Twins have steep hill to climb

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 18, 2014 - 11:56 AM
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Minnesota Twins' Danny Santana, right, is safe at third base as Chicago White Sox third baseman Conor Gillaspie, left, cannot get to the wide throw from left field during the first inning of a baseball game in Minneapolis, Sunday, June 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

Twins fans these past three years have learned to assuage the pain of losing by focusing on the farm system, by picturing a wave of young and super-talented prospects arriving in Minnesota and creating a dynasty.

Jim Pohlad isn’t one of them. Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Kohl Stewart and lots of others might be just over the horizon, but the Twins owner understands that projecting championships and producing them are two very different efforts.

“We’ve been doing this for 30 years now. And a player who is not here yet is not yet a player,” Pohlad said bluntly this week. “I’ve heard that for too long. People are excited about these [prospects], but they were excited in ’85, ’95, 2005. They’re always out there.”

No, as the second half of the Twins’ 2014 season gets underway Friday with a 10-game homestand at Target Field, Pohlad is more interested in the team in front of him than one that right now is nothing more than dreams, hope and planning. “I’m a half-empty guy, I guess,” Pohlad said.

And that’s true when he looks at his last-place team, too. Others see improvement this season, however incremental. Pohlad sees a 44-50 record and five teams between the Twins and the final playoff spot.

“Right now, our stats say we’re no closer to [a World Series] at all. There’s just no denying that,” he said. “Does it feel differently, the spirit? Yeah, but we’re not that close to [success]. The World Series, you get there eventually on your won-loss record.”

That’s why the next 10 games, starting with this weekend’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays, could be pivotal. They could position the Twins for a late-season charge, something the players believe is possible after a 5-2 road trip to end the first half — or they could trigger changes to the roster, the lineup and the rotation.

“That’s something we hope we don’t have to do. We hope we’re in it all the way, but realistically, you never know,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki, fresh off an All-Star appearance and playing for a new contract this winter. “I’ve been on teams in Oakland where they’ve brought up a lot of young guys in the second half to see what they can do. But the players can’t control that kind of stuff.”

Well, they can by producing on the field and especially by winning games. Closer Glen Perkins says he’s convinced the Twins are capable of it, that taking three of four from Seattle last week proves that the talent level is high enough to contend. “We’re not a bad team, we’re just inconsistent,” Perkins said. “We just had a pretty good road trip against a team [Seattle] that’s in the wild card right now. And it’s hard to win in Colorado — those guys hit about .420 at home, and we beat them up pretty good. We’ve limped into the break the last three years, so this is encouraging.”

Considering they were 3-12 heading into the break a year ago, he might have a point. Then again, Pohlad said, it’s only one road trip. “Maybe they have short memories,” he said.

Prospects on way?

If the Twins decide to devote the final 68 games to development rather than a long-shot pursuit of the postseason, what might that look like? The Twins own six of ESPN’s top 50 prospects, plus a power hitter who played in Sunday’s Futures Game in Kennys Vargas. But with the exception of righthanded starter Alex Meyer, none figures to be ready for the major leagues soon.

“The Twins have some rare talent among position players,” said Jonathan Mayo, minor league analyst for mlb.com and the MLB Network, “but almost everybody is a year or two away, minimum.”

That means even if the Twins traded away veteran hitters on expiring contracts, such as Kendrys Morales, Josh Willingham or even Suzuki, they might not be opening at-bats for players who figure to have long careers here. Catcher Josmil Pinto could be recalled, but the likes of Vargas, Buxton and Sano, none of whom has reached Class AAA, would not.

“When guys come up, they’re ready for the big leagues — that’s what we’ve tried to set up here,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We bring guys up to develop them, but they have to be ready to help us win.”

Gardenhire named 23-year-old rookie shortstop Danny Santana as a good example, and he’ll get plenty of playing time when he returns from a bone bruise in the next week or so. But if the Twins undergo an overhaul, it figures to impact the pitching staff most of all.

They have some interesting assets: Kevin Correia has helped his trade value by posting a 2.30 ERA in his past seven starts, Sam Deduno has a 1.72 ERA out of the bullpen, and Matt Guerrier, Brian Duensing and Jared Burton all are veterans with a track record of success and contracts that expire in October.

Meyer, Trevor May and lefthander Logan Darnell could join the Twins’ rotation, while Michael Tonkin, A.J. Achter, and perhaps Mark Hamburger could get a look in the bullpen. May is the likeliest of the candidates, though his minor calf strain earlier this month has sidelined him, and Mayo believes Meyer “could come up now and compete with his stuff, and on a given day he could dominate. … If they make some trades, are they going to leave him down there?”

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