MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins are off to another slow start, which cannot be good news to the rest of the American League. They are two games under .500, and they are having some trouble reassembling the pieces of last year's world championship team, so it's probably a good time to check for your wallet.
Just ask the first-place Oakland Athletics, who were mugged during the weekend at the Metrodome.
The small-market Twins are not supposed to be able to compete -- not in the tough AL West, and not in baseball's hostile economic environment -- but they went from last to first a year ago, and they continue to act decisively in their attempt to return to the World Series.
The 8-10 record they will carry into the opener of a three-game series with the Orioles tonight might not be impressive, but it is far too early to draw any conclusions about the Twins and their prospects for a successful title defense.
Those prospects appeared to diminish significantly when Series MVP Jack Morris took the money and ran to Toronto. The outlook deteriorated further when first baseman Kent Hrbek dislocated his left shoulder in spring training. This easily could have turned into a rebuilding year but for a couple of important moves that have solidified the pitching staff and kept the club competitive.
General manager Andy MacPhail, who gambled so successfully on aging Morris and unpredictable Chili Davis a year ago, signed free-agent pitcher Bill Krueger in January and pulled off the surprising deal for 20-game winner John Smiley during spring training.
The Smiley trade was another coup for MacPhail, who has found a way to collect trophies even as he bemoans the economic forces that work against teams in lesser media markets. It was the kind of deal that builds confidence in the clubhouse and tells fans the club is committed to continued success.
"We've been able to do that because of the work of a lot of good people," MacPhail said. "We've created a farm system that has developed some players who are attractive to other clubs. That [the trade] wasn't because I'm so smart. It was possible %J because people in scouting and minor-league development did their jobs. It's not a question of being smart."
It is, however, a question of being decisive. Morris wasn't the first player the Twins lost to free agency. They lost relief stopper Jeff Reardon after the 1989 season. They lost third baseman Gary Gaetti after the 1990 season. They lost Morris and let go of outfielder Dan Gladden this past winter.
In each case, they have come up with a suitable replacement, either by trade or by going back to a free-agent market they are not entirely equipped to compete in. In this case, the Twins took advantage of the financial concerns of another small-market team, picking up Smiley when the Pittsburgh Pirates were desperate to reduce their payroll.
"That was a team that, in all likelihood, was motivated by financial considerations," MacPhail said. "Ted [Simmons, Pirates general manager] had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do. He did his research and focused on the two or three teams that he could make that kind of deal with. The reason we were able to make the flip-flop was because we let a player go in Morris, which created a void and freed up some money."
Smiley might be another one-year wonder. He is eligible for free agency at the end of the season and figures to price himself out of the Minnesota market if he has a decent season -- especially with the Twins' Kirby Puckett also eligible for free agency -- but MacPhail has no second thoughts about renting Smiley for two promising young players.
"We were motivated by three different things," MacPhail said. "The overall dynamics of the game. The fact that we won last year, and we're in a position to win again. The dynamics of the game are such that we may be prevented from competing in the future, so you've got to make hay while the sun shines."
That attitude is appreciated in the clubhouse, where seldom is heard a discouraging word about the front office. The Twins might not be the richest club in baseball, but the players seem convinced that the organization will do whatever is within its power to field a competitive team.
"I think it boosted confidence in spring training when we got him," said Davis, who played a starring role in last year's surprising turnaround, of Smiley. "But I felt comfortable going into spring training without Morris, because we got Krueger. I realize he's not a Morris, but he's the same kind of pitcher. I really felt he could help us, and it has worked out that way so far."
Krueger, who will face Orioles right-hander Rick Sutcliffe tonight, has pitched very well in his three starts in a Twins uniform. He is 3-0 with an 0.75 ERA and has averaged eight innings. Rookie right-hander Pat Mahomes also has been a pleasant surprise. He improved his record to 2-0 yesterday with a five-inning performance in which he struck out 10.