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Twins baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan

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.

Section 219: Hey, it's kind of a big series for the Twins

Yeah, I'm rolling my eyes a little bit when I look at the American League standings, even if I'm not getting sucked into the "if the season ended today, the Twins would be in the one-game Wild Card playoff" thing. Instead, I'm looking at the series that starts tonight in Detroit as kind of a big deal, an indication of how far they appear to have cone since their laughingstock opening series against the Tigers and the 2-of-3 they lost to them at the end of last month before the winning began in earnest.

The Twins are a cocktail of good stuff and concern right now. But there's enough good stuff to at least have the discussion about whether the team's 18-14 record is somewhat sustainable as the season drags on. It's only a snapshot in time, but ESPN moved the Twins from 21st to 12th in its weekly power rankings, giving the AL Central three of the top dozen teams on the list.

I'm going to worry about the lack of strikeouts by the pitching staff because being last in the majors, by a significant margin, means that fielders are doing more work that you'd like. And given some of the Twins' defensive liabilities, that could well catch up with them over time. Danny Santana is scaring me at shortstop but I've moved on from any thought that he should spend time in center field. Both of the Eduardos (Escobar and Nunez) do the same for me when they play left. The bullpen could stand some improvement and I'm turning a blind eye still to Joe Mauer's OPS+ of 101, which is easier to do because of 18-14.

Here's what I'm going to feel good about:

*The Twins are winning in spite of some numbers not being where they were in 2014. Kurt Suzuki is hitting at a pace that would bring derision if he hadn't established himself with an All-Star 2014 and as the toughest of tough guys when it comes to dealing with the bumps of being a catcher. Brian Dozier is just now starting to hit the way you'd expect and if anyone is having a "when will Joe Mauer homer" pool, send me an invite and I'll send you a dollar.

*The starting pitching is getting by for now. Who had Mike Pelfrey as undefeated and with a best-of-the-rotation ERA after a half-dozen times through the rotation? Kyle Gibson looks good more often than not, and his bad outing aren't as bad as last season. They're making up for the other guys right now, with the irony being that Phil Hughes has won a couple of games recently with worse outings than during his April losses.

*Paul Molitor isn't fooling himself. He's managing like he's putting together a jigsaw puzzle, knowing that different pieces are the best fit on different days. I like that Eddie Rosario isn't getting an apprenticeship on the bench and he's made the best of a pitching staff that includes a handful of weak links despite the overall success.

*I'm sorry I made fun of Blaine Boyer earlier in the season. "The Pretty in Pink refrigerator reference" was mean-spirited and not worthy for a guy who has since pitched 11 1./3 scoreless innings. Name calling is (almost) always wrong, kids. Now I'd like reasons to retire the #FiascoNolasco hashtag and for Brian Duensing to stop making me crazy.

*Trevor Plouffe, for reasons mentioned in detail in an earlier post.

*Pelfrey, because I never thought he was as bad as he was during his two years of struggling. It's fun to watch him pitch well.

*Torii Hunter, whose weekend just ended was better than his previous weekend. Keep speaking with the bat, Torii. It's better for everyone.

The Twins are coming up on an interesting stretch through the rest of the month. The Tigers and White Sox again, and a bunch of new opponents who are all at or very close to .500. It's more fun right now than we expected, but we'll have a better sense in a few weeks whether the Twins are smoke and mirrors -- or smoke that will lead to a bonfire that we can gather around for the summer and enjoy.

1:10 PM (FSN)
Minnesota 24-18
Chicago White Sox 19-21

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