Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Minnesota Twins First Half In Review

Coming off a season in which the Minnesota Twins posted a record amount of losses, conventional wisdom would've told you to be down on this 2017 squad. However, a year prior in 2015, virtually the same group compiled an 83-79 mark. At the All Star Break this season, Paul Molitor's club looks more the group of two years ago as opposed to the one from last year. There's been good, bad, and ugly, but what do we make of it all?

First and foremost, the Twins were tabbed with an over/under of 74.5 wins going into 2017. At 45-42 at the break, they're on pace 83 wins, and need to go just 30-45 the rest of the way to surpass betting expectations. Through three full months, Minnesota has had two winning flips of the calendar, and a June that saw them miss a .500 month by one game. Back in 2015, a 20-7 May set the pace for the rest of the season, and that team finished with just two winning months total.

Against the rest of the AL Central, the Twins are +2 in the win column, with their best record coming against the Kansas City Royals. The home and road splits have been odd, but are merely an outcome of random variation. The expectation would be that the 20-28 home record sees improvement, while the 25-15 road record takes a step backwards. Given a -60 run differential however, the club will have to make sure whatever slide the do hit, isn't as drastic as that number says it should be.

Numbers aside, this club has a few things to investigate at the midway point. First and foremost, pitching has been virtually what it was expected to be. The rotation has been up and down, being saved from disaster in part thanks to Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios. In relief, the bullpen has been nothing short of atrocious save for Brandon Kintzler and Taylor Rogers. The rotation was going to be questionable at best, but has been supported by a strong defense and improved catching game. THe pen could've been upgraded, but with Matt Belisle and Craig Breslow the only offseason additions of note, the level of futility isn't hard to imagine.

On offense, Brian Dozier has (as expected) regressed towards career averages, while Miguel Sano has been just as good (if not better) than his rookie season. We haven't yet seen the big contributions at the plate from Byron Buxton, and players like Max Kepler and Robbie Grossman have waded somewhere in the middle ground. At times, Eddie Rosario has looked like a contributor, and Joe Mauer has trended in a positive direction. With much less reason to worry about the sticks going into the 2017 campaign, it's been about as expected.

Going forward, the Twins are going to need to fend off a form of regression that's almost certain to come. There's plenty of reason to suggest they'll hang around late into the season, the quality of the AL Central chief among them, but there's going to be tough tests ahead. Coming out of the All Star Break, Minnesota faces the Astros, Yankees, and Dodgers all in short order. Getting swept or beat in each of those series could put a quick damper on the last half of the season.

As July concludes, the Twins will likely find themselves in a similar position to where they are currently. They've exceeded expectations, but aren't truly a contender. There wasn't enough ammunition brought in over the winter to make this current roster construction viable, and nothing focused on winning in 2017 will change that.

To define the Twins positioning, they should be both buyers and sellers. If looking to acquire talent, it should be controllable options with high ceilings. That may have a significant price tag, but players like Chris Archer or Marcus Stroman aren't simply a 2017 answer, and that's a good thing. On the flip side, if there's teams willing to give you real talent back for someone like Brandon Kintzler, Ervin Santana, or even Brian Dozier, you'd absolutely be best suited to listen.

If you told the casual Twins fan that they'd be 45-43 at the All Star Break this season, I'd imagine the response would be one of disbelief. The position this club finds itself in is a good one, that presents itself as unsustainable, but also makes you wonder what could be if more was done. Going forward, Molitor and the front office will need to get more from less the rest of the way. They'll need to scratch out victories and claw to stay in contention. Missing the playoffs isn't a death sentence, but playing meaningful late season games is far from a guarantee as well.

Thus far, the 2017 Twins have had a successful season. It will be on those currently in the room to ensure it ends that way. To wrap up, here's a few first half awards of note:

Team MVP: Miguel Sano .276/.368/.538
Sano has looked the part of a middle of the order bat. Sure, he's striking out a ton, and I'd still like to see a few more walks, but everything else is there. The power is real, he hits everything hard, and he's been well above expectations at 3B.

Biggest Surprise: Brandon Kintzler 2.29 ERA 24 SV
Kintzler doesn't have any of the peripherals a traditional closer possesses, but he continues to make it work. Despite the low strikeout rates, he's a ground ball machine and doesn't walk anyone. It's not always pretty, but Kintzler has been a bright spot in an otherwise abysmal bullpen.

Biggest Disappointment: Jorge Polanco .224/.273/.323
I've been a Polanco fan for some time now, and it's always been his bat that suggested he was big league ready. This season, he's been above average through virtually the whole first half as a defensive shortstop, but hasn't hit at all. Completely opposite of his career norms, you have to hope the bat picks up soon.

Most Improved: Jason Castro .223/.317/.370
This is less about Castro as a player specifically than it is about the upgrade he represents. The Twins suffered through a terrible rotation of Kurt Suzuki and Juan Centeno a year ago. While Castro hasn't hit really at all, he's been great behind the dish, and without him, the marginal pitching staff would be incredibly worse off.

2nd Half Key: Jose Berrios 3.53 ERA 8.7 K/9 2.4 BB/9
Through his first few turns, Berrios looked the part of the incredible pitching prospect he's been touted to be. He did fade a bit down the stretch, and Minnesota will need that to cease. Given the revolving door that the rotation has been, the Twins can't afford Berrios not to be a high level asset. Whether they trade Santana or not, this team needs Berrios to continue to be an impact hurler virtually every time he steps on the mound.

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