Monday, July 13, 2015

Twins Are Poised For The Playoffs

We have officially hit the All Star Break in Major League Baseball, and while the stretch run is where the pretenders and contenders are sorted out, the Twins are currently one of the best teams in baseball. It feels odd to say, given what expectations were, and what results have been, but it rings absolutely true. At the break, Minnesota owns the second best record in the American League, and their own best mark since 2008. It's no longer too early to suggest the playoffs are in sight.

44, 40, 36, and 41, those are the win totals for Minnesota at the break over the last four seasons. Each of those years, the Twins went on to lose 90 or more games. It's probably not fair to compare a winning team to those of futility, so take a look back to 2010 when Minnesota last won the AL Central with 94 wins. At the All Star Break, Ron Gardenhire's Twins checked in at 46-42, or behind their current pace for those playing along at home.

Coming into the season, the Twins had plenty of question marks. They were viewed as a year or two before making their turnaround, Paul Molitor was a first year manager, and the big free agent signing made to bolster the pitching staff was shelved before meaningful games even started. At the artificial halfway point, the Twins have answered more questions than they haven't, and it's now fair to start to wonder just how far they can climb.

Pitching was going to once again be something to monitor for Minnesota. finishing in the doldrums of Major League Baseball in virtually every pitching category in recent years, changes needed to be made. As things stand, Minnesota owns the 15th best ERA in the big leagues, and both Kyle Gibson and Tommy Milone rank amongst the top 15 ERA leaders in the American League. Twins starters have combined for 789.2 IP as well as 45 quality starts, again putting them right in the middle of the pack.

The results have been accomplished along the same lines as the Twins have become synonymous with however. Pitching to contact, Twins starters have allowed a .269 BAA (28th in MLB), and struck out just 537 batters (last in MLB). It's not smoke and mirrors, but rather pounding the strike zone and making opposing hitters beat them, a strategy that has thus far panned out.

At points this season, the Twins offense looked like it was in need of a boost. With Kennys Vargas and Oswaldo Arcia struggling, the pop has since come from a second basemen and a 40 year old. Brian Dozier is having an MVP caliber season, and his 18 home runs put him on pace to be the first Twins player to reach 30 home runs since Josh Willingham in 2012. Torii Hunter has been every bit the defensive liability he was imagined, but his bat (14 HR 49 RBI 15 2B) has produced at a vintage level.

While winning, the Twins have also been afforded the opportunity to usher in the future. Eddie Rosario has played an excellent outfield for Minnesota, and his .284 average is amongst the best on the ballclub. Byron Buxton was able to debut prior to the All Star Break (and should be back not too long after it), and Miguel Sano has set the world on fire.

In fact, instead of needing to deal for another Kendrys Morales type bat this season, the Twins traded with themselves in inserting Sano into the lineup. In his first 11 games, he's hit two home runs, driven in eight, doubled four times, and raced out to a .378/.489/.649 slash line. His power was expected to play, but Sano has been every bit the elite prospect he was billed to be.

Looking down the line at the rest of the season, the Twins future has become much more clear. With far fewer questions looming, they can focus on two keys principles. First, the organization must make a trade for some bullpen help. So far, Molitor has pieced the back end of his bullpen together, and it's starting to blow up big time.

Blaine Boyer has given the Twins more than they could have imagined, but he's on pace to be one of the most taxed relievers in all of baseball. Brian Duensing and Casey Fien have been up and down, and Minnesota has filled in the gaps with different pieces at a revolving door pace. In fact the only sure thing in the Twins pen is All Star closer Glen Perkins. Having saved 28 of 28 opportunities, he owns a sparkling 1.21 ERA in 37.1 IP. Perkins 8.68 K/9 is also amongst the best on the club for the Twins, but he no doubt needs help.

Minnesota has one of the best farm system in all of the big leagues, and dealing some depth for a quality pen arm is a must. Bringing in someone to act as a true setup man would bridge the gap from the starters to Perkins, and no doubt afford Molitor and Minnesota a few more late inning wins.

The second focus for the Twins is to view the postseason as their new reality. Every team sets that as a goal at the beginning of the year, or at least says so. Now for the first time in recent memory, the Twins are able to act on that. Key injuries to both the Royals and Tigers have opened a door that Minnesota must step through. Having played Kansas City and Detroit both to a 5-8 record, an evening out needs to occur.

At 49-40, Minnesota is just 4.5 back of the Royals while being 4.5 clear of the Tigers. In the wild card race, Minnesota owns the top spot, and is three games clear of the Tampa Bay Rays. Keeping pace in the division with the Royals should no doubt be the goal, and it's hard to imagine the Central not sending two teams to play October baseball.

.500 would have been a great place for this Twins team to be this season, thanks to the start however, that mark is now in the rear view mirror. Minnesota is poised for the postseason, Target Field is electric once again, and the Twins hold a lot of the cards in their own hands. Buckle up, it's going to be a fun ride.

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