You know a team’s season has been a disaster when the manager cites the beautiful ballpark as a reason to come watch his club. And so while Paul Molitor was correct last week when he said, “Target Field will still be a wonderful place to watch a game, for the people who choose to come out,” it was also a tacit acknowledgment that the postseason will be Minnesota Twins-free for a sixth consecutive October.
Which is true, of course. The Twins open the season’s second half on Friday with 17½ games between them and the final AL playoff spot, a deficit that no team has ever overcome. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be story lines to follow over the final 74 games, or lessons to be learned. “Guys are going to get at-bats and innings pitched the second half of the season, and they count,” Molitor said. “They count, and hopefully they begin to take us to where we’re trying to go.”
Here’s a look at five rationales for watching the Twins over the next 11 weeks:
A hamstring strain and a detour to right field turned Miguel Sano’s second season into a series of false starts, but the 23-year-old is healthy and happy again, back at third base. He has been a big leaguer for a year now, yet has played his minor league position only 22 times, so the Twins still have only little hints and inklings about whether he can handle third base at this level. With Trevor Plouffe gone at least a month, they finally can find out.
Meanwhile, Sano is starting to get comfortable at the plate again, having collected 11 hits, nine RBI and three home runs in 10 games since returning from his hamstring injury. Sano was the engine to the Twins offense for much of the final weeks of the 2015 season, and another big surge at the plate would hardly be unexpected.
Can we see Jose?
Twins fans got a sneak preview of the franchise’s most advanced pitching prospect in early May, and while the results were mixed — a seven-run, first-inning meltdown in Detroit compelled the Twins to cut short his tryout — Jose Berrios has kept improving. His past five starts at Class AAA Rochester, in which he posted a 1.26 ERA and struck out 34 batters in 35⅔ innings, are a sign that the 22-year-old righthander is ready for a graduation ceremony.
All that’s missing now is an every-fifth-day slot in the rotation that can be assigned to Berrios, who pitched a scoreless inning in Wednesday’s Triple-A All-Star Game, striking out one. The Twins have been patient about finding that spot for Berrios, especially given the recent improvement in their starting pitching, but the obvious solution may present itself shortly, in the form of …
T.R. stands for Terry Ryan, but also trade rumors, and both should be a prominent part of the Twins’ story line for the next three weeks. The Twins general manager has said several times over the past few weeks that he intends to change his team’s roster, and “we’re not in a position to say we wouldn’t consider just about anything.”
Kurt Suzuki, Brandon Kintzler, Fernando Abad and Plouffe are the sort of players that Ryan might be especially inclined to move, but Ervin Santana figures to be the most sought-after item on the shelves. And the fact that his performance has peaked in the past three weeks — the 33-year-old righthander owns a 1.63 ERA over his past four starts, giving up 17 hits and striking out 19 over 27⅔ innings — could encourage Ryan to make a move quickly, before he cools off.
Santana is owed more than $6 million for this season and $28 million over the next two years, which could make some teams hesitate about offering a quality package in return, but Ryan said last week that “we would consider” including some cash in the deal if it meant receiving a better prospect in return.
Decision time on the youngsters
The second half of the season will be critical decisionmaking time for the Twins about a handful of up-and-coming hitters. Eddie Rosario, Kennys Vargas, Danny Santana, Byron Buxton and Robbie Grossman all have question marks that only regular playing time will sort out. But there’s another newcomer who clearly intrigues his manager: Max Kepler.
“Max is at the point where you give a young player a little more responsibility, and a little more, and a little more, and it becomes exciting if he [seems] to absorb it rather than become overwhelmed by it,” Molitor said. “You know there are setbacks ahead for guys as they figure things out, but he appears to be handling the transition well.”
After his first 20 games this season — precisely one month ago — Kepler was hitting only .189 and was being buried under strikeouts. But “he didn’t panic, he didn’t change his approach,” Ryan said, and Kepler rewarded the Twins’ faith with a 24-for-90 (.276) month, with seven home runs and 27 RBI — more than any other Twins player in that time.
“It’s fun watching Max,” Molitor said. “It’s rewarding, as a manager, to see that growth.”
Relief in sight
The Twins’ 4.51 bullpen ERA is nothing to be excited about, given that only three teams are worse. But there are numbers that indicate that the Twins might be on the verge of joining the 21st century when it comes to building a bullpen: strikeouts.
Twins relievers have racked up 293 of them this season, only 99 behind the 392 they managed all of last season. Over the past five seasons, the Twins have ranked 14th in the AL in bullpen strikeouts once (in 2013), and dead last the other four seasons, mostly because the Twins have been slow to adapt to the trend toward hard-throwers in the pen. That’s changed in 2016, even with Glen Perkins out for the season, and even with Nick Burdi, J.T. Chargois, Alex Meyer and Jake Reed still toiling in the minors.
Perkins led the Twins in relief strikeouts last year with 54; Michael Tonkin has matched that number already. Trevor May and Ryan Pressly have 44 apiece, while Taylor Rogers and Fernando Abad have roughly one per inning. The Twins’ 8.9 strikeouts-per-nine-innings average ranks sixth in the AL, and the soon-to-arrive prospects figure to help that number — and the bullpen’s overall effectiveness — climb.