- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

MINNEAPOLIS Baseball tried to get rid of the Minnesota Twins this winter, so naturally they're as anxious as anyone for the season to start.
But while commissioner Bud Selig's contraction plan got them stirred up, the Twins are more motivated by the way they ended last year.
After eight straight losing seasons, Minnesota led the AL Central last year for more than four months before faltering down the stretch and finishing second behind Cleveland.
"We have something to prove, and it's not because of contraction," said new manager Ron Gardenhire, who replaced the retired Tom Kelly in January.
"We're not satisfied with second place," Gardenhire said. "There were people who doubted we belonged there. These players are on a mission to prove they can play, that last year wasn't a fluke."
The small-market Twins have long been handcuffed by low revenue, but this time general manager Terry Ryan couldn't add any free agents because nobody was certain Minnesota would still be a team in 2002.
By the time several court decisions forced Selig to officially back off, spring training was a week away. But the Twins don't think that hurt them much.
"If we were going to have an awkward winter," Ryan said, "this was the winter to have it because we don't have many holes."
Gardenhire's relaxed approach is refreshing to many of the younger players who had a hard time pleasing Kelly, but the team's personality won't change much.
The Twins' priorities are still these: good pitching, emphasizing contact over power at the plate and playing sound, if not dazzling, defense.
"We don't have guys in this locker room who are going to hit us 30 or 40 homers," said veteran utility man Denny Hocking. "We have to put an emphasis more on the fundamentals of the game, running all over the place, giving teams 27 outs instead of 28 or 30."
First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, second baseman Luis Rivas, shortstop Cristian Guzman and third baseman Corey Koskie developed into one of the game's best defensive infields last year. Mientkiewicz and center fielder Torii Hunter each won Gold Gloves.
Several strides were made at the plate, too Guzman, Hunter, Koskie, Mientkiewicz and catcher A.J. Pierzynski all had career seasons, and Rivas emerged in the second half of his rookie year.
"A major league player should be able to do everything," Koskie said. "Play defense and hit a little bit. We are just starting to come into our own as hitters."
The Twins, who haven't had a 30-home run hitter since their first World Series team in 1987, still appear short on power. But they're not concerned.
"You've got to learn to hit first," Gardenhire said. "What kind of good is it going to do a David Ortiz if he comes up here and swings for the fences and hits .250 and gets sent back down to the minor leagues?"
Ortiz, the designated hitter, could be ready for a breakout year. After missing more than two months with a broken wrist last year, he led the team in batting this spring.
Left fielder Jacque Jones is also poised for a better season. He fell out of Kelly's favor with his free-swinging style, but Gardenhire made it one of his first orders of business to pencil Jones in as the everyday leadoff man.
"I always thought I deserved to play," Jones said. "Now I don't have to look over my shoulder."
The key to the Twins' success is health, though. There's not much depth.
The Twins' nasty post-All-Star break slump they went 30-45 in the second half coincided with Guzman's monthlong absence because of an inflamed shoulder.
"We lost a lot of life we had in our bodies," Gardenhire said. "He's an igniter. We were in most of the games at that stretch, but we just couldn't come up with the big hits."
Starting pitching is what really makes the Twins a contender. Brad Radke and Eric Milton have been a solid top two for three years now, Joe Mays is coming off a 17-win season and Rick Reed should benefit from a full season in the AL after his midseason acquisition from the New York Mets last year.
The bullpen might pose problems, though.
Eddie Guardado put LaTroy Hawkins out of his ninth-inning misery last year and will be the closer. But removing "Everyday Eddie" from his setup role leaves the Twins thin on reliable middle relief.
Veteran righty Mike Jackson, signed to a minor league contract, will try to bridge the gap between the starters and Guardado, along with right-hander Bob Wells, lefty J.C. Romero and righties Jack Cressend and Hawkins.
Guardado isn't worried about the bullpen.
"Just because we ran into a little trouble last year, that means it's our weakness?" Guardado said. "We're going to come back this year and prove we can pitch."
Duplicating last year's success will be just as much of a challenge.
"We're not going to ambush anyone this year," Ryan said. "The expectation is much higher."


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