Mackey: Twins' brass selling some hope, but will it backfire?
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Every year at the end of January, TwinsFest signals the end of the offseason for the Minnesota Twins and the beginning of their road to Fort Myers.
This year, judging by the comments of Twins executives and decision-makers, TwinsFest felt more like the end of an offseason exorcism for the team to rid itself of 2011 demons.
"We're going to push past last year," manager Ron Gardenhire said in an interview on 1500 ESPN on Saturday. "I want to get that out of our system, and that'll be a good thing once we get the baseballs popping in the gloves and get to spring training, get on the field, we can forget about all that stuff and move forward. Health is always an issue. We want to get all the players out there. We want to get it done."
The internal vibe at Target Field has changed considerably since the day Bill Smith was relieved of his GM duties on November 7. At the time, new GM Terry Ryan used the word "challenge" just about every other breath.
But the Twins, internally, currently feel good about their offseason additions -- shortstop Jamey Carroll, catcher Ryan Doumit, pitchers Jason Marquis and Joel Zumaya, and outfielder Josh Willingham, who will be expected to replace the production of Michael Cuddyer.
So comfortable, in fact, that they're starting more and more to pump hope.
"I think we all have a lot to prove," Gardenhire said. "I know you folks didn't enjoy (last season). We didn't enjoy it. The players didn't enjoy it. So we want to get back to our way, and we're going to get after it, and we're going to irritate a lot of people this year.
"I hope they pick us last, which they should. That's all good and fine with us, because you know what? We've already been worst to first before and we can do it again."
For the record, since Gardenhire was traded to the organization as a middle infielder in 1986, the Twins have gone from sixth place to first place in a seven-team division (1987), last place to second place in a five-team division (2001), and most notably last place to first place -- and a World Series title -- in 1991.
Now, the atmosphere on Saturday may have had something to do with Gardenhire's pointed message -- he was seated on stage at TwinsFest in front of probably 1,000 Twins fans inside the Metrodome. A less fiery message wouldn't have brought fans to their feet.
But it was genuine.
And key members of the organization feel similarly -- with no mention of the word "rebuilding" -- including owner and CEO Jim Pohlad, who said in an interview on Sunday Morning SportsTalk, "We definitely share (Gardenhire's) outlook."
In that same interview, team president Dave St. Peter added, "It's not the first time we're going to go to spring training picked to finish at or near the bottom of our division. We get that.
"I think as an organization we believe we're better than that, but we also understand that we need to demonstrate on the field, one, that we're healthy, and two, that we can play at that high level.
"We're probably in a situation where we have to work to earn back the respect and the trust of some folks, and we need to be accountable for that."
It would be foolish for Twins brass to come out and publicly tell fans they'd accept 82 wins in 2012. Interest in the team would fizzle, and ticket sales would almost certainly drop (the Twins have sold about 2.2 million tickets already for next season, and many of them probably sold due in part to the prospects of a bounce-back season).
From a business standpoint, the Twins should pound the bounce-back drum. Hope sells.
And what else are they supposed to say?
"We're probably losing 90 again. Swing by the ballpark anyways!"
But outwardly expressing the notion of going worst-to-first -- or even just talking openly about the possibility of proving everyone wrong -- sets up a potentially massive letdown for any non-grounded fans.
The Tigers just added Prince Fielder. The Angels signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. The Rangers, Yankees, Rays and Red Sox all won 90+ games last season and none of them are going anywhere.
And aside from those six American League powerhouses the Twins -- despite internal optimism -- have plenty of in-house on-the-field issues that need to be fixed from last season, starting with Mauer and Morneau.
"Justin and Joe are really cornerstone players for us," St. Peter said, "but we'd also like to think that it doesn't fall exclusively on those two. I always talk about the pitching. The same guys are back that helped us win 94 games and a division title in 2010. That's also the same group that we lost 99 games with. So glass half full or empty."
The message feels like a step beyond cautious optimism.
Let's call it passive-aggressive confidence.