CLOSE

Now Commenting On:

Turnaround tales about to be told

Turnaround tales about to be told

A year ago at this time, the frowns of 2006 were about to start turning downside up for four teams. They were preparing to break camp, hopeful the approaching season would erase the memories of too many losses the season before.

Hopes realized: the Indians, Cubs, Rockies and D-backs not only reversed course, they went from sub-.500 in 2006 all the way into the 2007 postseason.

That's the way of today's game. There is always predictability, but even more room for the unexpected. Dark horses are always being illuminated by lightning strikes.

Every postseason since the 1995 advent of Wild Card-created three-tiered playoffs, with one exception (2005), has included at least one team coming off a losing record the season before. A total of 24 teams have managed the dramatic u-turn.

Many made the change in spectacular fashion: 11 improved by 20-plus games, paced by the 1999 Arizona Diamondbacks' 35-game turnaround.

Moral: Nothing is too farfetched.

Question: Who's next?

Of the 14 teams which finished the 2007 season with a losing record, we tab two in each league as worth watching for early signs of a miracle.

In the American League, the Minnesota Twins could stifle the violin music that was their offseason soundtrack, and the Tamps Bay Rays' playing level could run as high as their tempers.

In the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates' culture is taking the lead of their changed management, and the Cincinnati Reds have the guys to pitch in for a return to glory.

The teams in this quartet have contrasting pedigrees. The Rays have never even come close to a winning season, 0-for-10 since their 1998 birth, and the Reds' and Pirates' streaks of losing records are at seven and 15, respectively. Conversely, the Twins dipped under .500 after six consecutive winning seasons, four of them leading into the postseason.

Yet, least may be expected of the Twins, who gained only sympathy during the winter. Not a great tradeoff for what they lost -- All-Star personality Torii Hunter from their lineup, and 81 starts and 33 wins (Johan Santana, Carlos Silva and Matt Garza) from their pitching rotation.

Minnesota doesn't appear willing to just fade away, not even in a division conceded to Detroit, with Cleveland a bona fide threat to repeat. Manager Ron Gardenhire's upbeat mood all month is a tip-off that he's pleased with the way new pieces are fitting together.

Cornerstones Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau keep this a very formidable team, which has offensively upgraded the left side of its infield. The key, obviously, is rebuilding that rotation, which in turn makes Francisco Liriano the biggest key.

The 24-year-old Dominican lefty appears to have recovered physically from the Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery that cost him all of 2007. Now it's a matter of recovering the stuff that made him virtually unhittable as a 2006 rookie.

"I don't have to worry about [the elbow] anymore. I feel great," Liriano said. "I just have to work on the location of my pitches, and get used to pitching again."

Opening Day
Countdown to Opening Day
•   March 23: Turnaround tales to be told
•   March 23: Rule 5 decisions loom
•   March 24: Free agents on the spot
•   March 25: Breakout players in 2008
•   March 25: Comeback candidates
•   March 26: Top storylines for '08
•   March 26: Top AL rookie candidates
•   March 26: Top NL rookie candidates
•   March 27: AL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: NL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: Breaking down '08 slate
•   March 27: Century since Cubs' title
•   March 28: Top AL MVP candidates
•   March 28: Top NL MVP candidates
•   March 29: Changing of guard at short
•   March 30: Predictions for '08
•   March 30: '08 milestones
•   March 30: Season preview

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.

{}
{}