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Pulling out all the stops

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: June 29, 2011 - 12:20 AM

The Twins' amazing run over the first three weeks of June collectively rejuvenated the fan base, making believers out of doubters as the club moved 10 games closer to first place in less than a month's time.

The subsequent six-game losing streak -- punctuated by a humiliating 15-0 loss at Target Field on Monday night -- erased much of the team's progress, while also bringing the "It's Happening" meme to a screeching halt.

In reality, the Twins aren't totally out of it. They're nine games behind in a mediocre division and the season isn't quite halfway over.

Of course, there's a lot of ground to make up. Many things would need to happen for the Twins to surmount their deficit in the AL Central standings and charge into the playoffs.

First and foremost, they need to start playing at full strength. They need injured players to come back and produce quickly, they need Francisco Liriano to get back to pitching the way he was prior to his last outing, and most of all they need Mauer to come alive.

They also need both the Indians and Tigers to play sub-.500 ball in the second half, but I don't think anyone will have too much trouble envisioning that.

All the factors mentioned above are basically out of the front office's and manager's control. If the team's stars can't get healthy and contribute, or if another club in the division wins 90-plus games, the Twins are toast.

If those things break right, though, the Twins will still need to pull out all the stops and maximize what they've got if they're serious about making it happen. Below is a list of four moves I would make to give them their best shot at pulling off an improbable second-half comeback:

1) Replace Tsuyoshi Nishioka at shortstop with Trevor Plouffe.

Nishioka is a 26-year-old foreign player learning a new culture and a new league. His struggles up to this point have been understandable, and it's too soon to give up on him. With that being said, he's looked ridiculously overmatched in the major leagues.

Plouffe was demoted for his sloppy play in the field earlier this year, but Nishioka has committed seven errors in 18 games. And unlike Nishioka, Plouffe has hit. He leads the organization with 14 home runs this year, and he's raking at a blistering .303/.374/.627 clip in Rochester.

Plouffe has earned his shot. Nishioka has not, and frankly could probably benefit from adjusting to the stateside brand of baseball in a less pressure-packed situation.

2) Move Brian Duensing to bullpen, replacing him in rotation with Kevin Slowey or Kyle Gibson.

As expected, Duensing has been a perfectly adequate back-of-rotation starter this year, though not the front-end guy that his superficially impressive core numbers over the past two seasons would have suggested.

I don't think his production in the rotation (5-7, 4.69 ERA, 1.49 WHIP) would be that difficult to replace. In fact, there are two starters readily available who would likely match or improve upon Duensing's results: Slowey and Gibson.

Meanwhile, Duensing would drastically improve the bullpen, giving the Twins a legitimate situational left-hander with Jose Mijares proving totally untrustworthy. It's really the role Duensing is best suited for; he's holding port-siders to a .530 OPS this year while righties have tagged him for a .318 average and .857 OPS.

3) Replace Phil Dumatrait with Chuck James.


While relatively minor, this is a no-brainer. If the goal is to win games, James should be in the bullpen over Dumatrait. It's blindingly obvious that he's a better pitcher.

4) Identify a reliable right-handed reliever.

Ideally, this would be Joe Nathan. If he can't round into shape, the Twins need to go out and find a quality righty to add to the bullpen, because right now they've got nothing outside of Matt Capps. Hopefully they learned their lesson last year about overpaying for relievers in deadline deals, but if the Twins can spin an unwanted part or find a good value in August (like they did with Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes the last two years), they'd be wise to pull the trigger quickly.

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