Trio proves the difference one pick can make

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 4, 2009 - 11:44 PM

The Twins headed West on Thursday with lots of problems stuffed into the overhead bins -- a losing record, an iffy bullpen and half a lineup that might as well be swinging Wiffle bats.

There are days, though, when we should celebrate what the Twins have rather than lament what they lack, and Thursday afternoon the first four players in their batting order demonstrated just how well this franchise has drafted and developed young players, and just how thin the line between success and failure is when picking prospects every June.

Thursday, Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel -- four young, lefthanded hitters who filled the first four spots in the lineup -- combined to go 10-for-14 with four home runs, two doubles and four walks in the Twins' 11-3 victory over Cleveland.

The bottom five hitters in the order went a combined 3-for-21 with no walks.

If the Twins hadn't chosen those four in recent drafts, they'd be the Washington Nationals or the Pittsburgh Pirates, perennial losers that perennially appear clueless. If the Twins hadn't chosen those four, the Chicago Cubs might have banished the Curse of the Billy Goat by now.

In 1999, the Twins chose Morneau in the third round. With the next pick, the Montreal Expos chose catcher Drew McMillan.

In 2000, the Twins chose Kubel in the 12th round. With the next pick, the Cubs chose outfielder Antoine Cameron.

In 2001, the Twins chose Mauer with the first overall pick in the draft. With the next pick, the Cubs chose pitcher Mark Prior.

In 2002, the Twins chose Span with the 20th pick in the first round. With the next pick, the Cubs chose pitcher Robert Brownlie.

"That might be the curse of the goat right there -- it might have affected those picks," said outfielder Michael Cuddyer.

Baseball drafts are perilous. Since 1991, Brien Taylor, Phil Nevin, Paul Wilson, Kris Benson, Matt Anderson, Bryan Bullington, Delmon Young, Matt Bush and Luke Hochevar have been overall No. 1 picks in the draft.

"It's amazing," Kubel said. "I've played next to first-round picks all my career, and some of them are really good, and some of them, you can't figure out why they went that high. You watch them play and say, 'Man, I'm better than that guy.'

"The good thing is, if you get drafted anywhere, you get a chance."

The Twins have had their share of first-round misses. The top of Thursday's lineup, though, is a testament to good scouting.

Span was a speed player with raw baseball skills; the Twins saw someone who would develop into what he is today, an excellent fielder and leadoff hitter. He's hitting .307 with a .395 on-base percentage.

Kubel went in the 12th round because he's not athletically gifted. The Twins thought he'd pound fastballs, and Thursday he went 3-for-4 with two homers, a double, and a walk. He's hitting .322 and ranks third on the team with 31 RBI.

Prior was the consensus top pick in baseball entering the 2001 draft, and the Twins were accused of being cheap and provincial when they chose Mauer. While Prior has flamed out, Mauer has skyrocketed. For the last month, Mauer has been the best player in baseball. Thursday he went 3-for-4 with a walk. He's hitting .436 with a .519 on-base percentage and 12 homers despite playing the sport's most demanding position.

Morneau was a hockey goalie from Canada; the Twins chose him in the third round and privately bragged about his power potential. Thursday, Morneau went 3-for-3 with a double, a homer and two walks. He's hitting .348 with 15 homers and 50 RBI.

When Mauer, Morneau and Kubel were rising through the minors earlier this decade, the Twins often spoke of them in the same breath, as excellent hitting prospects who could someday anchor the middle of the big-league lineup. In the first inning on Thursday, Kubel hit a towering drive to center.

Mauer stayed close to second and Morneau close to first as the center fielder retreated. When the ball cleared the fence, the three jogged around together, almost like they were posing for a photo that every Twins scout should keep in his wallet.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. jsouhan@startribune.com

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