Managing money, ready to cash in

Twins: Trying to compete with the sport's most lavish spenders, prudent Minnesota has allocated its resources carefully to keep its core intact and its World Series aspirations in focus.

American League Focus

April 03, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Step away from baseball reality for a moment.

Forget what you know about the sport. Abandon logic.

Instead, envision the baseball impossible: Neither the New York Yankees nor the Boston Red Sox make the 2005 playoffs. Neither one represents the American League in the World Series.

Assume the two superpowers take their bats, their balls and their combined $335 million payrolls and go home. Maybe their aging rotations break down or their multitude of millionaires clashes in the clubhouse or key injuries ravage their offenses.

Whatever the case, eliminate the Yankees and Red Sox from contention.

What happens then? Any number of upstart teams, such as the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and the Orioles, could make noise if they get solid starting pitching.

More likely, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim take their pretentious new name and waltz into the World Series. The Angels are, in fact, the only other team besides the Big Two to win the American League in the past seven seasons. They have the reigning league Most Valuable Player in Vladimir Guerrero and an estimated Opening Day payroll of $93 million, among the top four in the AL.

But there's another squad lurking in the shadows, one that could challenge anyone, including the Red Sox and Yankees: the Minnesota Twins.

"They are good," said Boston manager Terry Francona, whose team, like the Twins, holds spring training in Fort Myers. "They've always made very good moves. They have a great minor league system."

Are they good enough to make it to the World Series for the first time since 1991? "I, for sure, think so," said Minnesota third baseman Michael Cuddyer. "I thought we had a real good chance last year going into the playoffs. A couple of breaks didn't go our way, things didn't work out and the Yankees obviously ended up beating us.

"But we've got the American League-leading pitching staff back, and locked up for a couple years, so everybody is pretty secure."

It doesn't hurt that the Twins are perhaps the best talent developers in baseball. Eight of their nine everyday starters have never played on any other major league team.

"You have to do that when you don't have the budget that some of the teams have," said Twins designated hitter Lew Ford. "You have to develop your young players, and the Twins are the model for it, developing their own guys and getting them the chance in the major leagues."

This offseason, the Twins stepped a bit out of character and spent some cash. Although they allowed former starting third baseman Corey Koskie and shortstop Cristian Guzman to leave as free agents, management held on to two key components.

In December, Minnesota kept No. 2 starter and career Twin Brad Radke (11-8, 3.48 ERA in 2004) with a two-year, $18 million contract. Then, in February, they signed ace left-hander and 2004 Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana (20-6, 2.61 ERA) to a four-year, $40 million deal.

"We dished out a lot of money, for this ballclub anyway," said Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire. "We don't do that very often, but that was for [two] of our guys. To say we'd do it for somebody else, it won't happen."

Even with the signings, the Twins' 2005 payroll is expected to be $58 million - in baseball's bottom half. Yet Minnesota has won three straight AL Central crowns and is considered the favorite for a fourth.

"There are times that I'm like, `Boy, it would be nice to go get this guy, go get that guy, how would he fit in this lineup?'" Gardenhire said. "But you know what? That is not reality."

Much of the credit for the Twins' success must go to team vice president-general manager Terry Ryan, who has supervised outstanding drafts and traded for players such as Santana, Ford, closer Joe Nathan, No. 3 starter Carlos Silva and outfielder Shannon Stewart.

"He's probably as good as it gets," Gardenhire said of Ryan. "He's pretty detailed about the way he thinks things should be run, and he is right in the middle of it, too."

Minnesota lost 84 or more games and finished fourth or last in Ryan's first six seasons as general manager. The Twins placed second in the division in 2001, but still were mentioned as a potential candidate to be contracted by commissioner Bud Selig the subsequent offseason. In 2002, the team rallied to win the AL Central, and it hasn't stumbled since.

This season, Cuddyer, 26, takes over for Koskie at third base and rookie Jason Bartlett, 25, likely will replace Guzman at short. The Twins' outfield could be the most complete in baseball with Stewart, Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones.

Catcher Joe Mauer, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 amateur draft, was slowed by injuries his rookie year. But Mauer, 21, is expected to bat third this season, a spot ahead of 23-year-old first baseman Justin Morneau, who hit 41 homers between Triple-A and the majors in 2004.

Despite the impressive mix of youth and experience, however, the Twins aren't often mentioned as a serious competitor for New York or Boston.

And that's fine with Gardenhire and his players. Let the Red Sox and Yankees garner the attention. The Twins figure they'll grab the headlines when it counts.

"We don't look at it as David versus Goliath or anything like that," Gardenhire said. "We've always looked at it like when we are on the field they don't have their billfolds in their pockets and neither do we. So it's not about the money thing.

"It is all about who does the best on the field."

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