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Twins baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan

Section 219: A reminder for Twins fans, courtesy of the Brewers

This isn't about how the Brewers, who have the second-worst record in baseball, managed to win four of their six games with the Twins this season. And this isn't meant to be gloom-and-doom either.

A year ago right year, the Brewers were 18 games over .500, led their division by 6 1/2 games and all was great. Then everything fell apart to such an extent that Milwaukee barely finished over .500 and has continued that plummet in 2015.

Right now, in the big picture, I think most people are feeling good about the Twins being five games over .500 -- even if their play has been inconsistent for a few weeks. Also, after the current series in Cincinnati, the Twins will be playing division leaders (Kansas City and Baltimore) and nemesis Detroit to bring them to the All-Star break.

The wheels haven't come off, but there are issues out there:

The bullpen is getting messier: Right-hander Blaine Boyer can't get right-handed batters out (.310 batting average against and .536 slugging percentage) vs. .160 and .220 against batters from the left. Aaron Thompson hasn't been able to get anyone out in June.(OK, I'm exaggerating. He's faced 30 batters this month and gotten 17 of them out.) Even if you pretend Casey Fien didn't give up two home runs to four batters in Sunday's loss, there's isn't any reliability beyond Fien and the All-Star closer Glen Perkins, whom we've seen only three times in the last two weeks. The Twins bullpen has slipped into the bottom third of the American League by most measurements. Fans can hope Alex Meyer's debut was an aberration and that management is keeping an eye out for upgrades.

The outfield is again unsettled, but...: Don't expected to see Byron Buxton before August, when his learning curve will again commence. If Eddie Rosario becomes the main center fielder, the early-season issue of defensive weakness in left and right will resurface. If Danny Santana gets a chance in center, then shortstop will be shared by the Eduardos and their limited range. The return of a healthy Aaron Hicks is probably the best-case scenario for the short term. In case you're wondering about the exile of Oswaldo Arcia, I'm assuming it can be explained by a slash line of .202/.235/.287 at Rochester, including one home run and 27 strikeouts in 94 at-bats.

And at shortstop: La Velle E. Neal III brought up the issue with Terry Ryan, who thinks the Twins have depth at the position.All of the options have flaws. I'd like to think the Twins can roll with Santana for a while with the Eduardos in reserve roles. When needed, i think I'm more comfortable for now with Santana at short and an Eduardo in left until the return of Hicks (and then Buxton).

Joe Mauer: There are enough other problems right now that Mauer's season has slipped out of the bullseye. For the record, he's last among the 12 qualifying first basemen in the American League in slugging percentage and 11th in OPS. He has four home runs; Chris Parmelee has four home runs for Baltimore. Mauer has 273 at-bats, Parmelee has 43. In other words, by any standard, Mauer is still being miscast as the No. 3 batter in the Twins' lineup. Almost as big an issue is the lack of options that manager Paul Molitor has for that spot.

The starting rotation: Ervin Santana is scheduled to join the Twins in Kansas City next weekend after his drug suspension. That will give the Twins six healthy starters who deserve to be in the rotation -- an unanticipated surplus. There are a lot of options and I don't have a favorite. If the Twins stay with a five-man rotation, someone will get an unfair break. Given the other issues that need more immediate tending (and the history of starting pitching in recent years), however, I'm not seeing that as a problem. The bullpen does need help.

Right now, I'm still thinking of the glass as more than half full, given what we were expecting at the start of the year. And I think the Twins should still frame their decisions with the idea that they are a postseason contender. But the buyer/seller and now/future debates will be moving targets throughout July, so it'll be fair for all of us to change our minds of that one.

Some things need to get better for the Twins to be taken as seriously as we wanted to take them at the end of last month. Or as seriously as Brewers fans were taking their team at this time last year.

Are we watching the Twins you were afraid of seeing?

Now that the Twins streak of subpar baseball is coming close to the two-week mark, I'm getting asked about whether the team is going to play for the rest of the season the way we were expecting from Day One (and after that weak 1-6 Week One). The week before last -- the split in Boston and the bad weekend against Milwaukee -- could be passed off as an anomaly. As recently as Monday, after all, the ESPN "power rankings" had the Twins as the fifth best team in baseball.

So you weren't the only ones believing.

Two bad weeks raises questions.

Look at the lessons of the last couple of games and you'll see what astute people were saying all along: The Twins, as currently constructed, are a team with a small margin for error. On offense, the list of players we thought were significant who haven't performed expected is long: Mauer, Suzuki, Escobar and Vargas on the current roster; Santana and Arcia who have been sent to the minors for repairs. Hunter and Plouffe have slumped lately to their 2014 levels on offense.

Brian Dozier is the only player who has improved his production from 2014.

Without turning this into a screed about Joe Mauer, let's get this on the table so we can move on: Among the 24 MLB first basemen with enough plate appearances to qualify among league leaders, Mauer is 23rd in slugging percentage, on base-plus-slugging percentage and extra-base hits. He is  16th in on-base percentage and tied for 13th in RBI. (The best recent in-depth analysis on Mauer is from Aaron Gleeman, who writes: "He's hitting worse than ever at a position with the highest bar offensively." The rest is here and a should-read.)

All of this is happening while Mauer is batting third much more often than not. Given the current construction and production of the Twins, manager Paul Molitor doesn’t have many choices. He is pretty much stuck building a lineup in which he hopes the first few guys can get on base and then something good happens from the bottom guys in the order. Part science, part magic.

Dozier is batting leadoff, as much as anything, to get the Twins’ mostly highly productive player to the plate as many times as possible.

Those offensive issues are manageable, as they say in geometry, if and only if…

*Your defense doesn’t self-destruct. You can load the bases with nobody out and score one run and have Tommy Milone throw one bad pitch and play meet-the-bullpen if Aaron Hicks, who has saved the Twins with his defense a few times in the last month, doesn’t miss that fly ball in the eighth inning on Friday. If Hicks makes the catch, the Twins score and Glen Perkins gets the save, you can file away all of the bad stuff as bumps in the road that a good team conquers. Wednesday’s loss to Kansas City became lopsided in part, because of poor plays by Torii Hunter (a wretched throw) and Joe Mauer (a wrong throwing decision on a ground ball.) Mauer’s mistake was one in a series of recent defensive misplays on his part that should earn him an extended refresher on first-base fundamentals. (Paging Tom Kelly.)

*Your bullpen is first rate. Tim Stauffer is gone, but Aaron Thompson has replaced him on the unreliable arms list and Michael Tonkin, Stauffer’s roster replacement, has done little impressive work. The bullpen needs to be as good as it was in May, otherwise we’ll be seeing Perkins more often on Twitter (where he's also an All-Star) than on the mound.

*Your starting pitching remains solid: Twins starting pitchers have the fourth-best ERA in the American League. Play around with the splits in just about any other significant category and the Twins are in the bottom half. The lack of strikeouts becomes more alarming when the defense breaks down. That’s been a seasons-long issue, but other numbers related to the pitching have frayed in recent weeks. If the starting pitching suffers, that's big trouble.

*Your head is on straight. A four-game losing streak (and even a couple of weeks of blight) isn’t reason for fans to hyperventilate – or Hunter to make the spectacle of himself that he made in Wednesday’s loss. Yes, he was called out on strikes by an umpire with a bad reputation behind the plate. Yes, I would have understood if he’d said something to get ejected. Yes, a veteran player with star credentials has some leeway to do things that younger and less accomplished players don’t have. But that was just silly and inappropriate – and I felt a bit embarrassed for Hunter when I watched it. It was more WWE than UFC.

So here’s what’s up. There’s good reason to wonder which side of .500 the Twins will be on when June ends. I know the Twins aren’t as good as the Royals (a team whose bullpen and defense make up for other shortcomings) and despite the current standings they’re not as good as the Tigers (a team whose shortcomings still need conquering).

The Twins did things in May that would be impossible to replicate over a six-month stretch. The issue is whether they can find a point closer to where they were last month than where they are right now to remain interesting.

After 60 games last year, Kansas City was 29-31. You knew that, right?

6:10 PM (FSN)
Minnesota 40-36
Cincinnati 35-40

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