August 9, 2004

Star Pupils

I always have a tough time when the Twins play the A's. While I will never root for another team against the Twins, I do root for Oakland in any circumstance in which they aren't going up against my favorite team. So, while the Twins losing three out of four to the A's was tough to take as a Twins fan (particularly considering Sunday's 18-inning disaster), it's a whole lot better than losing three out of four to some other team.

In a way, losing a series to Oakland is like losing out on a girl to your best friend. There's no way you're happy about not getting the girl, but you can still sort of deal with it by saying, "At least he got her." Losing to the A's is the absolute worst thing in the world, except for losing to every other team. Plus, the A's, who have been going back and forth atop the American League West with the Rangers and Angels all year, definitely needed it, and probably a lot more than the Twins.

I got a lot of "interesting" e-mails from Twins fans and White Sox fans after I basically said the AL Central race was getting close to being over. My exact words were that the Twins "are getting very close to running away and hiding from the rest of the American League Central."

Now, after dropping the final game of the Anaheim series and losing three out of four to the A's, you might think I'd be ready to retract or at least amend that statement, but I'm not. That's because my feelings on the division race being nearly over had less to do with the Twins than with the White Sox.

The White Sox, despite a favorable schedule coming down the stretch, will not win the AL Central, and I wouldn't bet against them finishing in third place (where they currently reside). Their two best players are done for the year, their offense is suddenly awful (last night being the exception), they've lost 12 of their last 15 games, and they are already six games behind the Twins. As I said last week, I'm far more concerned about the Indians, although I don't see them making up a five-game deficit either.

As was the case at the start of the year, the Twins are a very flawed team. And, as was the case at the start of the year, there is absolutely no way they would be in contention for any other division in baseball. But because they only have to beat the other four teams in the AL Central, and because the one team among those four most people expected to be good this year is suddenly very mediocre, the Twins will once again win the division.

I sometimes wonder how much things would be different if the Twins were in a different division (or if the AL Central had some other good teams). They will likely make the playoffs for the third straight season this year and it will be their fourth straight season winning at least 50% of their games. And for that, the team -- from the players to Ron Gardenhire to Terry Ryan -- should be praised.

But what if, instead of this being their third straight division title run, they were simply going for third place in the AL East or AL West for the third straight year? Or what if the "big deal" about the team was only the part about playing .500 baseball for four straight years, without all the postseason stuff?

I think, despite some flaws, Terry Ryan and the Twins' front office staff have done a tremendous job. I think, despite some even more obvious flaws, Ron Gardenhire has done an acceptable job. And certainly the players deserve a ton of credit for the success this team has had over the past 3-4 years. But more than any of that, I think you have to look long and hard at the competition in the AL Central as the main reason why the Twins have gotten so much praise of late.

Take the Philadelphia Phillies, for example. They're getting a ton of criticism, just like they did last year, because they haven't done as well as many people (myself included) thought they would. But what if the Phillies didn't have to compete against the Braves and the Marlins, but instead simply had to beat the White Sox each year?


2001 85 86
2002 94 80
2003 90 86
2004 62 58
TOTAL 331 310

Since the Twins became a good team again, they've won 331 games while playing half their games against the White Sox, Royals, Indians and Tigers. During that same time, the Phillies have won 310 games while playing half their games against the Braves, Marlins, Mets and Expos.

One team, the Twins, is looked at as a huge success story and an organization other teams model themselves after. The other team, the Phillies, are viewed as a huge disappointment. Yet the only thing separating them is 21 wins over the course of four years. Again, if the Twins were fighting the Braves and the Marlins every year, instead of just the White Sox, don't you think things might be a little different?

And it's not just the Phillies. The Dodgers won 86, 92 and 85 games from 2001-2003 and are on pace for 96 wins this year, but if they can hold on to their lead in the NL West, it will be their first playoff appearance since 1996. The Astros have won 319 games over the same time span the Twins have won 331 games, but they will likely have just one playoff appearance to show for it. The Blue Jays won 80, 78 and 86 games from 2001-2003, but didn't even come close to sniffing first place.

Unless they go into a huge funk for the final two months of the season, the Twins will make the playoffs for the third straight year. In those three years, they've played the easiest schedule of any team in baseball. The Twins' "Strength of Schedule" ranks dead last in all of baseball this season, it ranked dead last in 2003, and it ranked dead last in 2002.

Being the smartest kid in the dumb class has its perks, as Twins fans have found out over the past 2+ seasons. At the same time, it's worth remembering that there are teams out there playing against quality competition who, if put in the Twins' situation, would very likely have had the same amount of success, and maybe more. In other words, you might be the smartest kid in the dumb class, but that's just because the kids in the smart class are stuck there.

While this may seem like an anti-Twins rant, it is not. It is just what I've been thinking about lately, while wondering if, at some point along the line, the Twins could have done a few things and made a few moves to move them into the realm of serious contenders.

Instead, it seems to me they've been content simply being the teacher's pet in the dumb class that is the AL Central and, while that's fun and a nice boost to the collective egos of Twins fans, it also leaves a feeling of "what could have been" if only they'd set their goals a little higher.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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