NOT EVEN TRYING/AL CENTRAL
This medical note just in: Paul Molitor's successful surgery for
a double hernia in the off-season was not performed at a
geriatric center. Molitor is 41--proof that you can truss
someone over 40--but the venerable designated hitter is only
part of the graying of the Twins. General manager Terry Ryan
signed 38-year-old free-agent righthander Mike Morgan, who is
now with his 10th club, and 39-year-old free-agent centerfielder
Otis Nixon, who is with his ninth. By the end of what figures to
be another grim season, 11 Minnesota players will be 30 or
older, and six of them will be at least 36. These Twins have
more history than Romulus and Remus put together.
"You know how it is with seniority? How the older guys sit at
the back of the bus and plane?" asks 36-year-old catcher Terry
Steinbach. "Well, I'm creeping back towards the middle."
Minnesota's age movement is a pathetic attempt to scribble a
happy, albeit weathered, face on a team that lost 94 games in
1997--and, in the process, to tidy up the outfield defense, to
get some more innings out of the starters, to try to give
manager Tom Kelly something to work with.
In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, this team is treading water. Owner
Carl Pohlad says that if the building of a new, publicly
financed stadium (now where have we heard that phrase before?)
is not approved in Minnesota, he will sell the club to
businessman Don Beaver, who plans to move the team to North
Carolina, possibly as early as 1999. Even by the clunky
standards of the Twins, the stadium campaign has been
particularly ham-handed. Minnesotans were put off by commercials
produced by Pohlad's son, Bill, especially one featuring
leftfielder Marty Cordova's visit to a young cancer patient. The
voice-over intoned, "If the Twins leave Minnesota, an
eight-year-old from Willmar will never get a visit from Marty
Cordova." The boy wasn't even from Minnesota, and, worst of all,
he had died a few months before the spot aired.
The uncertainty of the team's future has cast a pall over the
organization. Coming off five straight losing seasons, Minnesota
has sold only about 6,000 season tickets. (This is a franchise
that drew more fans than the Yankees from 1987 through '94.)
Although Ryan signed mid-level free agents Morgan, Nixon and
first baseman Orlando Merced, who is expected to keep the bag
warm until 22-year-old prospect David Ortiz is ready, Ryan
couldn't wade into the higher end of the market. "The first
response you get from an agent," he says, "is, 'Where are you
going to be in '99?'"
The joint issues of the stadium and relocation made the
re-signing of Molitor, a St. Paul native, so significant. Not
only can he still hit--Molitor batted above .300 for the 12th
time in his career in 1997 despite being bothered by the hernias
much of the year--but it is hoped that his return might help
reconnect fans with the franchise, a critical factor in a homey
place like the Twin Cities.
Molitor thought long and hard before re-upping with the Twins.
Toronto, where he is revered for his contributions to the 1993
champs, was wondering if he would like to be the manager or the
player-manager or possibly premier of Ontario. Baltimore also
courted him aggressively. "Competitiveness is certainly an issue
I wrestled with," Molitor says. "No matter how well this season
goes for us, I can't realistically imagine it being as good as
[the season the Orioles and Blue Jays] are going to have. But it
didn't come down to competitiveness for me as much as it did to
playing again for the Twins, even if it's a lame-duck season."
Like the Twins, who in February traded star second baseman Chuck
Knoblauch to the Yankees for four minor leaguers and $3 million,
Molitor is planning for the future. With 495 stolen bases and
impeccable instincts, he doubled as a baserunning
instructor-without-portfolio during spring training, coaching
small groups of his teammates from time to time. He is doing
everything he can to give the Twins a leg up.
Minnesota's every-day-is-Old-Timers'-Day approach is only
temporary. "Scouting and development have to provide us with a
constant flow of talent, or we're going to be in big trouble,"
Ryan says. "We know who we are. We try to be fair, try to be
honest, try to be sincere. We have a passion from the front
office down to the players. One thing we are is accountable. We
don't try to be something we're not."
Like a contender any time soon.
COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER/ALLSPORT GOING SOMEWHERE? Like rightfielder Matt Lawton, the Twins will be able to run but not hide during a painfully long season.
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA [Otis Nixon]
BY THE NUMBERS
1997 Team Statistics (AL rank)
1997 record: 68-94 (fourth in AL Central)
BATTING AVERAGE .270(8) OPP. BATTING AVG. .283(12)
RUNS SCORED 772(10) ERA 5.00(13)
HOME RUNS 132(14) FIELDING PCT. .983(5)
WHAT THEY NEEDED: A leadoff hitter to replace Chuck Knoblauch,
young arms and lots of power.
WHAT THEY GOT: A top young lefthander and a power hitter who, if
they're lucky, will be ready next year. Otis Nixon will lead off
and take over in center, and ex-Met Alex Ochoa will be given a
chance in the outfield as well. Mike Morgan was only 9-12 for
the Reds last year, but he'll give the Twins lots of innings.
Infielder Brent Gates scares nobody.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS: Money, money, money, money--as in Minnesota
doesn't have much of it, so these guys will have to do. Nixon
still has speed, and the Twins think Ochoa is a possible
15-homer man. Another dismal year.
Whenever a poor team unloads a pricey vet, you know what's
coming next--a cheap fill-in. The Twins say, "Goodbye, Chuck
Knoblauch. Hello, Otis Nixon!" At the age of 39, Nixon is being
asked to do nothing more than lead off, hit at least .280, score
100 runs and play sparkling centerfield. Most important, the
Twins need him to steal 60 bases. Are they going to win lots of
games if he does? No. But Nixon, who swiped 59 last year with
Toronto and the Dodgers, is the one guy who can ignite the
offense Minnesota needs to 1) make up for bad pitching, and 2)
win--if God loves beer and cheese--75 games.
Projected Roster With 1997 Statistics
Manager: Tom Kelly (13th season with Minnesota)
BATTING ORDER B/T BA HRs RBIs SBs
CF Otis Nixon*[***] S/R .266 2 44 59
SS Pat Meares R .276 10 60 7
DH Paul Molitor R .305 10 89 11
C Terry Steinbach R .248 12 54 6
3B Ron Coomer R .298 13 85 4
LF Marty Cordova R .246 15 51 5
1B Orlando Merced[***] L/R .266 9 40 7
RF Matt Lawton L/R .248 14 60 7
2B Todd Walker L/R .237 3 16 7
1B David Ortiz** (R) L .322 14 56 2
OF Alex Ochoa[***] R .244 3 22 3
IF Denny Hocking S/R .257 2 25 3
IF Brent Gates[***] S/R .238 3 20 0
STARTERS W L IPS BR ERA
RH Brad Radke 20 10 6.8 1.21 3.87
RH Bob Tewksbury 8 13 6.5 1.38 4.22
RH Mike Morgan[***] 9 12 5.4 1.37 4.78
RH Frank Rodriguez 3 6 5.1 1.48 4.62
RH LaTroy Hawkins 6 12 5.2 1.79 5.84
RELIEVERS W L S BR ERA
RH Rick Aguilera 5 4 26 1.30 3.82
RH Mike Trombley 2 3 1 1.34 4.37
LH Greg Swindell 7 4 1 1.12 3.58
LH Eddie Guardado 0 4 1 1.39 3.91
RH Todd Ritchie 2 3 0 1.57 4.58
LH Travis Miller 1 5 0 1.82 7.63
[***]New acquisition (R) Rookie B/T: Bats/throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start BR: Base runners per inning pitched
*Combined AL and NL stats **Double A stats