Terry Ryan might have provided the 2015 Twins with their down-the-stretch rallying cry. The weird thing is, he did it in 2014.
“Why not us?” Minnesota’s general manager said, on the occasion of signing free agent Kendrys Morales 13 months ago, about his underdog, overlooked team. “Why not the Twins?”
It became clear shortly after Ryan uttered those words why not: awful starting pitching; an outfield that consisted of the team’s two slowest players and a shortstop; a roster that, even in “rebuilding” mode, ranked among baseball’s eight oldest. In retrospect, those Twins were overmatched, outmanned and doomed to a last-place finish.
But 2015? As the second half begins Friday and the race for the American League’s five playoff spots takes shape, it’s worth asking — why not the Twins?
“I hate bringing up previous years, because obviously it’s not even comparable” to this year, said second baseman Brian Dozier. “It’s night and day. This is a different team, different mind-set, different confidence level — it’s everything.”
If it sounds like he barely recognizes his team, there’s a reason for that: This doesn’t feel like the team the Twins broke camp with in April. Eddie Rosario jumped directly into the lineup from Class AAA Rochester in May and has added timely hitting and surprising gap power. Byron Buxton, called up in June, made every at-bat an occasion, even when he was hitting .180. Miguel Sano, two weeks into his big-league career, looks like the most polished young hitter the Twins have added since Joe Mauer more than a decade ago.
They own the second-best record in an unusually mediocre AL, and resume their season by occupying a wild-card slot, four full games ahead of the closest non-playoff team.
The Twins certainly have addressed the flaws that consigned them to a 92-loss season a year ago. Their outfield defense, with Rosario, Aaron Hicks and Torii Hunter, has transformed from appalling to promising, particularly with Buxton due back soon. Their roster, with Rosario, Buxton, Sano and Danny Santana, is rapidly becoming younger. And the starting pitching?
“If there’s any [area] where the word ‘surprise’ might be applicable, it would be the efficiency of our rotation,” manager Paul Molitor said of his overcrowded group of starting pitchers. The 2014 rotation was last in the majors in ERA, the only one above 5.00. The 2015 version, with Kyle Gibson and Tommy Milone stepping forward, ranks fifth in the AL at a svelte 3.86.
“I was hoping we’d be better,” Molitor said. “I knew we’d have to be better to have a chance [to compete], and we have been.”
Future is now
So are the Twins pennant contenders? Can they follow the lead of the 2014 Royals, who had a worse record than this year’s Twins at the break, were further out of the division lead, and didn’t own a wild-card spot (as the Twins do now) — yet charged to the AL pennant and came a ninth-inning hit away from winning a World Series?
Proof of the Twins’ own belief might not lie in their words as much as their actions.
By promoting Buxton and Sano, who have played fewer than 200 Class AA games — and zero Class AAA games — between them, the Twins made it clear how seriously they take the 2015 pennant race. By demoting Kennys Vargas, Caleb Thielbar, Oswaldo Arcia, Chris Herrmann, Aaron Thompson, Hicks and Santana (the latter two temporarily) to the minors, by cutting Tim Stauffer and Jordan Schafer when they didn’t produce, the Twins demonstrated their thirst for the postseason, and their unwillingness to wait for players who can’t help now.
“We’re probably the most patient team in the game,” Ryan insisted last week, but patience turns to exigency when a chance to break a four-year pattern of despair can be broken.
In other words, it wasn’t just spring-training exuberance when Ryan said in February, “We’re not trying to win five years from now. We’ve got to get this turned around now.” With a 49-40 record, the Twins sense an opportunity.
“We’ve gotten to a point now where it’s like, ‘OK, this is something that we can do, not only for a month or two months, but for a season,’ ” Molitor said. “I haven’t tried to look too far out, as far as talking to these guys about the playoffs, but I hear them. I feel them. They’re believing.”
Problems to fix
They’re believing in him, too, a rookie manager who, funny thing, orchestrates big changes by focusing on small changes. He preaches getting one more hit, taking one more base, and trusting that the cumulative effect will win games.
“He asks everybody to do the little things,” third baseman Trevor Plouffe said, “and it hits you how much better everyone is if we work together.”
More changes are needed, some of which could be addressed before the July 31 trade deadline. The bullpen, aside from All-Star closer Glen Perkins, isn’t as reliable in July as it was in May. The relief corps strikes out fewer than any other team’s, putting more pressure on an improving but average defense. The Twins have a wealth of minor league prospects (see the above list of demotions) to dangle for a veteran reliever.
The bullpen is not the only shortcoming. Santana has been a drag on the offense, having drawn only three unintentional walks while striking out 59 times, and a spotty shortstop. Catcher Kurt Suzuki’s on-base percentage has slipped below .300, his OPS an anemic .604.
Molitor also has ambitions to improve his team’s execution on the bases.
“Offensively, our base stealing has not been as good as I’d like it to be,” he said, “and some of the outs we give up on the bases is concerning at times.”
He’s also putting pressure on his pitchers to do a better job holding runners, too.
“We tried to emphasize the running game against us this year. And we’ve done OK, [but] I think we can do better,” he said.
Molitor can fix those problems, but the Twins have some history to defeat, too; they haven’t played even .400 baseball over the second half of the past four seasons, as playoff contenders used them as target practice. Add that to the list of changes the Twins must make.
Ironically, the most optimistic assessment of the Twins’ playoff chances comes from someone who isn’t eligible to take part if it happens. Ervin Santana, a veteran of five postseason series, must sit out October as part of his punishment for testing positive for steroids. That’s going to hurt, he fears.
“I watched a lot of games [during his 80-game suspension], and got more excited. This team is getting better every day, and that’s the kind of team that wins,” Santana said. “Young guys, hungry guys. They’re not afraid. They just want to play, and they just want to win.”