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A Fan's View

Twins baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan

Section 219: You didn't think the Twins would do this well, either

I'm fighting the urge to get too giddy about the Twins. I keep reminding myself there are 116 games to play and more than a few teams over, let's say, the last 116 years have put together a solid quarter-season or half-season before regressing to where people return to saying mean things about them.

What's happening now is 180 degrees away from the darkest path, when a good team starts out poorly and you keep waiting (and waiting and waiting) for a change for the better. Remember the 2011 Twins, the defending division champions who began the plunge into four seasons of darkness that sometimes felt like four decades?

Those Twins already 16 games under .500 at this point in the season.

My counsel right now is to have fun with what's happening and enjoy some of the things you didn't expect.

Here are a few of them:

The outfield defense is no longer the liability it was entering the season. If the "varsity" outfield remains Eddie Rosario in left, Aaron Hicks in center and Torii Hunter in right, that turns the outfield into an asset instead of a liability. That's because the guys who were in the minors at the start of the season are huge upgrades from the defense provided by Oswaldo Arcia and Jordan Schafer. Hicks lessens some pressure on Hunter in right field. (The defensive metric cousins Ultimate Zone Rating and :"UZR 150" aren't meant to provide keen single-season analysis -- or anything smaller -- but Hunter's horrendously negative numbers for 2014 have been replaced by a positive rating so far this season.)

A question facing the Twins will be what to do with Arcia when he returns. The answer may be "trade bait." There are numerous configurations for the Twins outfield in the seasons to come with Rosario, Hicks, Byron Buxton and Arcia. And whoever doesn't play third base when Miguel Sano is major-league ready (Sano vs. Trevor Plouffe) also becomes a right-field candidate.

Right now, my vote (for 2016 and beyond) is for Rosario in left, Buxton in center and Sano in right. The fun part, of course, is whether Hunter messes with that plan by continuing something close to his current pace, staying with the Twins and saying, "Hey, guys, what about me?" My vote come winter could be significantly different than it is right now.

Whatever, the debate over the future of the Twins outfield is a fun one.

Look at the MLB pitching statistics. Look at the 14 pitchers so far with an earned run average of less than 3.00. Hey, that's Kyle Gibson at 2.72. And, that's Mike Pelfrey at 2.77. Yes, Mike Pelfrey, the guy who was headed to the bullpen before the Ervin Santana drug suspension.

Gibson looks to be evolving into the pitcher than was promised in 2014 when he was elite in the starts when he wasn't flat-out terrible. Last season, there was no middle ground to Gibson's starts. This season, he's battled through patches when he was falling apart in 2014. As for Pelfrey, he has pitched like the guy who mixed in a couple of good seasons among his weaker work during his New York Mets years -- a career arc that looks a little bit like the Phil Hughes years with the Yankees.

Again, the Twins have issues based on competition. Right now, that would be the 0.28 ERA Tommy Milone has put together in four Class AAA Rochester starts (one earned run in 31 2/3 innings, with 41 strikeouts and two walks). And it would be Jose Berrios, the first-round draft choice from 2012 who has been dominant at Class AA Chattanooga. Something is bound to happen during the months to come where another starter or two will be needed, and it's good to know that it won't be someone  about whom we'll need to utter a prayer for every pitch. (Andrew Albers, Yohan Pino and a few others.)

Molitor's managing. Without being able to produce evidence, I am fairly certain the Twins are using advanced statistics on a day-to-day basis more often than in the past. If not, then Molitor is a savant instead of just a very, very smart baseball guy. There's an entire post in the moves and tweaks he's made this season, deciding when to sit players and when to get others in the lineup.

I'm not going there right now. I'm just going to roll with the idea that Molitor knows what he's doing when he builds the Twins lineup on a daily basis. There will be times when people are puzzled (Joe Mauer sitting out two games last week when the Twins had two off days, for example) on playing against platoon percentages.

But a 28-18 record trumps second guessing -- all the more when you wouldn't have been surprised if the Twins were 18-28 right now. There are a lot of debates about the Twins and their future, but right now they can be held in good spirits instead of wondering what will be next to go wrong.

Are the Twins as good as their (unexpectedly good) record?

The question I keep getting asked if whether the Twins are really as good as their current record.

The answer is no.

At their current pace, going into Saturday’s game in Chicago, the Twins would finish with a 91-71 record. I don’t think the Twins are a 20-games-above-.500 team as currently constructed, nor as they could be constructed with any combination of players currently available to them. I’m guessing you don’t either.

However, I do think we’re on the verge of a summer of interesting and relevant baseball.

I can’t guarantee it. But I’m pretty sure the Twins are better than we were willing to give them credit for as the season approached. There are flaws scattered throughout the roster, but so far there have also been antidotes to those flaws.

Flaw: Danny Santana playing a scary shortstop. Antidote: Enough offense to overcome some of the runs to which he’s contributed to through his messy defensive play.

Flaw: Phil Hughes struggling more often than you’d want from the No. 1 pitcher on the staff. Antidote: The rest of the rotation is OK. (The rotation's ERA is ninth in the American league.)

Flaw: Waiting for Joe Mauer to be more excellent than average. Read that as his current 100 OPS+ vs. his career 132 figure. (Here’s an OPS+ definition – or refresher – if you need it.) . Antidote: Trevor Plouffe and Torii Hunter sandwiching Mauer in the batting order and stepping up pretty consistently.

In the recent seasons of agony, whatever good wasn’t nearly enough to balance off the bad. The good ball stats don’t lie … and those weren’t kind to the Twins.

So what now?

The reason I can only offer measured optimism instead of something giddier is mostly because of the challenge presented by the Twins bullpen. The Twins are carrying 13 pitchers right now and eight of them are relievers. Of those eight, however, they are as scary as they are solid. How often do you want Brain Duensing pitching in key situations? Michael Tonkin? Tim Stauffer? J.R. Graham (despite his excellent midweek outing in Pittsburgh)?

That leaves Glen Perkins, Blaine Boyer, Aaron Thompson and Ryan Pressly as relievers who don’t scare me. Casey Fien will be joining the good group soon and at some point the 13-pitcher staff will be cut back to 12 again. Of that group, only Perkins and Fien have proven themselves over a full season.

The Twins fell short with their needed bullpen makeover in the offseason. Many of the good things won’t matter if the Twins don’t have an adequate bridge from their starters to the trustier end-game relievers. Paul Molitor danced successfully with the staff through the 13-inning victory at Pittsburgh on Wednesday but didn’t have the same good fortune Friday in Chicago, when he tried Thompson and Tonkin in a tie game.

The offense isn’t always going to be good enough to overcome the team’s mistakes. And Friday’s loss, in addition to the three-hit offense, was fueled by a poor play on a ground ball between Hughes and Mauer, as well as the awful 0-and-2 breaking ball Hughes threw to weak-hitting Geovany Soto that he lined for a two-run double. The bullpen failed to pick up for those problems.

Before I’m willing to get too excited, the Twins need to show me a Bullpen 2.0. The current bullpen is 13th of the 15 American League teams in ERA and tied for last in opponents’ slugging percentage. Given the excellent work by Perkins, the very good work by Boyer and the good-enough work of Thompson and Pressly, those numbers are skewed by the others.

Do you want to see the bullpen I covet? It’s right here, with five frequent contributors who have allowed one baserunner or less per inning, and a staff WHIP of .96.

The one-quarter mark of the season is the time when teams start looking at track record and make some revisions for the long haul. Moving Alex Meyer to the Class AAA bullpen was one hint of what could be coming. Jose Berrios and Tommy Milone could force their way into the rotation and force more changes in the bullpen alignment.

Picking up the right reinforcements for the bullpen is a doable challenge. I think the Twins can get by for a spell with the current group, but there will be a time when more reliable arms will be needed more often than they are right now, especially if the Twins keep playing games that matter.

The good news is we’re talking like this instead of throwing up (our arms) in disgust and wishing for minor-league calls-up just for the sake of excitement. Let’s see how long the Twins can make moves that are based in playing relevant baseball.

Let’s call that a victory for now. Let’s also expect improvement.

7:10 PM (FSN)
Toronto 22-27
Minnesota 28-18

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