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BOB RYAN

Blessed with wins

Minnesota lacking payroll, not success

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Twins are just like everyone else. They find monitoring the Red Sox and Yankees each offseason to be enormously fascinating.

"It's always entertaining to sit back and watch those two compete for players," said Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire. "The Red Sox always seem to have their market show them what they have to do. And then they just do it."

Big money does indeed permit the Red Sox to do things the Twins can only dream of. But let's not print up invitations to the pity party just yet. If memory serves, didn't the Twins win 10 more games than the Red Sox last year? Didn't they win the Central Division on the last day of the season? And isn't this something we all kind of expect them to do?

Lineup and bullpen intact, the Twins will be heard from again this season. When your team includes the reigning Most Valuable Player (Justin Morneau), batting champion (Joe Mauer), and Cy Young winner (Johan Santana) you've got something to, you know, hang your hat on.

That's prime talent, all of it a tribute, one way or another, to general manager Terry Ryan, who has quietly, and brilliantly, managed his affairs in a low-key manner that has earned the respect of his peers. There are two ways to build a club. You either develop your own talent or you trade for it. Under Ryan, the Twins are a master of both.

The lineup Gardenhire put on the field against the Red Sox at the Lee County Sports Complex yesterday included three No. 1 picks (Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, and Denard Span), a third-round pick (Morneau), a 12th-round draft pick (Jason Kubel), a free agent signing of long ago (veteran shortstop Luis Rodriguez), and four players obtained in trades, most notably Santana, a 1999 acquisition from the Marlins for a forgotten chap named Jared Camp. The tally of Minny No. 1 picks also includes standout center fielder Torii Hunter, who is recuperating from taking one on the coconut the other day from ex-Twin Kyle Lohse.

The Twins are one of 21st century baseball's great success stories, and Gardenhire is, without doubt, the sport's best-kept managerial secret. The Twins have averaged 91 wins a year since 2002, with four AL Central championships, all on a budget that wouldn't keep Daisuke Matsuzaka in masseuse tips.

This all has taken place after the Twins were the subject of that ludicrous "contraction" talk. "That was my first year," said Gardenhire. "I'd just become manager, and I start hearing that talk. It was kind of unbelievable. We all know how much this team means to the area."

Fortunately, it's all history now. A new stadium, which will get the Twins out of the much-despised Metrodome, is being planned.

This run of excellence all starts with superior scouting. "Yes," said Gardenhire, "and that begins with Terry Ryan. He works long hours. Terry Ryan is after it, year after year, coming in early and staying late. To this day, if he goes to a game, he stays to the end. He believes you might see something, even if it's 15-0 in the ninth. And our scouts stay 'til the end, too."

Minnesota's greatest admirers sit in the opposing dugouts. "The Twins are always fundamentally sound," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "They do everything the way it ought to be done. David Ortiz says that when he was with them he even knew how to bunt. And baserunning. When I think of the Twins, I think of the way they run the bases."

"It's nice to hear that," said Gardenhire with a chuckle. "But I guess Terry didn't see us play yesterday [a 14-1 loss to the Reds Saturday]."

There weren't too many of those days in the final 3 1/2 months of the 2006 season, when the Twins went 71-33, finally edging the Tigers for the division title on the final day of the season.

"That was probably the most exciting thing for our fans since I've been here," said Gardenhire. "But it ended real fast once we got to the playoffs."

Morneau won his MVP by batting .362, with power, from June 2 through the end of the season. Mauer established himself as a classic No. 3 hitter, batting .347 with a .429 on-base percentage. "We all expect him to hit .300 and do all those things," said Gardenhire. "He's just a good hitter. He has the ability to see the ball and put good wood on it."

Santana led the league in earned run average (2.77), innings (233 2/3), strikeouts (245), and, for the third straight year, opponents' batting average (216). Oh, and he was 19-6. The worst you can say about him is that he is baseball's premier lefthander.

"Consistency," said Gardenhire. "That's all he's after. He just wants to be the best player, and person, he can be. He's got a pretty good head on his shoulders."

But Santana is human, and he was beaten by Oakland's Barry Zito in Game 1 of the ALDS to initiate a three-game sweep. There were no excuses. The A's won, fair and square. Gardenhire can live with that. The Twins just didn't have enough starting pitching.

That remains a concern. The Twins have their lineup ready to go and they have their bullpen lined up, headlined by closer Joe Nathan, who has averaged 41 saves a year since coming over from San Francisco in a 2003 heist that also brought righthander Boof Bonser and electrifying lefty Francisco Liriano in exchange for A.J. Pierzynski and cash. But there are holes in the rotation, which has lost Liriano to an elbow injury and Brad Radke to retirement.

"We've got Santana and a bunch of young arms," Gardenhire said.

Said young arms belong to the likes of Bonser, Scott Baker, a 2003 second-round pick, and righthander Matt Garza, a much-publicized minor league phenom who went 3-6 with a 5.76 ERA in his major league debut last year. But Gardenhire is also dealing with a number of veterans, such as Carlos Silva, Ramon Ortiz, and the ever-intriguing Sidney Ponson, who has become something of a professional tease in the last few years.

But let us not forget that these remain the Twins, who never have had the resources to construct a solid five-man rotation. Gardenhire has made do before, and he undoubtedly will be able to make do again.

The Minnesota Twins. Attention must be paid.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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