Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Salvaging The Worst Of The Twins

Through 82 games, the Twins are on pace to blitz by a franchise worst amount of losses, and finish the season as the worst team in history. Suggesting the first half of the season has been anything but a disaster would be putting it nicely. That all being said, there's plenty left to play for in 2016.

Considering that the bulk of Minnesota's schedule to close out the year comes against AL Central foes, Paul Molitor's club will see a lot of their divisional rivals and can begin to prepare for the year ahead. While it's going to be important to try and slow the pace of the losing, it's equally as important to set up for success in the year ahead.

Looking at how the Twins have positioned themselves, what will be available on the market, and where the roster stands, many of the answers for the future are going to need to come from within. Starting to figure those out sooner rather than later remains in the best interests of the club.

If you're going to place a heightened focus on certain places the rest of the way, here's exactly where I'd point you:

1. Jose Berrios

First and foremost, Jose Berrios needs to get back up to the big leagues and settle in. Across his last four Triple-A starts he's owned a 0.60 ERA and allowed opposing hitters to bat just .104/.171/.156 against him. He's allowed just one home run in his last 30 innings and he's walked batters at just a 2.1 BB/9 rate over that time.

There's no denying he scuffled in his big league debut. As Keith Law of ESPN warned, command and a flat fastball were his biggest deterrents. He'll need to keep the ball in the yard, and he can't issue so many free passes. What remains a constant though is that the Twins need Berrios more than he needs to be here. Minnesota doesn't have an ace, and hasn't for a while. The rotation is full of mediocre options performing below their typical high water marks. Berrios may not be among the best pitchers in the major leagues, but he needs to settle in the rest of the way and be viewed as the Twins go to starter to open 2017.

2. Who is your number two?

If Jose Berrios can finish the year in the big leagues, and do it while pitching well, you have to find out what you have behind him. Right now, the Twins need to be looking everywhere to see if they can move Ricky Nolasco or Ervin Santana. The latter seems like he'll have suitors, while the former's market remains up in the air.

Tommy Milone may not be offered arbitration again, and that leaves just Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes. Gibson was expected to take a step forward this season, but despite not being healthy, has struggled to do so. He turned in a nice effort last time out, but owns a 4.82 ERA through 9 starts and has walked a career worst 3.4 per nine. Hughes is facing an uphill battle in coming back from Thoracic Outlet surgery, and there'll be plenty of question marks there. Someone needs to pitch behind Berrios, and it can't be a group of mediocrity. Minnesota will need a legitimate one-two-punch, but who makes it up is yet to be seen.

3. Is there an actual closer?

As of right now, the Twins should be operating under the belief that the days of Glen Perkins closing baseball games for them is done. His velocity has declined severely, and he'll now be entering 2017 after a shoulder surgery that required his labrum be reattached to his bone. He has a 3.51 ERA over the past two years and has saved 32 games. Without a stellar pre-All Star 2015 bolstering those numbers though, things are much worse.

Brandon Kintzler is currently operating as the Twins closer, but like Kevin Jepsen before him, that's a role he's not really cast for. Paul Molitor needs to see if Trevor May or Ryan Pressly could be a better option for the here and now. Nick Burdi hasn't pitched hardly at all in 2016 due to injury concerns of his own, and the Twins have given a whopping two outs of major league work to J.T. Chargois. Those are the names I'd start with for closers in 2017, you can't go into the year with a question mark at the back end of a mediocre pen.

4. Settle the log jams

Really, the only areas that the Twins need to be concerned in regards to players piling up are at second and third base. Both Brian Dozier and Jorge Polanco should be at the major league level, but there's currently only room for one. Trevor Plouffe and Miguel Sano play the same position, and when both are healthy, that's been an area of concern as well.

It's pretty obvious that the Twins should've traded Plouffe some time ago. His value has probably never been lower than it is now, and a move at this point would be beneficial if only for opening up the roster spot. In regards to Dozier and Polanco, the return for the Twins All Star second basemen should be hefty. Despite entering his 30's, Dozier is a late bloomer and has been one of the most offensively productive two-baggers in the big leagues. I'm really good with trading either, but the return has to be right for both. At the end of 2016 however, only two of these four should realistically be options going forward for Minnesota.

5. Allow Buxton to struggle

I was really happy to see the Twins make the right move in their latest roster shuffles by adding guys back without sending Byron Buxton out. Sure, he's scuffled at the plate, but his defense is already Gold Glove caliber. He's shown the club he can rake at Triple-A, and there's nothing new he's going to learn by heading back there.

Run Buxton out nearly every day and let him struggle through it. He's got a good head on his shoulders, and confidence doesn't appear to be an issue he struggles with. He's hit a better (but still not good) .222/.248/.374 since rejoining the Twins, and his 37% strikeout rate is a far cry from the 53% output he had prior to his demotion. There's going to be a lot more lumps for Buxton to take the rest of the way, but if he can figure things out and take them now, it sets him up to hit the ground running in 2017. Minnesota needs to let that process play out.

When you have played as bad as the Twins have, there's not many positives to draw from the first half of what has been an unfortunate year. That being said, the rest of the way invites an opportunity to position things for a better start in 2017, as opposed to packing it in and slogging through the rest of the schedule. If Minnesota can get a few things to click down the stretch, the team they have a year from now will be significantly better for it.

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