|Monday, February 24
Twins-White Sox rivalry heating up
By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com
And who cares what anybody thinks about the other three teams in American League Central?
It's the only division in the majors that has produced a different champion for three straight years, with the White Sox winning in 2000, Cleveland in '01 and the Twins in '02. There's zero chance of Detroit or Kansas City making it four champs in four years, and Cleveland has opted to use this season to try to turn Coco Crisp and Casey Blake into household names.
That leaves the White Sox and the Twins ... two teams football broadcaster Keith Jackson would like because they just don't like each other.
You'll have a hard time proving it this spring, however, for a couple of reasons.
One is geographic. Because the Sox moved their training facility from Sarasota, Fla., to Tucson, Ariz., in 1998, the Twins and Sox won't play each other until April, which is too long to wait.
The other is psychological. Neither team wants to throw any more kerosene on their rivals' motivational flames.
Some would say they've already said enough. Ray Durham fired the first volley in the brushfire by last spring when he dogged the Twins for their bullpen. It seemed a reasonable observation, given that LaTroy Hawkins' 2001 meltdown had left rookie manager Ron Gardenhire without a proven closer.
But the Twins laughed all the way to the American League Championship Series. Not only did Eddie Guardado prove masterful in the ninth inning, but J.C. Romero and Hawkins were also overpowering in set-up roles. Even the unsung Tony Fiore chipped in with 10 relief wins for Minnesota, which jumped from 85 to 94 victories.
While the Twins wrote one of baseball's best storylines last season, succeeding in the face of Bud Selig's contraction threat, the White Sox unraveled in late May and June. Frank Thomas turned Sphinx-like after a midseason benching, prompting younger teammates like Paul Konerko and Tony Graffanino to question his leadership. It was an ugly year all the way around the South Side, with the moronic assault on Kansas City first-base coach Tom Gamboa by two shirtless fans providing one last feel-bad moment.
This winter, Mientkiewicz offered an interesting assessment of the top two teams in the AL Central.
"We have 25 players on this club who get along and play as a team,'' said Mientkiewicz, the Twins' first baseman. "The White Sox have proved that they don't have what we have.''
Minnesota won the Central by 13½ games last year by maximizing the performance of an undersized payroll. It had only three players drive in as many as 75 runs -- Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and the since-departed David Ortiz -- and outscored its opponents by a mere 56 runs. It was a tribute to Gardenhire, the bullpen and solid fielding that the Twins were able to finish 27 games over .500.
Koch, who has already assured himself of popularity on the South Side, says the baseball gods also deserve a tip of the Minnesota cap.
"I honestly don't think the Twins can play at the level they did last year,'' said Koch, the closer whom the White Sox acquired this past offseason from Oakland for a three-player package headed by Keith Foulke. "They had a lot of the, quote, 'baseball bounces' last year. They had an awful lot of those happen. I'm not taking away from their talent, because they had a lot of talented players, but they had every single bounce go their way. It was almost like they never had any bad luck. They only had good luck.''
And what about 2003?
"Unless they have some deal with the devil up there,'' Koch said, "I don't see that happening again.''
This wasn't the first time Koch's comments made headlines in Minnesota. He and Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski traded barbs during the playoffs last season.
"I think there's a rule in Chicago," Gardenhire said. "If you want to sign with the White Sox, you've got to rip the Twins."
Behind the caustic comments, the truth is these teams respect each other greatly. Both organizations have done an excellent job developing talent, which has allowed them to compete without a top-tier payroll. The White Sox have more talent, top to bottom, on their roster but have not been able to get the kind of overall results from it as the Twins, who show players as much patience as any organization in the majors.
In recent years, the Twins' lineup has been stocked with players, the White Sox's with hitters. Both teams have had middle-of-the-league pitching staffs.
The Twins have had the better-known trio of starters in Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays, but haven't gotten tremendous results from it (since winning 20 games in 1997, Radke is 60-60; Milton has a 4.80 career ERA, and Mays has been a double-figure winner once in four seasons).
It's still somewhat of a secret, but the White Sox have one of the best homegrown trios in Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Danny Wright. While none of the three is over the age of 25, they went a combined 45-36 last year.
It was the solid performances by Garland and Wright, along with the late-season play of third baseman Joe Crede, second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez and center fielder Aaron Rowand that encouraged Sox general manager Ken Williams to try to load up for 2003.
Williams had an outstanding winter of dealing. He made trades for 20-game winner Bartolo Colon and Koch while signing Brian Daubach, Tom Gordon, Rick White and Sandy Alomar Jr. as free agents. The Colon acquisition gave the White Sox the majors' only collection of four starters coming off seasons in which they threw 190-plus innings over at least 30 starts.
On paper, the Sox opened camp as a superior team to the Twins. In Magglio Ordonez, Konerko, Thomas, Carlos Lee, Jose Valentin and Daubach, they have six players who drove in at least 75 runs last year. That's only one fewer player than the Yankees had to accomplish the same feat.
In Koch, Gordon and lefty Damaso Marte, they have late-inning relievers who were a combined 13-8 with 54 saves, a 3.16 ERA and 213 strikeouts in 196 2/3 innings last season. They have experienced middlemen in White, Gary Glover and Kelly Wunsch and have three rookies on the way with dynamite stuff -- right-hander Edwin Almonte and lefties Arnaldo Munoz and David Sanders.
Budget limits, meanwhile, have kept the Twins from adding to their 2002 mix. They've lost Ortiz (who had a monstrous winter in the Dominican Republic and could be a steal for Boston) and set-up man Mike Jackson. But they believe they'll find replacements in their farm system.
Rookie right fielder Michael Cuddyer -- pronounced "ka-DY-er," like "ka-boom" -- could provide a lift. But the real key for Minnesota lies in the production of veterans like third baseman Corey Koskie, shortstop Cristian Guzman and Mientkiewicz. Were their 2002 declines blips on the radar or evidence that they've hit their ceilings?
And what about Milton's bad knee and Mays' balky elbow? Or Guardado's unhappiness about the lack of a contract extension?
These are the kind of questions that will be debated until April 25. That's when the Twins and White Sox meet for the first of 19 times.
Early indications suggest the season series between these teams will be worth the wait.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a web site at www.chicagosports.com.