The first three months of this 2016 season were forgettable to say the least. But here in July, as we head into the All Star break, the Minnesota Twins are finally starting to show some positive signs.
In fact, there are more than you might suspect. Let's run through some of the things we can feel good about during baseball's midsummer respite.
1. The Twins are finally hitting like we hoped they would.
The optimistic view of this team, entering the season, was that a powerful offense and adequate pitching staff could make them competitive. That did not come to fruition for much of the first half, but over the past few weeks it has. In their past 20 games, the Twins have gone 12-8 while averaging 6.7 runs, hitting .288/.357/.510 with 32 homers. Five of those wins have come against a Texas team with the AL's best record. It's too little, too late for this year's squad, already buried by 20 games in the AL Central, but splendid to see nonetheless.
2. No stopping Nunez.
Regardless of how you view the sustainability of Eduardo Nunez's brilliant, this has clearly been a great development. Nunez was a non-tender candidate in the offseason as a decent hitter with no real defensive position, but now he'll represent Minnesota in the All Star Game on Tuesday. It's a well deserved honor, because the 29-year-old has been legitimately excellent and continues to show no signs of slowing down. He has turned himself into much more of an asset than anyone would have suspected.
3. Miguel Sano is back at third base and hitting.
I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that Sano is the most important piece in the Twins lineup. He was heating up before going down with a hamstring strain at the end of May, with four homers in six games leading up to the injury, and has picked up nicely since returning by posting a .929 OPS with three homers and nine RBI in 10 games. Plus, he's back at the position where he belongs and making some slick plays. It'll be interesting to see what happens when Trevor Plouffe returns from the DL.
4. Max Kepler has been wunderbar!
We've grown accustomed to introductory struggles from highly touted young talents. Maybe that's why Kepler's initial surge has been so shocking. Or maybe it's because it is truly astonishing to see a wiry 23-year-old teeing off against major-league pitchers the way he has. Through 46 games in his first real taste MLB competition, Kepler has an .802 OPS, with a 600-PA pace for 29 homers and 121 RBI.
5. Pitching reinforcements continue to reinforce readiness.
Obviously, pitching is the area where Minnesota has the furthest to go in order to return to respectability. The jury is out on pretty much every one of their starters, and the bullpen is an amorphous mystery. So it is good news that the organization's best prospects for each unit are doing all the right things. J.T. Chargois pitched in the All Star Futures Game on Sunday night at Petco Park. Jose Berrios will represent Rochester at the Triple-A All Star Game on Wednesday in Charlotte.
Each has fizzled during brief MLB stints this year, but they are showing every sign of mastery at the highest level of the minors. We will likely see both back in Minnesota soon, and the second half will a provide a relatively low-leverage setting to learn the ropes. If both catch on, the outlook for the 2017 team brightens immensely.
6. Robbie Grossman looks like a find.
Grossman has now been with the Twins for nearly two full months. His initial hot-hitting period has long since worn off. Since a scorching first couple of weeks with the new club, his BABIP has come down to Earth and his average has dropped precipitously. Yet, after 195 plate appearances, the switch-hitting outfielder still has a .421 on-base percentage. He shows the ability to stay productive offensively even while his bat sags, and that's invaluable for a part-time/bench role.
7. Sophomore slump-busters?
Following an impressive rookie showing in 2014, Kennys Vargas endured a dreadful second season that included a demotion straight to Double-A. He was never in consideration for a roster spot this spring and appeared to be on the verge of exiting Minnesota's plans. He wasn't hitting much at Triple-A this year, but he was showing a much improved approach, just as he did last year in Rochester. That has translated thus far during his latest stint in the majors, as Vargas has five walks and two strikeouts through 23 plate appearances. The 25-year-old's power is undeniable and has been on display with all eight of his hits going for extra bases. If he's controlling the strike zone he is a weapon with dominant offensive ability.
Then, there's Eddie Rosario. He's still amidst his sophomore season, which started out with a thud as he limped to a .532 OPS in April and May. He went to Triple-A, raked to the tune of an .881 OPS in 41 games, and has gone 12-for-31 with five extra-base hits since being recalled. He is rarely whiffing. I know some people will forever be skeptical of Rosario due to his overt and often hazardous aggressiveness, but if you acknowledge that he'll never be a patient hitter he is doing everything you could ask for right now.
8. A fledgling power pen?
If Trevor May, Ryan Pressly and Michael Tonkin hold their pre-break K paces through the end of the year, here's where they would finish on the Twins leaderboard for strikeouts by a reliever since 2009, Joe Nathan's last full season as closer:
1. Michael Tonkin: 98
2. Trevor May: 81
3. Ryan Pressly: 81
4. Glen Perkins, 2012: 78
5. Glen Perkins, 2013: 77
6. Casey Fien, 2013: 73
7. Anthony Swarzak, 2013: 69
8. Glen Perkins, 2011: 65
9. Jesse Crain, 2010: 62
10. Jared Burton, 2013: 61
There's been nothing fluky about the achievement of these impressive and, in recent history, unprecedented strikeout totals for the back-end relievers. May, Pressly and Tonkin all bring upper 90s gas, and blow people away when they're on. Obviously, the results for each have been uneven, but seeing the Twins rank in the top half of the majors in bullpen K/9 is a remarkable and much-needed turnaround.
This unit actually might have the makings of a power pen, especially with arms like Chargois and Nick Burdi on the way.
9. Tyler Duffey looks to be straightened out.
What to make of Duffey's month-long skid from May 20th through June 21st, in which he was clobbered for a 9.17 ERA over seven starts, pushing him to the brink of a demotion? It's hard to say, but it is the lone stretch of poor performance that he's had over the past two seasons, and he seems to have moved past it. Duffey has won three straight starts with a 2.25 ERA, averaging a strikeout per inning. His rebound certainly counters the narrative that he was a ticking time bomb once big-league hitters figured out his curve.
10. Something has gotten into Kurt Suzuki.
After going 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles on Sunday, Suzuki is now hitting .294/.332/.447. Among AL catchers with 200 plate appearances, his .294 average ranks first and his .778 OPS third. If one of the catchers on the All Star roster were to come up with an injury, Suzuki would have a very legit claim as the top replacement option. This from a guy who was one of the worst starting catchers in the game last year, and entered this June with a .559 OPS.
The rejuvenation bolsters Suzuki's value as a trade chip, especially given the dire nature of the catcher position around the league. The Twins might not be inclined to move him though. They have nothing – and I mean nothing – in place behind the plate for 2017. The idea of activating Suzuki's $6 million option now suddenly seems rather appealing. Way more than it did a month ago, anyway.
This isn't merely scrounging for silver linings among the muck. These developments are truly encouraging and optimism inspiring. The first half was largely a grim spectacle for Twins fans but as we reflect here during the midway breather, there really are a lot of factors to feel pretty dang good about based on the way things are trending.
What others would you add to the list?