Where It Started
By adding veteran talent the year prior, in conjunction with contributions from a couple of talented youth, the Twins had gone from a 56-win team in (a strike-shortened) 1995 to a 78-win team in 1996. This didn't necessarily bode well for the coming season however, as many of the guys the team looked to as standout players, like Rick Aguilera, Paul Molitor and Roberto Kelly, were all another year older. In the last four seasons the Twins had finished 5th twice and 4th twice, and unless something changed it didn't appear likely that they would pull out of the four-year long losing skid.
Once more the Twins dipped into the free agent pool to flesh out the roster. Terry Ryan began by offering 35-year old Terry Steinbach a two-year deal to be the everyday starting catcher. One week later, 36-year old starting pitcher Bob Tewksbury signed a two-year deal with the Twins. Fast forward another six days, and converted starter Greg Swindell (32) signed a two-year deal which would kick off the first of five seasons where he'd post a better than league average ERA.
The pitching additions meant the Twins were set in the rotation. With Aguilera returning to his role as closer, Ryan's intial starters were Brad Radke, Frankie Rodriguez, Scott Aldred, Bob Tewksbury and Rich Robertson.
For position players, 24-year old Todd Walker was initially granted the third base job; he'd taken over the position in '96 after the trade of Dave Hollins. Besides new catcher Steinbach and Matt Lawton winning the starting right field job, the rest of the lineup also mirrored how the position players rounded out the end of '96.
C Terry Steinbach
1B Scott Stahoviak
2B Chuck Knoblauch
3B Todd Walker
SS Pat Meares
LF Marty Cordova
CF Rich Becker
RF Matt Lawton
DH Paul Molitor
In the first game of the year, the Twins were already off to an auspicious start. First baseman Scott Stahoviak left the game in the fourth inning and went right to the disabled list. 27-year old free agent pick up Greg Colbrunn picked up a majority of the slack.
Marty Cordova hit the disabled list after the eighth game of the season, and not returning until the end of May manager Tom Kelly gave the extra outfield at-bats to Roberto Kelly, youngster Brent Brede and April addition Darrin Jackson. While Jackson was a 34-year old vet (who couldn't find a job after hitting .312/.362/.455 for the White Sox the year before), Brede was a 25-year old who had a .974 and .975 OPS in AAA between '96 and '97. Jackson found little success in Minnesota and was traded later in the season; Brede wasn't bad in 61 games for a rookie, hitting .274/.347/.389.
Toward the end of May, Walker was sent to the minors after compiling a disappointing .194/.264/.269 line. A 30-year old Ron Coomer took over the hot corner, en route to a good-by-comparison .298/.324/.438 season.
Chuck Knoblauch was on his way to his first and only Gold Glove (he could have had at least one more), and his second Silver Slugger in three seasons. Knoblauch was a true star in spite of his frustration, and even though he wasn't the doubles machine he'd been in years past he stole a career-high 62 bases (caught 10 times), was an All Star and hit .291/.390/.411 in 156 games. Paul Molitor put up a solid season, but slid from his first year in Minnesota just as his third season would be a slide from his second. Still a full time player he notched 538 at-bats, hit .305/.351/.435 with 32 doubles and 10 home runs. Molitor was class in the midst of a struggling franchise, and as fun as it was to watch him play there was something sad about it as well.
While Matt Lawton was laying the foundation for a solid if unspectacular career with the Twins (79 walks, .366 OBP, 29 doubles in 460 at-bats), the rest of the position player pool wasn't performing. Marty Cordova and Rich Becker each took a big step backward; Pat Meares was solid in the hole but a typical shortstop at the plate; Terry Steinbach posted a .696 OPS.
On the hill, Brad Radke provided most of the national press for the Twins. Radke won a career-high 20 games in 1997, on a team that would only win 68. At one point Radke won twelve consecutive starts, from June 7 to August 4. Tallying four complete games in 35 starts, Radke's biggest day came on September 21st. Starting in the Dome against the Brewers, Brad pitched ten innings, striking out nine, walking none and allowing six hits. He allowed one run, a home run to Jeff Cirillo in the top of the first inning with one out. Ron Coomer doubled in the sixth to score Knoblauch, tying the game at one. In the bottom of the tenth with one out, Brent Brede lined a single into right field. On the fifth pitch to Paul Molitor, Molitor pulled a screaming liner down the right field line. He tripled in Brede, giving Radke a well-earned 20th victory.
The rest of the starters didn't prove half as successful, as twelve different men started games for Minnesota. Only 23-year old Dan Serafini showed any promise, starting four games and posting a 135 ERA+ in 26.1 innings.
In the bullpen, Aguilera led the way with 26 saves. Not to be wasted he still appeared in 61 games, striking out 68 hitters. Long man Greg Swindell and specialist Eddie Guardado were also solid, with Mike Trombley rounding out a fairly reliable four-headed bullpen.
By the end of 1997 the Twins had lost ten wins off '96, but a couple surprises meant there were very realistically more things to look forward to at summer's end than at season's start. Dan Serafini (23), Brad Radke (24) and even Frank Rodriguez (24) were starters you could look to for improvement and stability. Knoblauch was a star, Lawton looked like he had room to grow, Brede had been dominating the minor leagues, and David Ortiz had walked through A and AA pitchers. There couldn't be any delusions about 1998, but after a patch-work '97 things couldn't get much worse on a team level.
Colbrunn to Atlanta: Greg Colbrunn's 217 at-bats with the Twins were fine for a backup, at least hitting for average as he registered a .281/.307/.415 line. On August 14, Ryan sent the journeyman to the Braves for infielder Mark Lewis. Lewis never played for the Twins in any capacity. While it would be nearly impossible for Ryan to get anything of value for Colbrunn, he got nothing. On the other hand, he was able to move a virtually useless piece. This is pretty much a no-impact player traded for what ended up being nothing. This one's a wash.
Kelly to Seattle: Roberto Kelly was a decent role player for the Twins. Past his prime he'd lost his speed, but as a fourth outfielder was reliable at the dish (109, 101 OPS+ in two seasons). On August 20th he was dealt for a player to be named later. On October 9th, the Mariners sent Minnesota Joe Mays and Jeromy Palki. Mays went on to provide the Twins with one very good season and a number of inconsistent and sub-par ones. While you could say his one good year was worth the two months of Kelly that we didn't need anyway, it evens out a little bit considering what that one good season ended up costing the Twins financially. Palki, on the other hand, was a strikeout pitcher who always put up good numbers for his level but was always old for his level as well. He was 23 with the Twins rookie-ball team in '99, and he finished his professional career with three consecutive seasons at AAA for the Twins at age 28 in 2004. I'm still giving the advantage in this trade to Ryan, for the years of major league service Minnesota received from Joe Mays.
Jackson to Milwaukee: This was the epitome of the Did-You-Even-Know-That-Happened trade. On August 30th, Ryan sent Darrin Jackson and his one-legged remainder of a career to the Brewers for almost 24-year old Michael Fieldbinder. Fieldbinder spent one season in high-A ball, posting a decent ERA in 137 innings but also owning some dangerous peripherals. He wouldn't be back in '99. Another wash because it didn't matter either way, even if the Brewers forced Jackson to the their fourth outfielder the following season.
Myers to Atlanta: On September 5, Ryan sent backup catcher Greg Myers through waivers to the Braves. In return, the Braves sent 23-year old first baseman Steve Hacker to the Twins. Hacker struggled in rookie and high-A ball for Minnesota in '98, but exploded at AA in '99. As a 24-year old he blasted 27 homers in 118 games, hitting .302/.358/.555. His promotion to AAA didn't last very long however, and after just 25 games wouldn't return to professional baseball. A backup catcher for nothing? Wash, as Myers would go on to post only one season worth writing home about (2003: 329 at-bats, 15 HR, .307/.374/.502).
1997 Trade Review
A slight edge has to go to Ryan in this season. Nothing of much value was traded, and perhaps the most useful piece (Kelly) returned a starting pitcher with one good season and five other seasons worth of major league service. Looking at what he was working with, getting anything of value was a good thing. An oft-injured and moderately effective number 4 starter counts.
Pick Name Pos Age High Level MLB Years
9 Michael Cuddyer SS 18 MLB 2001 - Present
50 Matt LeCroy C 21 MLB 2000 - Present
61 Michael Restovich OF 18 MLB 2002 - Present
93 Greg Withelder P 18 A+
123 Bob Davied P 21 A+
153 Peter Blake P 18 A
183 Nate Melson P 18 Rookie
213 Matt Carnes P 21 AAA
243 Ben Thomas P 21 Rookie
273 Jon Schaeffer C 21 AA
303 Josh Gandy P 21 A+
633 J.C. Romero P 21 MLB 1999 - Present
Minnesota did an okay job in the '97 draft, but did do pretty well with their two first round picks (Cuddyer, LeCroy), since both came up through the system and played significant roles in the team's successes over the last six years: LeCroy's role-player profile earlier on; now Cuddyer's everyday role today. Second round pick Restovich was held in high regard, and although he never matured with the Twins as the organization had hoped, and appears to be on the ropes, he's still spent time in the majors on and off since 2002.
Third round pick Gred Withelder went back into the draft, a familiar theme for the Twins in their '97 draft. Fourteen of the Twins 53 picks re-entered the draft, including two re-draftees and a current Twin: 17th-rounder Kevin Frederick, 25th rounder Adam Johnson and 33rd-rounder Nick Punto.
Down ten wins off the previous season, the Twins were struggling to develop new stars. Established star Chuck Knoblauch had become disillusioned with the franchise, and his often truculent attitude toward the media and fans may have ended his tenure in Minnesota before it was officially over. Aging players like Molitor, Steinbach, Aguilera, Tewksbury and Swindell weren't part of the future, but the farm system cavalry wouldn't be ready by the spring of 1998. Players like Cordova, Becker, Rodriguez and LaTroy Hawkins hadn't taken a step forward. Javier Valentin, David Ortiz, Dan Serafini and Torii Hunter had tasted at least a miniscule morsel of the majors, but they weren't ready.
Team payroll in 1997 was roughly $25,750,000, and with how the club was struggling there was zero chance of that number increasing. If the Twins were going to find a way to get better, it was going to have to be from within. This was a long road, and Terry Ryan's Minnesota Twins were just beginning. Moves were coming, but the darkest days lie ahead.