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.