Orlando, Fla. — The exodus of star players from Minnesota for the big money of the free agent era has been exceeded only by the mad dash for the exists at Oakland, but far from falling apart as the A's have done, the Twins have remained bona fide contenders.
Relief ace Bill Campbell and hitting stars Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock went the free agent route in 1977 and '78, and the team hung in there. Perennial batting champion Rod Carew and hard-hitting Danny Ford had to be traded last year lest they too be lost to free agency, and not only did the Twins survive, they amazed the baseball world by staying in the thick of the American League West race all season.
Now this year it's former 20-game winner Dave Goltz who must be replaced -- and probably will be! That's the optimistic outlook at camp here, anyway, as the Twins prepare to mount what they feel can be another strong challenge.
Some credit obviously belongs to owner Calvin Griffith, who has managed to keep or acquire a respectable amount of talent without letting his payroll soar into the stratosphere. Then there is manager Gene Mauch, who each spring takes what is left for him to work with the molds it into a team that inevitably does better than expected.
Last year, for instance, while pre-season favorites California, Kansas City, and Texas failed to generate much steam, the unsung Twins seized first place and held it through most of May, remained a close second or third until late August, and weren't eliminated until the final week. This season the same other three clubs are again considered the top contenders, with the Twins pretty much consigned to the middle of the pack. But Mauch thinks the so-called experts have just repeated their annual mistake of underrating his team.
"Anybody who thinks we're not gonna compete is crazy," said Mauch, ticking off such plus factors as his fine young catcher Butch Wynegar, the outstanding all-around ability of Ken Landreaux, a hard-hitting infield that may also be the best around defensively,m some good starting pitchers, and a strong bullpen headed by the redoubtable Mike Marshall.
Mauch didn't mention it, of course, but another area where the Twins have an edge is in the managerial department. Gene is the dean of major league pilots, with 20 years of continuous service (nine with Philadelphia, seven with Montreal , and four with Minnesota) -- a truly amazing record in what has to be one of the world's most insecure positions.
Those who think Mauch is overrated point out that none of these teams has ever won even a division title -- and they love to mention the 1964 Phillies, who blew the National League flag with a late September collapse. Any objective assessment, however, indicates that Gene just hasn't had the material, and that his teams have almost always played beyond their apparent capabilities. Even in 1964, he probably deserved credit for keeping the Phillies in contention rather than blame for the fact that they couldn't hold on.
As for this year's playing talent, a good place to start is with Landreaux, who was the key man for the Twins in the Carew trade. A top prospect who hadn't come into his own in California, Ken really blossomed last year in his first opportunity to play full time. After a relatively slow start, he hit .381 through July and August, finishing at .305 with 15 home runs and 83 RBIs while also performing brilliantly in an otherwise undistinguished outfield.
When Mauch was asked, in fact, if he thought the Twins might have won last season if they had still had Carew, he replied:
"Rodney is a great hitter. I won't be surprised if he hits .370 this year. But he didn't last year. If we'd still had him, we wouldn't have had Landreaux. And as far as last year's statistics go [Carew: .318, 3 HR, 44 RBIs], there's no comparison."
A top catcher is always a must, and the Twins have one in Wynegar. Not only does Butch combine defensive skill with offensive punch, he figures to get even better. "He started so young that people don't realize it," noted Mauch, "but even though this is his fifth year as a regular he just turned 24."
The infield of Ron Jackson, Rob Wilfong, Roy Smalley, and John Castino is another major plus. Castino's great reflexes and uncanny instincts are rapidly gaining him recognition as one of the game's top third baseman. Smalley may not have the spectacular flair or the speed of some of his rivals, but since he led all big league shortstops in assists, put-outs, total chances, and double plays, he must be doing something right (i.e., he knows how to play the hitters, which is even more important than those other qualities).At second base Wilfong has good range and all-around skill, while first baseman Jackson set a club fielding record at that position.
Furthermore, these are not your proverbial "good field, no hit" glove men. Smalley, the hardest-hitting shortstop in the game, batted .271 with 24 homers and 95 RBIs. Wilfong hit .313 and Castino .285, while Jackson had 14 homers and 68 RBIs.
Left-handers Jerry Koosman, who won 20 games in his first AL season, and Geoff Zahn (13-7) are the only established starters now that Goltz has gone to Los Angeles, but Mauch professes not to be worried. He talks glowingly of young prospect Darrell Jackson and doesn't worry that he too is a southpaw ("If you're going to be top-heavy anywhere, left-handed pitching is the best place"). There's also Roger Erickson, who disappointed last year after a 14-13 rookie season: ("I don't expect him to come back from a three-win season to 20, like Koosman, but there's no reason he can't win 15 or 16"). Another possibility is Pete Redfern, though this would leave open the long relief spot he filled so well last year.
Hardly a world-beating starting rotation, but maybe you don't need one with the amazing Marshall (90 appearances, 10 wins, 32 saves) coming out of the bullpen. Mike marches to his own drummer in spring training, and Mauch goes along with it.
"He'll show up around March 22 with a sack full of saves," Gene said.
With all the question marks on the mound plus the lack of outfield strength beyond Landreaux, a victory or even a big challenge by the Twins in 1980 would be something of a surprise. But then Mauch and his club are used to that situation.