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Sunk in The Central

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Starting with 1987, the twins have finished first, second, fifth, seventh, first, second, fifth. What about this year, Kent Hrbek? "If we finish seventh," says Minnesota's big first baseman, "we're in deep trouble." The fact that there are just five teams in the new AL Central division may be the only thing that stops Minnesota's fall this year. "It's hard to tell if we're on the upswing or the downswing," says manager Tom Kelly. "I would like to think we're on the upswing."

It's unlikely that these Twins will pull off a coup similar to the one in '91, when they went from last place the year before to world champions. This is a team that is a little too old, a little too young and way too generous to opposing batters. Let's put it this way: Michael Jordan's on-base percentage against Twin pitching this spring was .600; he was 1 for 3 with two walks.

Let's put it another way: The Twins were about to play the White Sox in Sarasota a few weeks ago when Minnesota general manager Andy MacPhail looked up at the scoreboard and saw the number 6 next to BALLS. "They're getting ready for our pitchers," he said.

Last year Minnesota's two best starters, Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson, brought to mind Camilo Pascual and Pedro Ramos, but that's not to be taken as a compliment. Tapani was the first pitcher to lead the club in wins yet have a losing record (12-15) since Pascual went 15-16 for the '61 Twins; Erickson's 19 losses put him only one shy of Ramos's club record, also set in '61. The No. 3 man in the rotation is the much-traveled lefthander Jim Deshaies, who won 13 games last year but gave up a career-high 26 home runs. The fourth starter, Pat Mahomes, impressed a lot of scouts this winter. Unfortunately they were basketball scouts—Mahomes won the celebrity division of the slam-dunk contest on NBA All-Star weekend.

On the receiving end the Twins are so green that Kelly has indicated he may call the pitches for Matt Walbeck (obtained from the Cubs for pitcher Willie Banks) and Derek Parks. Walbeck and Parks together have 25 games of major league experience. Similarly, both of the Twins' potential shortstops, Pat Meares and Denny Hocking, could use a little more seasoning.

Of course, that's what they once said about Dave Winfield, who has accumulated 10,594 at bats in the majors without the benefit of minor league experience. In '93 the 42-year-old DH had a great July (.355 with nine homers and 25 RBIs), but he had only 17 RBIs after that, and some people are wondering if that falloff represented the beginning of the end.

And this campaign is probably the curtain call for Hrbek. "We'll see how the season goes," he says, "but if the Twins don't want me back, I'll retire because I don't want to play for any other team. I was born a Twin, and I'll die a Twin."

This team may indeed remind Minnesota fans of the 1982 Twins, for whom Hrbek had his sensational rookie season. Those Twins included the core of the eventual '87 world champions, but they lost 102 games.

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PHOTO

JOHN IACONO

Walbeck, 24, is one of several Twins who's short on experience.