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Section 219: When the Twins went from terrible to the top in '87

I picked the Twins to finish sixth in the seven-team American League West before the 1987 season started. And then, in the same Star Tribune preview section, I outlined a scenario in which they could turn their 71-91 record into 91-71.

It didn't happen. The Twins won only 85 games, the ninth best record in the majors that year. But it was good enough to win the division title -- and then all kinds of magic happened on the way to the Twins winning the World Series.

With the Twins in first place right now, it felt like the right time to track down what I wrote back then. See if you can find some parallels between what happened then and what may be happening now. Is Torii Hunter the Dan Gladden of 1987, for example?

For those of you old enough to remember, enjoy. For those of you who aren't, enjoy.

Just like 1987, the Twins are in a position that we couldn't have expected. So enjoy it.

The Twins must regain respect in the front office and on the field.
That's what 1987 should be about.

The Twins are one of only two teams not to have a winning season
in the 1980s. Seattle is the other and the Twins would be wise not to
invite further comparisons.

Some may question whether owner Carl Pohlad's act of making sure
the Twins stayed in Minnesota was worth the fuss if things don't
change. The question: Is bad baseball better than no baseball? The
answer: Yes, but . . .

At least the Twins have recognized there's work to be done. The
revamped front office acquired premier reliever Jeff Reardon and
entrusted, despite internal bickering, the managerial job to Tom Kelly.
Both seem to be sound moves. Kelly's training camp seemed to instill a
work ethic that disappeared in the aftermath of the final-weekend fold
of 1984.

Barring the extraordinary, the Twins will not finish 20 games
below .500, as they did last year. But it's unrealistic to project the
American League pennant fluttering atop the Metrodome come October.
Good things usually take time and a title isn't necessary for the Twins
to win respect.

In these optimistic days when all 26 teams are undefeated, it's
expected to paint a scenario of success. If everything goes right, one
can imagine a Twins team that on Oct. 5, 1987, will have this notation
in the standings:

                 W    L Pct.  GB
Minnesota   91 71 .562  . . .


From 20 games under .500 to 20 games above. It would be the Twins' best
record since the 1970 division champions won 98. That sort of dramatic
shift wouldn't be unprecedented. The 1962 Twins improved by 21 games
from the previous season and the 1965 pennant winners went from 79-83
to 102-60. There also was an 18-game improvement between 1968 and the
AL West winners of 1969.

So, it can be done. Here are the parts that can contribute to the
sum:

The Reardon factor/ Reardon had 35 saves for the Montreal Expos,
70 percent of their total last season. The entire Twins staff had only
24 saves. What if Reardon has 35 saves and the rest of Minnesota's
staff has 15, duplicating Montreal's numbers? That's 26 more saves than
1986 and, irony of ironies, equals the number of games the Twins lost
last year when they were leading or tied going into the seventh inning.

More conservatively, let's say that Reardon accounts for a
two-game swing for each member of the five-man starting rotation.
Instead of 17-14, Bert Blyleven goes 19-12. Frank Viola goes from 16-13
to 18-11. That's worth 10 games overall. That's a start.

Keep it in perspective, though, because Reardon saved 76 games in
the 1985-86 seasons and his team was only three games above .500. He
can't do it alone.

The rotation/ If Blyleven and Viola maintain their performance
levels and benefit from Reardon, they will threaten the 20-game
plateau. If Mike Smithson rebounds from a poor 1986 and Mark Portugal
fulfills his promise, they will be better than .500 pitchers. The fifth
starter, Les Straker for now, would be hard-pressed to struggle as
badly as the collection used in that role last year. Chalk up another
handful of games for that improvement.

The youth movement/ Shortstop Greg Gagne and second baseman Steve
Lombardozzi played together full-time for the first time last year and
established themselves as a double-play combination that bears
watching. The Twins turned double plays about which they could only
dream in previous years and the duo should improve.

Gagne needs to reduce his errors (only Shawon Dunston of the Cubs
made more than Gagne's 26 at their position) and Lombardozzi needs to
continue the play that allowed him to lead AL second basemen in
fielding percentage. Both need to become better hitters, especially
Lombardozzi.

Outfielder Mark Davidson made the team mostly because of his
defensive skills, but he can't afford to be an automatic out. His hot
bat during spring training was a promising sign; his .118 average in 68
at-bats last year wasn't. Rookie pitchers Straker and Joe Klink need to
show their exhibition work was no fluke.

Improvement by those players won't account for more victories as
much as they'll keep the Twins from losing a few more games.

Career years/ Unexpected things must happen for title contention
to be a reality. Maybe Tim Laudner, for example, really will establish
himself as the No. 1 catcher with ample power and defense. Maybe Viola
will win the 25 games that have been predicted by some. Maybe Gagne
will hit .280 and steal 25 bases. Maybe Kirby Puckett will win the
Triple Crown.

At the same time, others must perform as in the past. Gary Gaetti
can't slump to 10 home runs and Puckett can't hit .260. Ponder for a
moment what would have happened had Gaetti's 1986 season (.287, 34
homers, 108 RBI) taken place in 1984 (.262, 5, 65), when the Twins
finished three games out of first place. Title, anyone?

Depth/ It must be better. Kelly must be able to look down his
bench and find hitters when he needs them and defense when appropriate.
It's a simple enough premise, but one that has gone unfulfilled.

Too often, the Twins have settled for all-around mediocrities to
fill the bench while stronger teams stockpile players who can scare an
opponent.

A somewhat shocking statistical breakdown from last year:
Pinch hitters Avg. AB H HR RBI

Bush/Al Woods .457 46 21 4 14
Other Twins .188 149 28 0 17


Fine tuning/ This is where the front office must be astute and
supportive. Getting Dan Gladden from San Francisco, a move that appears
to fill needs for a speedy outfielder and leadoff batter, sent the
right message to fans and players.

Should the team emerge a contender, it will be imperative that
executive vice president Andy MacPhail and personnel director Bob
Gebhard find players who can fill any needs that arise. That task is
easier resolved than accomplished as the Pat Putnam/Chris Speier
acquisitions of three years ago will attest.

Maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves by touching that topic, but
the AL West isn't exactly a terrifying collection.

Summary/ Most magazine prognosticators are looking for a
second-division finish by the Twins. Yet who would have given the Red
Sox much chance going into last season or expected Texas to be a force?

The beginning of the season is too energizing a time to be
consumed by flaws that haven't been borne out on the field. No sense
being a killjoy when 162 games remain with good seats available for
most of them, seats that will be filled if the Twins deserve the
recognition.

It is acceptable to be skeptical and should things go as poorly as
in the past, it will be understandable to be ornery.

A .500 season might not sound like much, but it would be 10 games
better than 1986. More will be grounds for increments of excitement.

Yes, by the end of the season, there were many, many increments of excitement.

Section 219: You didn't think the Twins would do this well, either

I'm fighting the urge to get too giddy about the Twins. I keep reminding myself there are 116 games to play and more than a few teams over, let's say, the last 116 years have put together a solid quarter-season or half-season before regressing to where people return to saying mean things about them.

What's happening now is 180 degrees away from the darkest path, when a good team starts out poorly and you keep waiting (and waiting and waiting) for a change for the better. Remember the 2011 Twins, the defending division champions who began the plunge into four seasons of darkness that sometimes felt like four decades?

Those Twins already 16 games under .500 at this point in the season.

My counsel right now is to have fun with what's happening and enjoy some of the things you didn't expect.

Here are a few of them:

The outfield defense is no longer the liability it was entering the season. If the "varsity" outfield remains Eddie Rosario in left, Aaron Hicks in center and Torii Hunter in right, that turns the outfield into an asset instead of a liability. That's because the guys who were in the minors at the start of the season are huge upgrades from the defense provided by Oswaldo Arcia and Jordan Schafer. Hicks lessens some pressure on Hunter in right field. (The defensive metric cousins Ultimate Zone Rating and :"UZR 150" aren't meant to provide keen single-season analysis -- or anything smaller -- but Hunter's horrendously negative numbers for 2014 have been replaced by a positive rating so far this season.)

A question facing the Twins will be what to do with Arcia when he returns. The answer may be "trade bait." There are numerous configurations for the Twins outfield in the seasons to come with Rosario, Hicks, Byron Buxton and Arcia. And whoever doesn't play third base when Miguel Sano is major-league ready (Sano vs. Trevor Plouffe) also becomes a right-field candidate.

Right now, my vote (for 2016 and beyond) is for Rosario in left, Buxton in center and Sano in right. The fun part, of course, is whether Hunter messes with that plan by continuing something close to his current pace, staying with the Twins and saying, "Hey, guys, what about me?" My vote come winter could be significantly different than it is right now.

Whatever, the debate over the future of the Twins outfield is a fun one.

Look at the MLB pitching statistics. Look at the 14 pitchers so far with an earned run average of less than 3.00. Hey, that's Kyle Gibson at 2.72. And, that's Mike Pelfrey at 2.77. Yes, Mike Pelfrey, the guy who was headed to the bullpen before the Ervin Santana drug suspension.

Gibson looks to be evolving into the pitcher than was promised in 2014 when he was elite in the starts when he wasn't flat-out terrible. Last season, there was no middle ground to Gibson's starts. This season, he's battled through patches when he was falling apart in 2014. As for Pelfrey, he has pitched like the guy who mixed in a couple of good seasons among his weaker work during his New York Mets years -- a career arc that looks a little bit like the Phil Hughes years with the Yankees.

Again, the Twins have issues based on competition. Right now, that would be the 0.28 ERA Tommy Milone has put together in four Class AAA Rochester starts (one earned run in 31 2/3 innings, with 41 strikeouts and two walks). And it would be Jose Berrios, the first-round draft choice from 2012 who has been dominant at Class AA Chattanooga. Something is bound to happen during the months to come where another starter or two will be needed, and it's good to know that it won't be someone  about whom we'll need to utter a prayer for every pitch. (Andrew Albers, Yohan Pino and a few others.)

Molitor's managing. Without being able to produce evidence, I am fairly certain the Twins are using advanced statistics on a day-to-day basis more often than in the past. If not, then Molitor is a savant instead of just a very, very smart baseball guy. There's an entire post in the moves and tweaks he's made this season, deciding when to sit players and when to get others in the lineup.

I'm not going there right now. I'm just going to roll with the idea that Molitor knows what he's doing when he builds the Twins lineup on a daily basis. There will be times when people are puzzled (Joe Mauer sitting out two games last week when the Twins had two off days, for example) on playing against platoon percentages.

But a 28-18 record trumps second guessing -- all the more when you wouldn't have been surprised if the Twins were 18-28 right now. There are a lot of debates about the Twins and their future, but right now they can be held in good spirits instead of wondering what will be next to go wrong.

6:10 PM (FSN)
Minnesota 30-19
Boston 22-29

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