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Not Just Geography

By: Derek Wetmore

I was involved in several arguments this past weekend with a die-hard Yankees fan, the culmination of which were name calling and the utterance of the phrase, "27". Actually this member of the Universe texted me during one of my finals to give me this update: "Newsflash: Yankee Universe."* He has since upped his stance and preferred number of taunt to, "28". The reason I bring these debates up is because of a simple difference of opinion in terms of following baseball which led this gent to ask why I would be a Twins fan when a clearly superior team (historically speaking) exists. It's not the kind of question even the most ardent baseball fans receive every day so it was worthy of some pondering and consideration beyond my immediate reaction of asking the same question of him and stating that money is the root all evil.

*I got him back by texting him during his graduation after Morneau went opposite field for his ninth homer of the season, "Morneau>Tex." Full disclosure: I wasn't being indecent on purpose, I didn't know that was the day he was graduating.

Evil Empire. The Hated Yankees. The Bronx Zoo/Bombers. Call them what you will, and I certainly understand that they have more world championships than any other organization in professional sports, but I just don't see the appeal of being a fan. I would sooner pick being a fan of any of the other 28 teams in the league than consider myself a member of the Universe. Why be a Twins fan? The answer goes beyond geography.

Sunday's thriller was as much a reason as any to why one would want to be a Twins fan. I'm sure you all saw the game details, but here's a quick recap: Joba Chamberlain loaded the bases with two outs in the 8th and in trotted Mariano Rivera hoping to attain his 115th regular season save of more than three outs. Rivera walked Jim Thome to force in a run and cut the lead to 3-2. Up walked Jason Kubel, whose early season struggles were scheduled to be discussed in this space for this Monday edition. Kubel took two cutters of the plate before squaring up on the future-hall-of-famer's third offering and depositing it in the right field bleachers. A grand slam off of arguably the greatest closer ever doesn't get you out of the doghouse for a full season of struggles, but it comes pretty damn close. I can't imagine a bigger moment happening from now until the end of September for this team and that man. So much was being made of how badly the Twins needed to win just to prove they could contend with the Yankees. Personally, I think it was all hyperbole, but you can't argue with an abysmal 6-29 record in Gadenhire's tenure against the Bombers at (either) Yankee Stadium, and 14-52 record overall...

Those numbers are ugly no matter the reference frame through which you look at them.

Rivera hadn't given up a bases loaded walk since 2005, and he hadn't given a grand slam since 2002. Coupled with Kubel's early season struggles, the moment was all the more enjoyable for Twins fans.

The reason for being a fan, for most anyway, doesn't stem from one game, but a lifetime of following and cheering on a team in the face of adversity. Admittedly, the Twins have not performed well in the post-season since Gardenhire took over in 2002, but they've been a threat to reach the post-season every year with the exception of 2007. The organizational philosophy (or my interpretation of it) is right in line with the way I think baseball should be played on a year-to-year basis. That is, aim for being competitive every year you possibly can without going "all-in" so to speak in sacrificing the future for one shot at a World Series title. Baseball has historically shown us that any team can get hot in October and that it's not always the team with the best regular season record who brings home the trophy.  To a certain extent, any team that makes it to October has a chance to win it all and that is why I think being in the playoffs on an annual basis is more important than stocking up to take one or two shots.

Though the Twins sometimes sport inferior offensive lineups, (Sunday was no exception; Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert were both in the lineup and occupying the left side of the infield) the team is often fun to root for, even if they've outgrown their "David" label in recent years. The summer of '06 has got to be the greatest to my memory, baseball-wise. Jason Tyner, Jason Bartlett, Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla; these guys led a late-season charge that culminated in a division title? Yes, sir, and that collection of David's was fun to watch. Still, no argument can be made that the Yankees are not Goliath, and toppling them is always fun. I firmly believe that the Twins can shake their October ineptitude, as the lineup is as deep as any since I became a fan. You could call it blind faith, after all, that is one reason many people enjoy following a team, that ever-present hope for the future. In my case however, it's more than that. I spend a lot of my time looking through stats and breaking down rosters within the division to get a gauge of where the Twins stand in any given year. This year the Twins are clearly the class of the division, and though Detroit is right on their heels, I don't believe we've yet seen the best baseball that this team has to offer.

They've pitched fairly well, but the bullpen has been a bit of a snag. They're scoring runs, but several of their key hitters are below career averages. They've played pretty good defense from an errors standpoint, but they appear slow at times and are maybe a tad overrated from a defensive standpoint as per their performance thus far this season. I think it's entirely possible that this team is one of the better defensive teams in Major League Baseball, and the lineup is daunting, on pace to score 788 runs (that number could approach 850 or even 900 if Mauer and Morneau continue to produce and Kubel/Cuddyer/Hardy/Thome/Young remain healthy and productive). On the other side of the ball, they are on pace to give up merely 617 runs which could go up or down, depending on how you view the bullpen situation going forward. I'm somewhat pessimistic that they can keep that number of runs against so low, and I think the primary concern here is the bullpens capability the rest of the season with guys like Jesse Crain and Ron Mahay as two people on whom we're counting. (That being said, Anthony Slama and Rob Delaney are waiting in the wings, it's just a matter of time before the front office decides they've warranted a call up because they're clearly better than some of the options on the 25-man roster right now).

Which brings me to my next point. Prospects. Throughout the past decade, there have been few teams (The A's and Angels come to mind) that have been better than the Twins at identifying talent, drafting intelligently and developing young players into productive big leaguers. Guys like Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, Span and Cuddyer were all drafted and groomed by the Twins through their minor league system. Developing prospects is something the Yankees, or other big-market teams, don't bother to do, since they know that they can simply bid on good players once they hit free agency. The Twins haven't been afforded that luxury, and so instead of spending free agent dollars, they've invested resources into drafting & development. The next wave of young players is pretty exciting as well. I already mentioned Slama and Delaney, but you've also got Aaron Hicks, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, Wilson Ramos, the list stretches relatively long. Don't forget about Kyle Gibson, who was recently promoted to Double-A and in his first start, went 7 1/3 innings, gave up 4 hits, one walk and didn't allow a run. Oh, and he also had ten strikeouts. For Twins fans, there is always the notion that the future is bright, with prospect development being a never-ending cycle, even when the big league club struggles, there is something to look forward to and pay attention to in the summer months. Prospects. The next batch of talented players figures to be nearly as bright as the current core, making for a bright future in conjunction with a radiant present.

Quick minor league notes:

  • As mentioned, Kyle Gibson pitched 7 1/3 innings in his Rock Cats debut, striking out ten, walking one, and not allowing a run to cross.
  • Reds phenom prospect, cuban lefty Aroldis Chapman, was tattooed by Rochester in his start against them the other day. Chapman gave up nine hits, eight runs all in 3 1/3 innings. Red Wings shortstop ended Chapman's night with a three-run homer in the fourth, sending the "left-handed Steven Strasburg" to the showers early. 
  • Drew Butera's roster spot is hopefully not safe for very long. Jose Morales, on a rehab stint since suffering from hand problems this offseason, DH'ed the past couple games for Rochester and is 8-9 at the plate, including 5-5 in his first game back. Quick starts. Wilson Ramos, eat your heart out.
  • Slama and Delaney are currently pitching for the Red Wings while Ron Mahay, Jesse Crain and Alex Burnett are on the 25-man roster. To be fair, Mahay and Burnett have played their parts, (third(!) lefty and long-relief) but what are the Twins waiting for in not promoting these guys? Normally I wouldn't clamor about snubbed call-ups this early in the season but these guys should have been here LAST year.
The final point I'd like to make for being a Twins fan stems not from an organization-wide philosophy or grand piece of history. It's Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. These two lefty mashers are abundantly fun to watch all summer long and hopefully, assuming both stay healthy, we'll get to see these boys swinging in October. I won't illuminate too much on these, as I've got a post coming down the chute discussing the two MVP's dominance. Having two of the best ballplayers in the game, however, and arguably one of the best tandems in all of baseball, is reason enough to tune in every March-October.

The Twins have survived threats of contraction, they've survived small payrolls, they've survived playing in a small- (and recently mid-)sized market in a league with two New York teams, two Chicago teams, two Los Angeles team and no salary cap. They've survived the departure of superstars and the playing time of Lew Ford. The next era of Twins baseball has begun, an era in which they seem poised to go from "competitive" to "contenders". It is also an era in which the team is able to lock up its young core of superstar talent and keep those home-grown/developed players beyond their six years of service time. In short, it's a great time time to be a Twins fan, taking in ballgames at sunny Target Field.

Derek Wetmore is a sports reporter for the Minnesota Daily. He can be read elsewhere at the Daily's website and at his own personal blog, Wet Socks. For links, just drop a comment.

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