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A Fan's View

Twins baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan

A short-and-sour thought about the Twins

I'm going to keep this short: That the Twins didn't do much of anything to help themselves at trading deadline wasn't as alarming as the team's inability to address its lack of bullpen depth in the weeks leading up to it. I could live without a new shortstop, as unfortunately unsettled as that situation has become, or added catching depth.

But consistently winning baseball demands a better bullpen than the Twins know they have.

Chasing a one-game wild card berth is not worth the bigger moves that you'd want a team to make if it's contending for a division title and an immediate jump to best-of-seven postseason play. Rental-for-prospect is a shaky calculus in that situation. But the Twins gave the impression they were operating under the assumption that the roster, as constructed in June and July, was good enough for August and September.

By most any measure, Twins relief pitchers rank among the bottom batch in the American League, and it is a situation that has been getting worse. Glen Perkins giving up four home runs to the last 20 batters he's faced is the ugliest mark. But Blaine Boyer is a right-hander who can't retire right-handed batters, who have a .361 on-base percentage against him, and lefty Brian Duensing gives up almost a hit per inning and walks a batter every other inning on average. (And lefties have a .449 OBP against him.)

I'll spare you more bullpen data, other than to say there's no way you can make a case that the Twins were approaching a tough August schedule with an insufficient group of relievers. The Kevin Jepsen deal  on its own wasn't enough of a bump. Solid pitching, from top to bottom, can get a team through the inevitable times when the offense slumps. The bottom has been bottoming out.

Right now, the standings have the Twins in a three-way tie with Toronto and Baltimore for the second Wild Card spot. The latest postseason projections from Fangraphs have the Twins with an 11 percent shot at the Wild Card, compared with 22 percent for Baltimore and 43 percent for Toronto.

So if you're being an optimist, get good odds.

This is not a case of  bomb-throwing at the Twins' baseball decision-makers. Some good calls have been made. The sequence in which the minor-leaguers were promoted defied conventional wisdom but worked pretty well. Eddie Rosario, Aaron Hicks and Miguel Sano were handled properly, and the Byron Buxton promotion was sidetracked by an injury, although I suspect he would have ended up back in Rochester rather than staying with the Twins. Trevor May has helped the bullpen. Paul Molitor has pushed more good managing buttons than bad ones.

The Twins have given us more meaningful games that we expected when the season started. Good on them for doing so.

But it also makes the current situation more frustrating. The best strategy for the next two months should be based on more than hope.

Twins at midseason: Present and future are finally the same thing

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.

6:07 PM (FSN)
Minnesota 54-51
Toronto 55-52

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