Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Twins as Underdogs

This time of the year I love to be able to go to the local newsstand to pick up different news outlets MLB preview magazines. My favorite one that I usually purchase is the one that is put together by the Sporting News, but there are many other good editions out there that provide a wealth of knowledge on the coming MLB season.

In recent memory the Twins, for the most part, have been underdogs in the AL Central. This year is more of the same with the Twins being picked in most magazines as the #3 team in the Central behind the Tigers and the White Sox. The Tigers and White Sox have made some key additions this offseason and it makes sense to place them ahead of the Twins to start the season. If I was forced to make an unbiased choice right now, I would say that one, if not both, of these teams will finish ahead of the Twins.

These fictional rankings seem to always place the Twins in the role of underdog to start the season. This role has been common place for the Twins in multiple settings over the course of the last decade. The Twins have come back from the edge of contraction, they have fought back to win multiple division titles, and they have seen many players overcome adversity to succeed in dark horse roles.

There are many teams and players that have been accepting of their underdog status as a member of the Twins organization. Below you will find my votes in a few prestigious underdog categories from the last decade.

Most Underdog Pitcher: Johan Santana
At the beginning of his career it seemed like no one wanted to hang on to Johan Santana. He signed with the Houston Astros as an amateur free agent in 1995 at the age of 16. Four years later the Astros failed to protect him on their roster and he was selected by the Florida Marlins in the Rule 5 Draft. The Marlins didn't hang on to him for very long because later that day they traded Santana and cash to the Twins for Jared Camp.  The Twins were forced to keep Santana on their 25-man roster for the next season and he had his share of bumps and bruises along the way. Eventually he would develop the dominating change-up that Twins fans fell in love with during the mid-2000's and the rest is history. He would go on to win two Cy Young Awards and for his last few seasons with the Twins he was arguably the most dominating pitcher in the game. Mr. Santana had quite the turn-around from his early role as an underdog.

Most Underdog Position Player: Lew Ford vs. Nick Punto
This was a tough category for me to pick one player out of the bunch. Some of the candidates that I examined were Lew Ford, Nick Punto, and Jason Tyner. The first person off the list was Jason Tyner because he was the 21st pick in the draft in 1998. It is hard to be an underdog when expectations are that high at the beginning of your career. Punto (21st round) and Ford (12th round) were both very late round picks by their respective teams. Each of these players started their careers on the East Coast but only a small market club like the Twins could appreciate the talents they brought to the field. Both players had one outstanding season (Punto in '06 and Ford in '04) in the midst of their mediocrity. At the height of their popularity both of these players had a cult following amongst Twins fans. You can still spot Lew Ford jersey's at Target Field and Nick Punto's career will continue to be followed by many Twins faithful. If there were an underdog team, both of these players could be star players for that ball club.
Punto is upset at Ford. He wanted to be the only underdog.
Most Underdog Team: 2002 Twins
Has there ever been a more underdog team than the 2002 Minnesota Twins? The league had set them up to fail and had pushed the franchise to the brink of contraction. The young group of Twins players played with a swagger that allowed them to overcome every obstacle that was put in their path. Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, AJ Pierzynski, and Doug Mientkiewicz all came up together as part of the Twins farm system and that bond allowed them to beat many obstacles in that magical summer. In the first round of the playoffs the Twins were also huge underdogs against the Oakland Athletics that had steamrolled their way through the AL in the second half of the season. The A's won 103 games and were led by a pitching staff of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder. The Twins were able to snatch the series away from Oakland in a decisive fifth game. ESPN the Magazine even proclaimed them "The Team that Saved Baseball." That sounds like the perfect title for a movie about an underdog team of misfits.


TT said...

I think the description of Santana as an "underdog" is unbelievably misleading.

First, Minnesota took Jared Camp with the first pick in the rule 5 draft immediately BEFORE the Marlins took Santana. It was a prearranged deal that had the Twins passing on the player the Marlins wanted, Camp, in exchange for the player they wanted, Santana, and a little cash.

Not only did Santana stay with the Twins all season in 2000, he also started the 2001 season in the major leagues. He got hurt and didn't pitch for most of the last half of the season.

It wasn't until 2002 that they sent him him back to AAA with the expressly stated purpose of getting him ready to start again after missing a large part of the previous season. There were probably some financial reasons as well, since that brief time in the minor leagues extended his free agent eligibility by a year.

Santana was treated as a potential star from the time the Twins got him through the rule 5 draft. He was never an underdog.

NoDak Twins Fan said...

TT: The list of Rule 5 players that become All-Stars is pretty slim. Santana is arguably the most noteworthy player to make a path through the Rule 5 Draft. He may have been "treated as a potential star" when the Twins selected him but he wasn't a star yet. Every player that you pick in any draft has the "potential" to be a star. Santana was able to overcome some adversity and injuries to become a dominating pitcher and that is why I gave him the underdog label.