new season ushers in the inevitable predictions from every prognosticating baseball fan with a crystal ball, or Magic 8 Ball, as is usually the case. This preseason, there seems to be consensus among most talking heads that the AL Central will be the toughest division in baseball from top to bottom, with four solid contenders congesting the competition (sorry Royals, not this year). Due to this apparent strength, many of these same people predict the Twins to finish in the bottom half of the division, not putting much faith in the team that has won 4 of the last 5 division titles.

This exercise in throwing bananas at a dart board amuses me to no end. Granted, it’s great fun to test your prediction powers (mine are waning as this March Madness tourney plays out), but how can we really guess how a 162-game season will play out? I understand the necessity for publications and websites to shake things up and distinguish themselves from the lot as having insider knowledge, but sometimes the results are a little comical.

For instance, Sports Illustrated, in all of their wisdom, considers the Twinkies to be the 17th best (translation: 14th worst) team in the majors, slotting them to finish 4th in the division they won last year. Not that SI is alone on this matter. CBS Sportsline writers have slightly more confidence in the Twins as three of the five writers think the Twins will finish 2nd, while the other two writers foresee 3rd place finishes.

Haven’t baseball people learned anything about this Twins franchise? Why do they continue to undermine the product that Gardenhire and Terry Ryan put on the field? Their division consistency doesn’t carry as much weight as the Yankees, Cardinals or Braves. Every year, a new batch of doubters crops up looking for a reason to knock Minnesota off the mountain. This season figures to be no different. A questionable rotation has cast the largest shadow in the spring training sun, providing everyone with their excuse to write the team off in 2007.

I’ll be the first to admit that starting the year with Ponson, Silva and Ortiz is an enormous risk that strikes little fear on paper. Like it or not, these are the viable options left to a small market team coping with the season-ending injury of their prized rookie and the retirement of their workhorse pitcher. These veteran arms know (or once knew) how to get outs. If they get the job done, Twins fans rejoice while the rest of the league scratches their head. If they don’t pan out, Twins fans can still rejoice as the door opens for the young talent being groomed in the minors. The rotation is clearly no reason to jump off the Twins ship.

At this point, Detroit is the only team with a better rotation. The White Sox and Indians have just as many question marks dotting their staff (with shaky relief situations, as well) as the Twins. And none of these Central foes have the reigning Cy Young winner throwing every 5th day. What is conveniently overlooked is the Twins still have the league’s best bullpen, elite team defense, and an offense that led the majors with a team .287 batting average. And the lineup is just starting to tap their potential.

Sure, maybe Mauer doesn’t win the batting crown again and Morneau doesn’t match his .321, but both are great hitters whose power strokes are developing into a lethal combo. Toss in the progression of players like Bartlett and Cuddyer getting full-time opportunities and the contract year of Hunter as he enjoys his batting prime, and you’ve got a recipe for a very potent lineup. So be as skeptical as you would like, but there’s no gloom in Twinkie Town yet. Let the experts pick away. At the end of the season, don’t be surprised when a familiar occurrence repeats itself: Minnesota Twins – AL Central Champs.

And on that note, can we start the season already?!


spycake said...

The Sporting News has the Twins listed at #4 on their current cover. Unfortunately, we're behind a team in our division (Detroit) and two teams from the AL East (guess who), so I suppose they don't predict a playoff berth.

Jimmy said...

Interesting. In a way, that throws my theory out the door, but at the same time, it confirms a degree of doubt.