Three up, three down: Twins preview
Though it's always good to be regarded as underdogs, this year the Twins aren't even on anybody's radar, really. While most of the attention in the American League has rightly been on the Angels, White Sox and A's--and wrongly been on the Yankees and Red Sox--Minnesota has been scoffed at for a lame off-season of pick ups, if the team has been mentioned at all.
But this team deserves better than that, even though opening in Toronto tonight against what may actually be the best team in the AL isn't likely to change any pundit minds out of the gate.
(The season preview in Sports Illustrated must have been especially painful for Terry Ryan to read; Peter King's piece centered around Luis Castillo's "aching left knee and surgically repaired left hip." "So this is supposed to be the new spark plug of the Twins?" King wondered.)
But the Twins may ultimately surprise, as Murray Chass of the New York Times pointed out on Sunday, becoming the only person on planet Earth to give the Twins a shot at winning the AL Central: "Forget the White Sox," Chass wrote. "They are last year's news. They will be lucky to make it out of the division."
Strong words to be sure, but Chass then goes on to quote Mark Shapiro, general manager of the Indians, of all people: "The most overlooked team in the majors is Minnesota."
Well, we'll see. "It's a long season" is a cliche for a reason. Even so, here are three early signs to look for in tonight's game.
1) Santana's fastball. That is, is he throwing it? Nobody disputes Johan's talent, and he is widely viewed as the best lefty in baseball. Still, Santana has a tendency to get too cute out of the gate, relying far too much on his devastating change-up in early innings. He especially seems to do this early in the season, and when he got in trouble last year, it was because he wasn't attacking hitters with his fastball.
Perhaps he's keeping something in reserve, but Santana needs to remember that his change-up is only devastating if it comes on the heels of one of his nasty little pills. The coaching staff, apparently, has noticed this in spring training, and has been leaning on Santanta to bring the heat already.
2) Hunter's leadership. It was quite a roller coaster for the face of the franchise last year: Coming out to USA Today with terrible tales of his drug-addled father's life, showing early leadership through aggressive base-running and his usual defensive prowess, and watching his season crumble due to a broken ankle before taking all his frustration out on poor little Justin Morneau.
In this space last summer, I made a case that Torii should be given a spot on the All-Star team, just because he seemed like he matured enough to be in that stable of elite players, sort of like Kevin Garnett has in the NBA. But the truth of the matter is that Hunter's production hasn't backed up that notion--injury or no--and this year he's got to walk the walk. A bad sign has already arisen this year, with Hunter in full-whine mode, bitching about the players who went to play in the WBC, then lamenting outloud (again) that he won't be here next season, a la Dougie Baseball.
But it's time for Hunter to put up and shut up. No less an authority than Jack Morris has said that this is the year that Hunter needs to show that he's a "true leader," and Morris specifically talked about a return to the 25-home run, 100-RBI form.
3) Left side of the infield. The worst-kept secret coming out of spring training is that Tony Batista is essentially a turtle at third base. The Twins are banking that his erratic power at the plate will make up for his significant shortcomings in the field. But here's something else to consider: If Batista doesn't produce at the plate, he's essentially costing the Twins two bats. The reason? Juan Castro and/or Nick Punto were given the nod over Jason Bartlett at short, mostly because it's believed they can cover the ground that Batista can't.
As much as I like Castro's mitt and Punto's grit, I have a hard time believing either is worth more in the lineup than Bartlett. Bartlett is a pure swinger, and has put on what appears to be 10 pounds of upper-body strength in the off-season. The coaching staff thinks he's a liability in the field, but I don't think it's any problem that a little playing time can't fix. To me, Bartlett has the potential to be a mini-Jeter--but we won't see that tonight. If the Blue Jays start slapping Santana around early, see how much Castro or Punto's gloves--and Batista's bat--really mean to the Twins.
And, hey, it's not a great day, but it's a good day, because it's Opening Day. Comments and impressions after the game are welcomed.