01/31/2003 2:20 pm ET
Twins Spring Training preview
Club ready to defend AL Central championship
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
Spring Training rundown
MLB Radio preview
Bill Hammond Stadium
MINNEAPOLIS -- Because of their youth, postseason inexperience and talk of contraction, the Minnesota Twins were the "Little Engine That Could" story for many in 2002.
That train left town as soon as the season ended in Anaheim during the American League Championship Series.
In 2003, the Twins are expected to become a big locomotive that leads the AL Central division and possibly one of baseball's elite teams. That won't be a simple feat, because this train will have a big target on its back and plenty of teams seeking to derail it.
"We're just not going to surprise anybody this year," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "The days of sneaking up on people are over. We just have to go out and play baseball and stay focused on what we need to do to get back to the playoffs."
Gardenhire and his players spent much of the winter stewing over how their magical 2002 season ended. Their elimination came harshly in a 10-run seventh inning at the hands of the Angels in Game 5 of the ALCS. It caused some sleepless nights, the manager admitted on a video feature shown during the club's recent Winter Caravan tour.
"Just when I usually think it's behind me, sometimes in the middle of the night -- it pops up," Gardenhire said. "Then I have to go to the bathroom."
The only way to cure that queasy feeling is for Minnesota to repeat as American League Central division winners and then surpass last season's achievements. In order to do that, the players have to make the transition from being hungry underdogs to handling the pressures that come with being winners.
"We've gotten some respect," General Manager Terry Ryan said. "Chicago has been loading up on people. People are looking to beat us. We'll have to hold the throne and see what happens."
Playing the role of the hunted instead the hunters suits outfielder Dustan Mohr just fine. He and others grew tired of the many "small-market surprise" stories about the Twins.
"It's nice for people to know we're a pretty good team," said Mohr, who will compete during Spring Training for the starting right field job. "We've got chemistry and this raises the bar a little more. We know we have to play with intensity on an everyday basis."
Increasing the Twins' chances of returning to the playoffs is their relative stability. Nearly all the ingredients that brought success in 2002 are back for 2003. Team leader Torii Hunter signed a long-term contract and all the key players are back as the club payroll exceeds $50 million.
That means most of the starting jobs and roster spots are already locked up before Spring Training. But openings exist in right field, DH, and for some right-handed middle relievers.
Look for Matthew LeCroy to have the inside track as the DH to replace the departed David Ortiz. If he steps up, he can give the lineup a much-needed right-handed power hitter. Mohr, Bobby Kielty, Michael Cuddyer and possibly others will battle for the starting right field gig.
"We feel good about both of those spots," Ryan said. "People will emerge who we're comfortable with. The best thing about it is that we've got competition and there's nothing wrong with competition."
"Somebody's going to take the job and the rest of the guys will be coming off the bench," Gardenhire said. "But on our team everyone plays, so they're all going to get some at-bats."
Coming off postseason breakthroughs have brought mixed results in the past. The Twins failed to reach the postseason in both 1988 and 1992 after winning World Series titles the years before. However, those teams still won over 90 games and played when there were still only two divisions and no Wild Card berth available.
Ryan, who joined the front office as director of scouting in 1986, sees some positive similarities between the teams past and present.
"There's an inner confidence in this group much like there was in '91 over into 1992," he said. "The expectations are high and the confidence is high. Then, we wanted to duplicate the success and this year we want to surpass what we did in 2002. The confidence, familiarity and a comfort level are there now as it was then."
Windows of success are usually narrow for small-market teams. With young players with bright futures and a strong organization, that window appears wide open for Minnesota in 2003. Now the question is: will the club capitalize and go to the next level or fade away as a one-time only playoff team?
First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz scoffs at the one-hit wonder theory.
"To think last year was a fluke is foolish," Mientkiewicz said. "We proved we can win 94 games and get to the ALCS last year with our pitching staff hurt and infielders struggling."
Regardless of the outcome, the club should know what it would take to remain perched at the top of the heap.
"They got a good taste of what it's like to win and have fun doing it," Gardenhire said. "Now they know more about what it takes bring that back and go to the next level."
The 2003 Twins train starts rolling when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training Feb. 16. Where it winds up this October is up to the players driving the locomotive.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com and can be reached at
email@example.com. Editorial producer Todd Lorenz contributed to this story. This report was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.