Yearning for days of possible playoff failures

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2011 - 12:18 AM

A horrid 2011 season doesn't diminish what the Twins accomplished from 2001 through 2010, but it does raise questions about their ability to reestablish themselves as a team worthy of again becoming the Yankees' October appetizer.

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Slow recoveries from concussion suffered by Justin Morneau (pictured) and Denard Span are only one of many reasons the Twins are far from being October playoff fodder for the Yankees anytime soon.

Photo: Mark Duncan, Associated Press

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Not to get too nostalgic, but remember the good ol' days?

Remember when the Twins would travel to Yankee Stadium, get whipped three consecutive games, then slink home to Minnesota like hicks whose $5 Times Square Rolexes stopped working as soon as their flight left the ground?

Remember when Corey Koskie's double bounced into the Yankee Stadium stands, costing the Twins a run and maybe a playoff victory? Remember when Phil Cuzzi watched Joe Mauer's drive land 5 feet fair and still called it foul? Remember when the Twins' misadventures against the Yankees damaged the self- esteem of every Minnesotan still scarred by Super Bowl losses and a fear of the East Coast sports elite?

Make no mistake, those were the good ol' days, when every Twins-Yankees game stirred the blood.

There is no more underappreciated commodity in sports than persistent competence. The Timberwolves proved this, getting ridiculed for failing to escape the first round of the playoffs, then becoming a team that would trade Glen Taylor's entire ugly sweater collection for a whiff of contention.

A horrid 2011 season doesn't diminish what the Twins accomplished from 2001 through 2010, but it does raise questions about their ability to re-establish themselves as a team worthy of again becoming the Yankees' October appetizer.

The Twins can use injuries as an excuse for this abomination of a season. In reality, even if their health is restored, they will enter this winter feeling unsettled about just about every key spot in the organization, from General Manager Bill Smith to all 25 roster spots to the lowest levels of the minor leagues.

Smith and his staff deserve another shot. Everyone who works in baseball operations played a part in 10 years of competitiveness that saved the franchise and built Target Field. "Obviously, those decisions are ultimately left to ownership," team President Dave St. Peter said. "But to answer your question, no, we don't plan any changes there. We have a tremendous amount of confidence in our baseball operations group, as well as our manager and coaches. They are the people who have been greatly responsible for what has taken place in the last 10 years.

"While I think there are lessons to be learned for all of us in the organization, one of the reasons for our success has been our stability and continuity."

True.

A year ago, I thought Smith and Co. were on an impressive winning streak. Now they're on a losing streak, having mistakenly invested in Tsuyoshi Nishioka, traded J.J. Hardy for Jim Hoey, and failed to build a competent bullpen. Smith and Co. can't afford two bad years at these ticket prices.

What's more unsettling is that you can look around the diamond and see few sure things. Joe Mauer is the most overpaid singles hitter in baseball. Justin Morneau and Denard Span are still showing the effects of concussions and their aftermaths.

The middle infield is so shaky that the staff now talks about Alexi Casilla as if he's Luis Aparicio. Danny Valencia entered the season as the Twins' likely third baseman for the next five years, and he's given the staff reason to wonder if he can maintain his concentration through a full schedule, or even for nine innings at a time.

In the outfield, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel could leave as free agents. In the bullpen, the Twins might be forced to pick up Joe Nathan's $12.5 million option because only he and Glen Perkins, among Twins expected to return next year, look capable of pitching at the end of a game.

The rotation lacks an ace or even a proven No. 2, considering that Scott Baker, the best of this year's staff, has pitched more than 172 innings only once in his career. Most of the minor leaguers who have been called up to help the big-league team, with the exception of Ben Revere, play baseball like they learned it from a video game. These people are not being prepared to play in the majors.

The farm system's best players are either years away (like Miguel Sano), injured (like Kyle Gibson) or less than a sure thing (like Joe Benson).

Fans love to bash Ron Gardenhire, but he's the only constant here.

The key variables are Smith's decision-making, the production and health of the M&M Boys, and the talent and depth of the pitching staff.

"There's always going to be a period of evaluation, and this year will be no different," St. Peter said. "We've gone through it when we won, too.

"Clearly, we're going to take a look at where we are in terms of the health of our club. I think we felt like we've had an inordinate amount of injuries, even though some of them were of the variety that can't be prevented, at all levels of the organization. Beyond that, there are always going to be difficult decisions to be made."

These Twins have a long way to go before they'll be good enough to lose meaningful games to the Yankees again.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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