Startribune.com digital sports editor Howard Sinker used to cover the Twins and now shares season tickets with friends in Section 219 of Target Field. He blogs about baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan who loves the game, doesn’t always believe the hype and likes hearing what others think. Howard sometimes talks about sports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition.

Section 219: Glimmers of sunshine from the Twins

Posted by: Howard Sinker Updated: April 23, 2013 - 9:32 AM

Almost half of the starting lineup is hitting below .210 and Joe Mauer is the only everyday player hitting above .254. Two of the new starting pitchers have ERAs above 7 and the weather hasn't exactly been conducive to getting on a good baseball groove.

Still, the Twins are 8-7 -- and have done it without playing a schedule of losers.

If you need a quick comparison, the 2012 Twins were 5-10 after 15 games and about to start a massive skid that would turn the season into irrelevance. It took more than twice as many games (31, to be exact) for the Twins to win their first eight games last season, which pretty much countered any notion than the 2010 flop was caused by the "perfect storm of injuries" that became company jargon.

Don't mistake the first 15 games for proof of a turnaround. But if you want some reasons for encouragement, let me provide you with some to use on your friends who haven't started paying attention and may hit you with a question or two about how things are going.

*Joe Mauer is batting second and should continue to bat second until his twins-in-utero are ready for college. It is much better for the Twins to have Mauer batting second and Gardy trying to figure out how to work the lineup behind Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham -- in others words from fifth on down. Let this last another couple of weeks and we can celebrate to end of the Revere, Punto and friends in the second spot. (If you needed a reminder of what that was like, there was Jeff Keppinger batting second for the White Sox over the weekend.)

I suspect some of you have been flinching at Mauer's relatively high strikeout rate so far this season -- 18.3 percent compared with 13.7 percent last season and 9 percent in 2010. But can you give a quick answer to the question: "How many double plays Mauer has grounded into so far this season?" If you answered "one," that's one too many. Mauer grounded into 23 double plays in 2012. I'll take the tradeoff. (Despite Aaron Hicks' struggles, Mauer has batted with runners on base about 45 percent of the time so far this season, compared with about 49 percent in 2012. Also, he batted more frequently with two outs in 2012 -- when he couldn't hit into double plays -- than he has so far this season.)

*There are two shortstops who are better fielders than anything the Twins have used at that position since J.J. Hardy left. The Orioles didn't need Pedro Florimon because they have Hardy and the White Sox had little use for Eduardo Escobar because of Alexei Ramirez. Between the two of them, the Twins may fashion something better-than-average from a couple of scraps. Their offensive numbers are certain to diminish, but when you consider the shortstops before and after Hardy, they should continue to be an upgrade. (Plus, I no longer have to listen to the yammering about Francisco Liriano's potential. For the Twins, "traded to Pittsburgh" is more than a punchline from the movie "42.")

*The bullpen currently has no room for guys filling spots just because there's nobody better. Tyler Robertson didn't last a week and Alex Burnett and his incredible shrinking strikeout rate are gone -- first to Toronto and then from Toronto to Baltimore. Go back and look at the 24 pitchers who appeared in games last season and you'll see some true ugliness, some names that simply shouldn't be said in the same sentence as "major league pitcher."

*The starting pitching, at its best, will be a collection of No. 2 and 3 starters. That doesn't sound like much, but if things work out, that's pretty much what the Twins had while managing to contend in the first three seasons after Johan Santana left. The Twins aren't going to need a fifth starter until next week and, while Pedro Hernandez is the current No. 5, there are several options just off stage. Between the major league upgrades and pitchers-in-waiting in the minors, it looks like the Twins have moved beyond the "Well, who do you expect us to pitch?" phase, both in the rotation and in relief.

In Chicago, the Twins won despite flawed play: Leaving 15 runners on base Saturday and the double that clanged off Josh Willingham's glove on Sunday. Last year, those events would likely have stood out as key moments in losses. Those were overshdowed on Saturday by  Vance Worley and the bullpen and on Sunday by Willingham's bases-loaded double that turned a 2-2 tie into a 5-2 lead.

That's my short list after 15 games. The Twins have managed 8-7 while being very patient with Hicks, checking out the youngster Oswaldo Arcia and breaking in unproven players (Brian Dozier and Chris Parmelee) at new positions. Things could look very different after the next 15, which include four games against Texas starting Thursday and a Detroit-Cleveland-Boston road trip.

For now, though, having reasons to pay close attention feels like a victory.

 

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