As we enjoyed the last of 17 consecutive days off of work (kinda, sorta, mostly) Monday, Local Quipster fought off a balky back and other assorted ailments to bring the conversation back to basics -- which is to say, back to sports. Who will win the six divisions in MLB, he asked, as we dried off temporarily between trips down a water slide (33 going on 8! Or Morneau going on Punto, if you prefer).
Our answers to the "other" five: Red Sox (pitching, plus this will keep Lizzy off our back for a while); Texas (Anaheim just doesn't have it this year, and the Rangers won't wilt for a change); Mets (Phillies will miss Utley and the Mets will pull off a major move that puts them over the top, such as Cliff Lee); Cardinals (Reds are a nice story, but St. Louis has too much); and Dodgers (we still don't believe in San Diego). For the record, LQ likes the Yankees. And he likes Cliff Lee to pitch at Target Field down the stretch.
But what about the AL Central? A 1.5-team race (with Detroit kind of in the mix) has turned into a three-team race with the Twins' stumbles. As David Brauer tweeted a couple days ago after the most recent calamity, the Twins are now 25-29 in their past 54 games. That's one-third of the season. That isn't good. (We confirmed those numbers with multiple anonymous online sources). They were 19-9 after a sweep of Detroit. And you know the rest.
They are a puzzling team. Their lineup is as deep right now as it has ever been. Justin Morneau, Delmon Young and Jim Thome have arguably exceeded expectations as of now. Orlando Hudson, Denard Span and Jason Kubel are at least close to what you would hope for. Joe Mauer hasn't shown the home run power of last year so far, but he has 24 doubles and is up over .300. And yet last year's team, with a lesser lineup, scored 5.01 runs/game compared to 4.66 so far this year.
Their defense, while compromised some to create such a lineup, has still committed just 32 errors in slightly more than half the season. That's still second-best in the AL behind the Yankees.
Every starting pitcher has at least six victories, and their total ERA as a starting staff is 4.31 -- middle of the pack in the American League. Their bullpen, despite recent meltdowns, has an AL-best 3.02 ERA.
So this is a team that, on paper, has a very good lineup ... a reliable defense ... decent starting pitching ... and numerically speaking the best bullpen in the league through the first half of the season. They look like a 95-win team on paper, which is why it's so puzzling to see them chugging toward a mid-to-upper-80s finish. Again. From this, then, some theories and conclusions can be tossed out:
*Is this one of those "sum of the parts is less than the whole" kinds of teams? Are there a bunch of stubborn puzzle pieces that just don't fit together? It's looked like that at times, including several times recently. But that doesn't hold up in the long run. Good teams figure out how to make all the parts move together.
*Did the Twins get a little complacent after their hot start? Might be on to something here. A few injuries here. A few wrong buttons pushed by the manager there. A "don't worry, we'll get out of this funk" attitude suddenly slides into a third of the season played at a sub-par clip.
*Are the Twins feeling a burden of expectation greater than any season in recent memory? We say yes. This team is expected to win the division and make a playoff run. They're all-in for 2010 (Thome, Pavano, Hudson on one-year deals, new ballpark, Mauer extension, etc.). Sometimes it's easier to be the loveable upstart than the veteran powerhouse. Maybe we read to much into facial expressions, dugout demeanor and post-game comments, but it seems as though Ron Gardenhire is bearing much of the weight of the season and not wearing it well right now.
*Do they need more from some spots? Absolutely. Mauer needs to jump up into the 12-15 HR range by the end of the season and knock in 80-90 runs while tilting his avergae upward. That means a pretty big second half. Michael Cuddyer has 172 plate appearances with runners on base this year and only 36 RBI. In the big money RBI situations -- runner on thrd, 1st and 3rd, 2nd and 3rd or bases loaded -- he is a combined 6-for-40. He needs double that many hits in those situations in the second half, and his RBI total will jump. J.J. Hardy needs to stay healthy and hit. Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker need to find some consistency. The bullpen needs to shake its mini-funk.
*All of this said, we really do expect the Twins to win the AL Central, and do so quite handily in the end. This team is too good. They will figure it out. They need to play well in these next
seven six games before the All-Star break at Toronto and Detroit. Then they need to take advantage of the first 17 games after the break, which features 10 home games (and seven road games at Baltimore and Kansas City). We'll go on record with a 3-3 road trip, followed by a 13-4 burst out of the post-AS gate. And, as we told LQ, we'll take the Twins to win the Central by five games. Call it 93-69. That would mean a 49-31 final 80. Not unreasonable if the whole is at least equal to the sum of the parts.