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Sunday, March 30
Mark it down: Twins will be the champs

By Jayson Stark

Anybody can pick the Yankees to win the World Series. How hard is that? That's like picking Coke to sell the most colas, Kleenex to sell the most tissues and Topps to sell the most baseball cards.

So you won't find us doing anything that predictable over in this corner of ESPN cyberspace. Nope. We're taking the underdog. We're announcing it right here, right now:

And the winners are ...
• Stark: Twins will win it all
• ESPN's expert predictions
• Poll: AL MVP
• Poll: NL MVP
• Poll: World Series
• Diamond Mind: Projected standings

The Minnesota Twins are going to win the World Series.

So better start shredding up some tickertape in those Twin Cities. You'll need it.

Oh, it's true the Twins don't have to wear those "Hey, Bud -- contract this," T-shirts anymore. They no longer have that particular theme song to drive them. But the death of that contraction plot line is actually a relief for this team, not a predicament.

"We're glad all that's gone away, to be honest with you," says GM Terry Ryan. "We don't miss any of that situation. Last year, it never stopped -- between contraction and labor and all that stuff. Once we got through it, we could look back on it and say all right, it was no problem. But day-in, day-out, it wore us out."

So this year, all they have to worry about -- and what a concept this is -- is playing baseball. And in case you hadn't noticed, this team can really do that.

We spent the last week asking scouts, players and coaches which teams caught their eye this spring. It was amazing how many mentioned the Twins.

Torii Hunter
Torii Hunter led the Twins in home runs (29) and RBI (94) last season.

"I love the way that team plays," says Phillies coach Greg Gross. "They play hard. They play right. They have fun playing. They're fun to watch play."

Invariably, that's the way people in baseball describe these Twins. They don't just admire the talent on the field. They genuinely admire the joy with which these men play the game, the chemistry that fuels that approach and the build-from-within philosophy that has gotten them to this point.

"That's a team," says one AL scout, "that baseball people root for."

Maybe some people look at last year -- at all the once-in-a-lifetime elements to their remarkable story -- and think of the Twins as a one-and-done phenomenon. But inside the game, the consensus is that this was a team that has only begun to climb the October ladder.

"They could actually be better," says one AL GM, "just based on experience. I think you'll see them play at a more relaxed level, without so much pressure. My sense, from watching those guys, is that they think they just made the first step."

"To me," says one scout, "I can see them paralleling what Toronto did in the early '90s. Toronto got a sniff for a couple of years before they got to the dance, if you remember. People were calling Pat Gillick 'Stand Pat' because he wouldn't make moves until he thought their kids were ready to get over the top. Then he started bringing in the Paul Molitors and the Jack Morrises and guys like that, and they won two in a row.

"I can see the Twins doing the same thing," the same scout says. "I can see them getting a lot of confidence out of that postseason. They've got a lot of kids who have been playing together back since Double-A. They've all come up together and grown together. And now they've got a lot of guys peaking to go all the way."

The eruption of the 2002 Angels may have been a wonderful story -- but it was actually one that defied logic and history. For the most part, recent history shows us, winning is a process. Before the Angels came along, we'd seen eight straight World Series in which at least one of the participants rebounded to get there after losing in the postseason within the previous two years.

"You can look at it a lot of different ways," says manager Ron Gardenhire. "Everyone always told us, 'Your guys don't have enough experience to win.' But the only way you get that experience is by winning. So then last year we did that, and people said we didn't have enough playoff experience. OK, now we've got that. The way it works in this game, you've got to go step by step."

Well, there are many reasons to argue the Twins are ready to take that next step:

Eddie Guardado
Eddie Guardado isn't a hard thrower, but he did lead the AL with 45 saves last year.

On Opening Day, the Twins will start nine position players in their 20s, four of them 26 or younger. "A lot of our guys," Ryan says, "are still coming into their best years. Most of our position players are not even near their prime."

Starting pitching
The rotation was supposed to carry them last year. Yet this team won the division by 13½ games even though the only starting pitcher who exceeded expectations was Kyle Lohse. Largely because of health issues, the Twins were the only team in the playoffs that had no starter pitch 200 innings. And Brad Radke and Joe Mays -- arguably their two best starting pitchers -- missed almost 30 starts combined. This spring, Radke and Mays both looked great. And with the addition of Kenny Rogers, all five Twins starters won between 13 and 17 games in their last healthy season.

As dominators go, nobody will ever confuse closer Eddie Guardado with Billy Wagner or John Smoltz. But the strength of this crew, says one scout, is that it has the deepest bullpen in the league. Nobody has two lights-out left-handed set-up men like Johan Santana and J.C. Romero. And everyone out there is versatile enough to do anything from face one hitter to go two innings. So "there's no reason," Gardenhire says, "to think our bullpen can't do what it did last year."

Offensively, this is a team that ought to be on the rise, not the skids. This was not a team full of hitters having career years last year. Not even close. All four infielders were hurt, so they could be better. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski did have a breakout year -- "but he's only 24," Ryan says. "He's still growing." Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones both turn 28, so it's certainly possible they can improve. And the two guys splitting the rest of the outfield time -- Bobby Kielty and Michael Cuddyer -- look like All-Stars waiting to happen.

It's true these guys don't walk much (472 times) -- but they actually walked more than the Angels (462 times). "As they get older, I think these guys will get better, have better at-bats," Gardenhire says. "I'm not going to take their aggressiveness away from them, because that's the fun thing about this team. They play."

And while we're on that subject, the defensive side of the ball is where they really play. They're a nightly Web Gem reel unto themselves. So you can talk yourself into questions about just about any other area of this club -- but as Gardenhire says, "We still catch the ball."

There are very few teams where the symmetry between a manager and his players works the way as smoothly as it does on this team. The general manager is one of the best-liked and most respected leaders in baseball. And unlike some ownership groups, this team hasn't stuffed its revenue-sharing money in a mattress. It has hiked the payroll three straight years and kept a growing team together. The rise of the Twins and the rise of the A's has been similar in many ways -- but "the difference," says one AL scout, "is that Minnesota's ownership put money back into the club, and Oakland's didn't. In Oakland, they ask, 'What if we'd kept (Jason) Giambi? What if we could keep (Miguel) Tejada?' In Minnesota, they've kept their guys together."

On the other hand, we'll grant you these Twins are flawed. They don't hit home runs. They don't run deep counts. They lack infield depth. They're far from perfect.

They could actually be better just based on experience. I think you'll see them play at a more relaxed level, without so much pressure. My sense, from watching those guys, is that they think they just made the first step.
An American League general manager on the Twins

When you get right down to it, the Yankees look better on paper -- especially the green kind of paper you collect down at your neighborhood savings and loan. But that doesn't mean the Yankees aren't beatable.

If you've paid attention the last two Octobers, you know that winning every World Series is not the Yankees' automatic right, even if their owner forgets that.

"It's hard to win," says Yankees manager Joe Torre. "I always knew it was hard. I'm not sure Derek Jeter knew it was hard. But that's what the last couple of years proved. It lets you know how lucky we've been. ... It is tough, even though we did it so often."

And it could be getting tougher, because the core of those Yankees teams that did it so often has gradually eroded. Of the 25 Yankees spraying champagne the last time they won the World Series, only six remain. And the most important of those six -- Mariano Rivera -- opens the season on the disabled list, leaving (gulp) Juan Acevedo as the closer.

So the Yankees, says one scout who has followed them this spring, "are vulnerable. They have serious bullpen questions. They've got a little age on them now. They've got some guys who have never done it (i.e., won). Matter of fact, if the Red Sox had made that deal to get (Bartolo) Colon, I'd like them to win that division."

But of course, the Red Sox didn't make that deal. So despite their big-time lineup and big-time ace, they have holes, too. When you look around, though, who doesn't?

The White Sox may have Colon and Mark Buerhle -- but they have defense, chemistry and pitching-depth issues.

The Angels may be the defending champs -- but they are already banged up and you wonder if they can take two straight rides on the same magic carpet.

The A's are always a great pick. But they can't afford injuries to any of their key figures. They have the weight of Tejada's free agency on their backs. And their series of October disappointments can't help but leave some kind of mark on their psyches.

The Mariners? Getting old. And still lacking that No. 1 starter.

We're still on a mission because we didn't get to where we wanted to go (last season).
Ron Gardenhire, Twins manager

The Braves? Their greatest known quantity these last 12 years -- starting pitching -- is now an unknown quantity.

The Cardinals? Tremendous lineup -- but pitching questions.

The Diamondbacks? Johnson and Schilling and ... then what?

The Giants? Changed half the lineup, two starting pitchers and the manager. So who knows?

The Astros? Phillies? Dodgers? Cubs? Mets? All long shots who haven't done it.

So the Twins in October? Why the heck not? The people who thought their team-on-a-mission mindset expired last Halloween have another thing coming.

"Oh yeah, we're still on a mission," Gardenhire says, "because we didn't get to where we wanted to go."

Where they want to go is on a big old October parade down Hennepin Avenue, if not right through the Mall of America, underneath a shower of tickertape. Well, they'll be going in seven months. You heard it here first.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for

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