The Twins are nine games over .500 at the All-Star Break and have a four-game lead in the race for a Wild Card berth. They just finished a run against three serious playoff contenders with eight victories in 11 games. On Sunday, the Twins took apart Detroit (for the third time in four games) with a lineup that included five players who spent time in the minor leagues this season.
Things are good. Unexpectedly good.
So good that it’s perfectly fine, with more than 50 percent of the season played, to talk about the Twins as a postseason contender without sounding silly. And one of the good things about that discussion is that it no longer breaks off into an argument over whether the Twins are playing for today or building for the future.
Those two things, right now, are pretty much one.
And there isn’t very much “in spite of” on the roster right now. Sure, you can pick on Mike Pelfrey right now for his problems in recent starts, but I want you to find another American League team that has a fifth starter who doesn’t concern its manager. And for all the tweaking on him that we’ve done, it’s only fair to point out that Joe Mauer has a .325 batting average and .835 on base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) over the last three weeks.
About the only thing you’d want from the Twins right now is a bullpen upgrade, the kind that should be able to get done in the next few weeks without giving up much in return. (That’s not giving up Oswaldo Arcia for a set-up guy. It is taking on a reliever or two who could boost the bullpen in return for second-line prospects or the always popular “cash considerations.) In other words, the Twins should be looking for the kind of deals they’ve been making over the last few years when getting rid of players who didn’t fit into their future.
Now, on to the things we didn’t expect or had cause to wonder about:
*The starting pitching. Kyle Gibson is pitching like a boss, Tommy Milone is pitching like a steal (Milone for Sam Fuld? Remember that one last summer?) Phil Hughes has been OK instead of outstanding and Ervin Santana should make the rotation better in the way that Trevor May, even though he didn’t deserve the demotion, makes the bullpen better. If you have to be queasy over Pelfrey right now, that’s a small price for what the Twins are getting from the others.
*The outfield is no longer a liability. If you use the Fangraphs team Ultimate Zone Rating statistics, the Twins have an outfield team UZR of -0.4, which is right in the middle of the majors. That doesn’t sound impressive, but consider two things: A portion of the season was played with an assortment of weak combinations (Escobar-Nunez/Schafer/Hunter, for example) before the current group took over most of the innings. Also, in 2014, the team outfield UZR was -36.2, which was 29th of 30 teams. Here’s a definition of UZR, if you need it.
*Torii Hunter is on more than a retirement tour. Except for his batting average, his offensive statistics are comparable (or even a bit better) than in recent seasons. I thought Hunter’s arrival was a marriage of convenience, but it has turned out to be a vital bridge between what the Twins were and what we expect them to become.
*Brian Dozier is showing that if more than half of your hits (54 percent right now) are for extra bases, it renders batting average (and even on-base percentage) pretty unimportant.
*Aaron Hicks is showing what happens when you get third or fourth chances. Although we shouldn’t be totally convinced, he’s in the process of trying to prove that he’s more than a fourth outfielder as the Twins look at their future. His minor-league batting statistics make it a little odd that everyone started looking at him as a potential defensive replacement type of player at best. Having to choose among Hicks, Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Oswaldo Arcia for three starting outfield spots in the future isn’t a bad thing.
*The front office and Molitor have made the right moves at the right time: Bringing up Rosario before the other young players was greeted with skepticism, and turned out to be the right move. The Hicks situation was odd but is working. If Miguel Sano’s promotion was delayed a couple of weeks, that’s hardly a crime. (I think he would have been promoted in June, except for the Kennys Vargas game-winning home run against St. Louis that may have kept him around a bit longer.) The shortstop juggling act has kept Santana from facing too much pressure or the Eduardos from being asked to do too much. The main takeaway is that the Twins are no longer filling their roster with guys who have little reason to be on a major league roster – the Matt Tolberts and Brian Dinkelmans of the world.
*Molitor is the right combination of old school and contemporary in his managing. The smartest leaders don’t tell you everything that’s going through their minds. Molitor answers queries about strategy and personnel moves without full disclosure but with enough detail to let people know what’s going on. I hope that doesn’t change over time. Some moves haven’t worked out (in-game pitching decisions come to mind) and the Twins’ base-running right now is curiously inconsistent. To me, that’s a sign of a work in progress. Mistakes are made over 162 games – and maybe you’re noticing more of them because you care that much more.
That’s my list. If you look at the projections from Baseball Prospectus and others, the Twins are still an underdog for the postseason. There’s understandable skepticism that the Twins will continue their current pace – or even play .500 baseball from now until October. That’s a price to be paid for four years of wasteland baseball. I’m choosing to be impressed that the Twins are 49-40 despite a couple of stretches when you could wonder whether things were going to go from bad to worse. Instead, they straightened themselves out.
Four days without baseball has been a blessing in recent years. In 2015, the way things have been going, Friday’s resumption of play can’t come soon enough for Twins fans.