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Twins won’t win championships without more championship players

It comes down to this: If the team wants to be “world champion,” it cannot tolerate or coddle role players who botch bunts, run the bases poorly and miss signs or cutoff men — brainless mistakes that cost you games.

See if this sounds familiar: The Twins lose a game because one of their overachieving grunts screws up. Then after the game, said grunt comes to his locker, mans up, takes the blame and answers every difficult question. His manager and teammates defend him, pointedly saying his action did not lose the game.

Nick Punto was the grunt in question after American League Division Series Game 3, and by now you all know why. In the eighth inning with the Twins down a run to the Yankees, Punto trusted the Metrodome crowd of 54,735 instead of third base coach Scott Ullger. He overran third on Denard Span’s infield single, assuming the crowd’s roar meant it had gotten through (wrong) and was gunned out diving back, Derek Jeter to Jorge Posada to Alex Rodriguez.

This was unconscionably stupid on a bunch of levels. Listening to 50,000 yahoos who blindly cheer fly balls caught 10 feet in front of the warning track instead of a third-base coach with a perfect view of the play is, well, about as dumb a decision as a professional player can make. And this isn’t the first mistake of over-aggressiveness by Punto, who, as manager Ron Gardenhire’s pet, receives perpetual absolution for miscues large or small.

Stark differences
But it showed, again, graphically, the difference between the Twins and every team they’ve lost to in postseason since 2002. And it has nothing to do with bad luck or curses or somebody else’s bloated payroll.

The Twins lose in the playoffs because they lack enough championship players. And unless Twins management finally decides that’s unacceptable, and aggressively remedies it, Joe Mauer is out of here, and the Twins might not see another World Series for 30 years.

That’s the biggest challenge facing general manager Bill Smith and his staff as the Twins move into Target Field next year. They have obvious needs — figuring out who plays third, short and second; adding a veteran arm or two to their young rotation of interchangeable No. 3s; and convincing Mauer, a free agent after next season, that the club is as serious about winning a world championship as he is.

Smith and his scouts should be commended for finding and acquiring shortstop Orlando Cabrera and pitchers Carl Pavano, Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay, all productive players and good fits in a Twins clubhouse that badly needed veteran guidance. Whether that’s enough to convince Mauer of the club’s commitment to winning remains unclear.

Mauer still noncommittal on future
In interviews with me and national writers in the last few weeks, Mauer remained noncommital about his future. Sunday night, after the Twins were eliminated, Mauer made a face when asked if the front office showed the commitment he requires. “I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “I wanted to play [Monday] and get back to New York. I’ll maybe need a few weeks to evaluate it a little bit.” 

Mauer is too gracious a person and too good a teammate to say what needs to be said: How are we supposed to beat the Evil Empire, or anybody else formidable, when you surround your studs with meatheads? And what the hell do you plan to do about it?

Let’s face it: This year’s Twins were a mediocre team that won baseball’s worst division by playing superbly for exactly three weeks. Take away the injured Justin Morneau, and they finished the season with five dependable everyday players — Denard Span, Orlando Cabrera, Mauer, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. Often the pitching was frightful, and the fundamentals absent. Over two homestands in midsummer, the Twins had five base runners picked off. That’s five years’ total for a championship team.
The Twins won the division because the Tigers yipped a three-game lead with four to play, umpire Randy Marsh did not hear a baseball brush Brandon Inge’s uniform, and Tiger manager Jim Leyland trusted nobody else to follow closer Fernando Rodney in the tiebreaker.

Punto had a strong final month (.274), and Delmon Young a big final weekend (three homers, 10 RBI). But over the course of the season, those two, along with Alexi Casilla, Brendan Harris and Carlos Gomez, showed they cannot be trusted as everyday players on a team with championship aspirations.

Gomez and Young refuse to listen to the coaches, Gomez from a lack of maturity, Young because he’s an enigma.

Even after two years of instruction from the coaching staff, Gomez still plays as if he never saw a baseball game until yesterday. He’s more interested in swinging out of his shoes than bunting, working counts or hitting outside pitches to right field, which is why he hit .229 with 14 steals, both well down from last year. His careless base running and batting used to be amusing. Now, it costs the Twins victories (see: Game 2).Before Game 3, Coach Jerry White was on the field early to tutor Gomez on bunting — something that, by now, Gomez should not need.

As for Young, he may need to be traded once or twice before his stubbornness subsides.

Harris never was an everyday player, and Casilla seems as dense as Gomez. And Punto looks more and more like a backup who can’t do the little things consistently enough to warrant regular time even as a No. 9 hitter, which is a problem given his $4 million salary. Smith signed him to a two-year deal as a favor to Gardenhire. Now, that looks like a waste of money.

All of these guys need to go, either to the bench, or off the roster entirely. With an expected bump in the Twins’ $68 million payroll going into Target Field, Smith should have flexibility to pursue more savvy players with some experience who play smart and fit the Twins’ style, either as free agents or in trades.

It comes down to this: As a franchise, what do you aspire to be? If “world champion” is your answer, you cannot tolerate or coddle role players who botch bunts, run the bases poorly and miss signs or cutoff men — brainless mistakes that cost you runs, and games, especially against the monsters of the American League East.

The cuddly, underdog designation used to be cute. Now, it’s old and annoying. It’s time to win. The Twins need fewer Muppets and more Huns, and this is the off-season to find them.