Injuries and suspensions, failure and frustration. For the Twins, it’s been a disappointing 2018 season, which resumes Friday at Kansas City, with only employees and idealists believing they can recover from their 44-50 start and make the final 10 weeks meaningful. So why pay attention to the Twins after Vikings training camp opens? Here’s a checklist:
The biggest reason for watching the Twins, according to Brian Dozier, is that they can still win the AL Central and get to the playoffs.
“We play 162 for a reason,” Dozier said. “You can’t play the game of baseball in three weeks, or three months. … You go through times that are really [bad], and you go through times that are good. This team is capable of doing something special.”
They have done it before, of course. The Twins return to the field with 7½ games to make up in the standings, a far smaller task than the 2006 Twins had when they faced an 11-game deficit at the break. They were seven games out of first on Labor Day 2009, too, and both times, won a division championship.
“Nobody has given up. I’ve seen [a turnaround] happen,” said Joe Mauer, a central figure on both of those comeback teams. “We’ve been playing good baseball, and we’ll keep fighting.”
The Indians have built their lead principally by feasting upon their AL Central brethren, going an amazing 25-7 against the fading Tigers, the tumbling White Sox and the last-place Royals. The Twins, by contrast, have played only 24 such games, going a mere 13-11. But they get a chance to turn that around in the second half, with 33 meetings — 13 each against Detroit and Kansas City, and seven vs. Chicago — against the bottom-feeders, while Cleveland gets only 25 more.
There are also 10 head-to-head showdowns with the Indians, six in Cleveland, and all completed before September. That’s where the return of starter Ervin Santana, perhaps as soon as next week, might be critical: Santana gave up one earned run in four starts against the Indians last season.
Derek Falvey proved at last season’s trade deadline that he’s not afraid to be aggressive, whether to acquire talent or to redeem expiring contracts (or both, in the case of Jaime Garcia and his one-week Twins career). And with none of the team’s four highest-paid players under contract for 2019, and at least four other players also likely headed for free agency, the Twins’ chief baseball officer has plenty to offer contenders.
Fernando Rodney has established his value once again and could interest a team looking for bullpen depth. Lance Lynn has plenty of postseason experience, which could entice a playoff team. Kyle Gibson, who has a year remaining before free agency, might bring back a quality prospect from a team impressed with his recent development. Eduardo Escobar could interest the teams who need offensive-minded infielders but lost out on Manny Machado.
The biggest news, though, would be the trade-deadline departure of Dozier, a former All-Star who has led the Twins in home runs in each of the past five years. The 31-year-old second baseman, who has hit 49 homers after the break the past two seasons, has said he wants to remain a Twin, but is resigned to testing free agency.
“It’s probably a little more real this year,” he said of rumors he might be traded, “but I’ve gone through it before. Worrying about it won’t do you any good.”
While most of the Twins’ most impressive prospects are in the lower minors, there could still be some exciting arrivals later this season. First-round pick Nick Gordon, for instance, an everyday player at Class AAA Rochester despite being one of the youngest players (22) in the International League, could get a head start on making the Twins next season by spending the season’s final month in Minnesota.
The most intriguing newcomers, though, could be on the pitching staff. Stephen Gonsalves, the polished lefthander who has amassed a 50-20 record, a 2.48 ERA and 607 strikeouts in 568⅔ minor league innings, might join fellow rookie Fernando Romero in a September rotation. And a wave of strong bullpen arms is on its way, too, with Jake Reed and Luke Bard likely leading the way.
“We all know what’s on the horizon, especially when it comes to young pitching,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “There’s a lot of velocity working its way up the ladder.”
It has already been five weeks since Miguel Sano wore a Twins uniform, and seven since Byron Buxton was sidelined for a second time. Their absence is the No. 1 factor in the Twins’ disappointing showing in 2018, a crippling blow to the team’s current plight and, the team surely must fear, its projected future.
“These are important players for us, obviously, but we have to remember that they are also young players, and development doesn’t always happen in a smooth, upward trajectory,” Falvey said. “The important thing is, we want to take the time to make whatever adjustments they need and restore them to the players we’ve seen they can be.”
The Twins have been careful not to set any target dates for their returns, but given their importance to the team — Buxton won a Gold Glove last year, and Sano has hit 78 home runs in only 347 career games — their revival will be the team’s most important undertaking over the final two months.
Joe Mauer’s next double will make him the Twins’ career leader. He is 23 hits away from Rod Carew for second place in franchise history. When he scores 14 more runs, he will be the third Twins player ever to cross home plate 1,000 times. And hitting into six more double plays would make him No. 1 in that category, too.
The Twins will hold on-field ceremonies to honor retired heroes Jack Morris, Jim Thome and Johan Santana in August. It’s hard to know whether the games also will serve as a tribute, perhaps a farewell, for one of the greatest Twins ever.
Mauer and Falvey long ago agreed to put off the question of the six-time All-Star’s future until his eight-year, $184 million contract expires in November. It might make the final 10 weeks of the 2018 season a little poignant.
“I don’t know what will happen,” Mauer said. “I know what I’d like to have happen, but it’s not only up to me.”