03/23/08 12:00 PM ET
Turnaround tales about to be told
A few teams could be in line to right the ship this season
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
The Twins have a terrific bullpen trio in Joe Nathan, Pat Neshek and Jesse Crain. But dependable starters are needed to put them to good use. Gardenhire and GM Bill Smith must see opportunity -- otherwise, they would not have opted to add a veteran like Livan Hernandez a couple days before camp opened."I know we're going to be young beyond Hernandez," Smith said, "but we've got a lot of young guys [Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Philip Humber and Glen Perkins] battling for that final spot." The best battle, however, continues to unfold in Hunter's footsteps: Denard Span and Jason Pridie have been impressive, but the Twins may need to have Carlos Gomez in center. Gomez headlined the prospect package acquired from the Mets in the Santana deal, and there may be no better way for the franchise to split from its past than by having him in the Opening Day lineup. The Rays have done more constructive things this month than just cutting their competitive teeth. So much attention was paid their brouhahas with the Yankees that overlooked was the fact -- oh, by the way -- they also beat them in both of those high-tension exhibition meetings. In already setting a club record for Grapefruit League wins, Tampa Bay also has lost only twice in 13 games against other AL clubs, is 6-1-1 vs. the AL East and is 5-1 against Detroit and Philadelphia. Yet it's almost as if the Rays are being humored. That could be a mistake, even if the weight of the AL East does have to curb their optimism. Rays manager Joe Maddon has a terrific lineup. He can't feel too good about opening with Scott Kazmir's bum elbow paring his one-two pitching punch down to James Shields. But the Rays are so encouraged that this time not even Rocco Baldelli's latest disablement got them down. Instead, GM Andrew Friedman scours around for the type of veteran aid usually sought by teams looking for a finishing piece. Kenny Lofton's name has come up, and if Tampa Bay internally revisits the Barry Bonds issue -- post-Baldelli, they really should -- you'll know they sniff contention. Tampa Bay is already on the right track for having deleted "Devil" from its nickname. That connotation is simply bad karma in any sport -- already, the Mississippi Delta Devils have been routed out of the NCAA basketball tourney, and the Duke Blue Devils were almost leveled by a No. 15 seed before getting bounced by a No. 7 seed in Round 2. It would be quite ironic (and upsetting) if the Texas Rangers continue to have mound struggles because a couple years ago they had the two pitchers who could be huge in a Cincinnati turnaround: closer Francisco Cordero and 24-year-old right-hander Edison Volquez. Volquez came in the trade of Josh Hamilton, who has been sensational in Arizona. But the Reds could afford to swap offense; they've got plenty still stashed from the 2007 lineup that ranked third in the NL with 204 home runs. Volquez and 22-year-old Johnny Cueto have pumped up new manager Dusty Baker. Between them, they registered 33 strikeouts in their first 28 innings, while allowing eight runs. Baker is excited about what two such young arms could do in a rotation headlined by Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. Detroit manager Jim Leyland knows a few things about dramatic turnarounds, having taken the 2006 Tigers to the World Series after 12 consecutive losing seasons, and he came away from a recent exhibition raving about Baker's club. "His team is going to be a very big surprise. Quietly, that team has one of the best offenses in baseball," Leyland said. "The team they put on the field looks pretty good to me, and with Dusty managing they could be a force." As for the team dragging around the longest ball-and-chain ... the Bucs also have going for them the NL Central, currently a six-team Swiss-cheese division that can enable Cinderella tales. Pittsburgh's lineup also has a big heart: Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay and Adam LaRoche, who relaxed into finally producing the second half of 2007 and should remain dangerous. New manager John Russell is literally losing sleep over his batting order. His biggest challenge is finding room for both Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan, who have staged a gripping battle for the center-field job. But both possess the speed, along with other tools, that could ignite an offense that scored three runs or less in 70 games -- 59 of them losses. Even a little extra punch could be huge in support of a very respectable starting rotation, in which vet Matt Morris looms as the weak link. Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny and Pat Maholm -- none of them older than 26 -- bring a glow to the Golden Triangle. "We're going to put our best lineup together where we feel it will make us strong," said Russell, who all spring has preached the importance of playing the game alertly. As agendas go, that's not too radical. But if you are to snap awake from a long sleep, being wide-eyed is a good place to start.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.