For a team that is in the postseason picture at the All-Star break, the Twins sure do have their shortcomings.

Their desperation for starting pitching has led them to 44-year old Bartolo Colon, who is expected to join the team following a start for Class AAA Rochester on Thursday night. The bullpen has been unreliable. The offense leaves too many runners in scoring position.

Even with these problems, the Twins are in contention.

As they return from the break, the Twins are 2½ games behind Cleveland in the American League Central. They have come a long way from last season's 103-loss disaster and head to Houston for a weekend series believing they have established themselves as a playoff threat.

American League standings

"Right now, I know the Indians sit a couple of games ahead but, honestly, I feel like we are in first place," second baseman Brian Dozier said. "There is no catching up, in our minds.

"I honestly believe our better baseball is ahead of us."

That's quite a statement from someone on the only team in baseball with a winning record (45-43) and a negative run differential (minus-60).

The mentality was forged during spring training, when manager Paul Molitor met with new Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and wanted to address the substandard defense from a year ago. The outfielders worked on their jumps, throws and positioning, Miguel Sano moved from right field, where he was bad, to third base, where he isn't as bad. And Jorge Polanco hasn't been a liability at shortstop.

The Twins are fourth in the American League in team defensive runs saved — which is based on a compilation of several defensive ratings.

"When you are fundamentally sound," Dozier said, "that really doesn't slump."

The Twins are 18th in MLB in runs scored and 17th in batting average with runners in scoring position. Sano is on pace for 39 homers and 114 RBI. Robbie Grossman's ability to get on base has been a boost. They are fourth in the majors in walks.

But the pitching staff is the sore spot. Its 4.89 ERA is 27th in the majors. Because of injuries (Trevor May, Glen Perkins, Phil Hughes, Hector Santiago) and ineffectiveness (Kyle Gibson needing time in the minors) the Twins already have run through 27 pitchers — including catcher Chris Gimenez in emergencies — after using a record 29 last season.

Their success has been based on defense, walks and enough hitting.

"Overall, we have had some clunkers," Molitor said, "but if you have asked me where we are at in terms of what the guys have given me, for the most part, I would be fairly pleased."

Oh yes, the clunkers.

There's one theory that the measure of a good team is how many games it wins by five or more runs. While the Twins have 12 victories that way, they have lost 19 games — 44 percent of their losses — by five or more runs.

"When we lose, we lose," closer Brandon Kintzler said. "I'll tell you that."

That includes giving up 28 runs in two home games to Boston in early May, then giving up 40 runs in a three- game series to Houston, which included the 16-8 Memorial Day massacre and a 17-6 loss two days later.

Dozier said he believes the team has had to learn how to shake off bad losses or series, something the younger players were unable to do last season. After being swept in four games against Cleveland at Target Field last month, they went to Cleveland the following weekend and swept the Indians in a three-game series.

It's growth like that, Dozier believes, that will keep them relevant.

"They know what it takes when you lose a series to say, '[Forget] it, we'll win the next one,' " he said. "That's what you have to have. I think that's kind of our best trait. That's what I like the best about us. It's the no fear of failure. A lot of these guys have started to buy into that."

Wild Card standings

A trade or two could help their chances. The Twins are checking in with teams about available players before the July 31 deadline, and reports have them inquiring about pitchers such as Oakland righthander Sonny Gray and Chicago White Sox lefthander Jose Quintana.

"I think, for us, it's going to be a challenge to make sure we address the medium- and long-term at the same time," Falvey said. "So we have to evaluate each trade scenario as it comes."

The clubhouse is waiting to see what Falvey does. Two years ago, some players grumbled and a team meeting was held when then-GM Terry Ryan could only land reliever Kevin Jepsen before the deadline.

"We all think that they are not going to just sit around and let this thing play out, by any means," Dozier said of the front office. "When you are around first place at the deadline, you don't take that for granted. You go get it."

Shortstop Nick Gordon is one of their top minor leaguers in a farm system that isn't considered deep. So it appears that it will be hard for the Twins to put together an attractive package of prospects to land pitching help in what is expected to be a seller's market. But it comes down to how teams match up as talks take place.

"With the way the standings have played out there are plenty of teams, particularly in the AL, still in the hunt and a week to 10 days could change a lot of things for a lot of clubs," Falvey said. "So no one is quite ready to have that conversation yet, but I'm sure those will happen in the weeks following the All-Star Game."

A post-break slump could turn the Twins into sellers, and the upcoming schedule does them no favors. They play the first-place Astros, second-place Yankees and first-place Dodgers before the end of July.

"That's probably going to decide what the front office does by the end of this month," Kintzler said. "We're going to see what we are made of, if we are for real or not."

The winning percentage of the remaining teams on their schedule: .522. Pack a lunch.

It begins Friday, when this flawed-yet-competitive team faces a Houston squad that dominated them earlier this season.

"Payback for Houston," Kintzler said. "I think that's something we have to remind ourselves of, that they embarrassed us at home. That would be a nice jump into the second half."