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Those who know like Minnesota


Special to ESPN.com

March 23

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- They still won more games than any American League team except the A's, Yankees and Angels, and left for spring training without official notification of their existence. Other than, arguably, Jacques Jones, not one everyday player had an unexpected season and three-fifths of their starting rotation spent time on the disabled list.

So when voices carry across the Sonoran Desert that a couple of White Sox players have disparaged them, the Minnesota Twins pay them little mind.

"What's with that?" Torii Hunter asked.

"No one who respects and knows the game has anything but the utmost respect for the Twins, their talent and the way they play the game," said Indians GM Mark Shapiro. "They play the game right, every day, and their talent level right now is pretty scary."

Indeed, in a league where Oakland has won 205 games the last two years and the Yankees -- whose two best pitchers this spring look like Jose Contreras and Jeff Weaver -- hover over everyone, the feeling right now is that Minnesota could easily end up the winningest team in the American League.

"They're good," said Phillies manager Larry Bowa, "really good because they can do everything well. And they run every ball out as hard as they can."

It begins every morning in spring training, when Tom Kelly comes out with Ron Gardenhire and runs drills of minute and precision detail that every player who puts on a Twins uniform is expected to perform with peak concentration. One day last week, Kelly walked out of the clubhouse scowling, saying "I'm on a mission."

"T.K. didn't like the way some things were done yesterday," said Gardenhire. "There will be hell to pay today. But that's the way it's been done here for years."

The ownership, ballpark and market issues are as alive as they were when baseball owners voted to shock the business by eradicating the then-41-year-old franchise. "We still speculate on what players will be non-tendered at the end of the season, beginning with me," said Doug Mientkiewicz.

But after general manager Terry Ryan signed their best player, Hunter, as well as Jones to long-term contracts, there is none of the drifting hopelessness that accompanies the Expos.

"We've got a pretty good team here," said Hunter. "And we have a ways to go because we can be a lot better."

Don't they look back on beating Oakland in the Division Series and just making it to the ALCS against Anaheim as a remarkable accomplishment?

"What we look back on is how we blew it," said Mientkiewicz. "We should have won Game 2. If we had just swung the bats in that game, we could have gotten the series back to the Metrodome for (games) six and seven and won. That's what we should have done. That's what a lot of us came to spring training thinking about."

"What people underestimate is how much talent the Twins have," Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "Terry Ryan has done it the old-fashioned way, and he's built up a lot of good players. Good luck to them. He's a great guy, a great baseball guy, and they're the team everyone wants to be like."

A universally held thought.

What was surprising last season was that Minnesota won 94 games and made it past Oakland when its starting pitching was out of kilter most of the season. Joe Mays, who was one of the five best pitchers in the league in 2001, pulled a groin muscle and won five games. Brad Radke went on the DL. So did Eric Milton. "I think we go into this season in better shape," said Gardenhire, who incidentally emerged as a superb, respected manager in his debut.

Granted, Milton is probably out for the season after another knee operation. Ryan was able to scoop up 13-game winner Kenny Rogers, who was left on the market because agent Scott Boras convinced him to turn down a two-year, $10.5 million offer from the Rangers. Boras was promising Rogers there were bound to be offers for four years and $40 million; meanwhile, teams in need of pitching like the Red Sox and White Sox wouldn't go beyond $2 million per.

"We got lucky in this case," said Ryan, who is paying Rogers with the insurance money the club collects on Milton.

Not that Milton won't someday fulfill his promise, but the fact remains that he has a 4.82 career ERA. Rogers, on the other hand, throws strikes, will pitch to Minnesota's defense, is a fifth infielder as one of the game's premier fielding pitchers, stops the running game (one attempt to steal a base on him all of last season) and wins. "Rogers," said Gardenhire, "was a perfect fit here."

Radke has had a great spring. So has Mays. Rick Reed is an innings guy. And scouts who have been in this area believe Kyle Lohse will challenge Mays as the team's winningest pitcher.

Then there is the bullpen, which may be the best in the league. "When Milton went down a lot of people wondered why we didn't put Johan Santana in the rotation and forget about Rogers," Gardenhire said. "Santana himself was pretty disappointed. But while he's going to be a great starter in time, we need him more in the bullpen. The way we're set up, JoJo in the pen gives us the best team."

This bullpen is a unique setup. "Everyday" Eddie Guardado saved 45 games as the closer, but in many ways he is not the most important figure. Guardado did not come into a game with a runner on base all season.

Think about that.

In fact, only once did E.E. not start the ninth; once Gardenhire let LaTroy Hawkins get the first out in a one-run game, then went to E.E., and Bernie Williams promptly homered to tie it up.

Guardado starts innings, throws strikes and survives -- without fear. But J.C. Romero, Hawkins and Santana blow people away in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, with help from the different look of Tony Fiore. Romero would be top gun most anywhere else, Hawkins touches the high 90s, and because each gets lefties and righties out, Gardenhire has control of most games in the late innings.

One of the reasons the Twins could win 100 games is because they play in the league's weakest division. Minnesota faces the Royals and Tigers -- who, granted have very good young pitching, but are short on talent -- 38 times.

"What they don't do is beat themselves," said Red Sox manager Grady Little. "The Twins make other teams beat themselves because they play such good defense, and when they're home they kill you on the turf."

The infield has exceptional range. Then there's Hunter; Jones, who could play center; and whoever is in right plays the lines, which leads to a lot of balls being caught in foul territory. This clears the alley for Hunter, the American League's Andruw Jones. "I lose about 15 pounds every year running side to side," said Hunter. "But it sure is fun."

Cory Koskie was hurt most of last year, and Cristian Guzman and Mientkiewicz had subpar years. But right field defines this organization: Mike Cuddyer is a potential star bat, Dustan Mohr is a winner and Bobby Kielty's OPS was .894. Then, right behind them in the minors, is Mike Restovich and Lew Ford, two outfielders who in past years would have gone north to the BaggyDome. And as Matt LeCroy replaces David Ortiz as DH, Todd Sears has hit this spring like the second coming of Kent Hrbek, knowing right behind him is 24-year-old Justin Morneau -- who may be one of the best young hitters in the game.

Which brings the Twins to Joe Mauer. The first pick in the 2001 draft, in lieu of Prior, won't turn 20 until April 19. But to say that he has been the talk of the Grapefruit League is no exaggeration. Six scouts at a lunchroom table agreed that he is the best catching prospect in 20 years. Veteran pitchers rave that he may be the best catcher to whom they've ever thrown. Mauer has incredibly soft hands, gives pitchers a relaxed target, has Pudge-like feet and a rocket arm, and can flat rake.

"He's so good we can't send him out because we want him catching big league pitchers," said Garndenhire. While Mauer will open the season in the Florida State League, if something were to happen to A.J. Pierzynski in the second half, Mauer may well be the Twins' catcher.

One day Mauer went in as a sixth-inning replacement and got called out on a third strike. "Was that out of the strike zone?" Garndenhire asked Mauer. "Yeah," replied the kid, "but I had two pitches to hit. I should have hit them."

"Players and people like Joe Mauer," said Gardenhire, "don't come along too often."

"There's a reason we drafted him No. 1 other than money or our stupidity," said Ryan. "He's special, and we try not to get excited about players until they perform in the big leagues. But he is different."

So the base for the Twins to be competitive in the AL Central has been laid. They may not be able to go into the free agent market to add talent the way the Indians or perhaps the White Sox may be able to do in the future, but Ryan has put the talent in place with Restovich, Mauer and Morneau on the horizon.

And right now the Twins are the odds-on favorites to win the most games in the American League. Not bad for a bunch of guys their owner didn't want.

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