Thursday, July 14, 2011

Can patchwork Twins mend its way to a division title?

Two days after the All-Star Game, the Minnesota Twins returned to action with as Francisco Liriano took the Target Field mound last night against the Kansas City Royals.

At 41-48, could the Twins (once a dismal 17-37) compete with and surpass division foes Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago to win the American League Central? Maybe.

One could have been considered crazy to think so six weeks ago. As of today, however, a seventh division title in 10 years is a remarkable possibility. But despite the wonderful run they've made, the rest of this 2011 journey is promising to be an arduous, uphill climb.

The Twins have won 24 out of its past 35 games and are within 6.5 games of the Tigers - a spectacular feat. They've also been very fortunate to be playing in a division where the leader is only six games over .500.

So it would seem feasible that a division title and playoff bid would be within their reach.

However, based on talent, it's not reasonable to think Detroit (49-43), or Chicago (44-48) for that matter, will have less success in the second half as they've had in the first. In fact, it's very rational to believe these teams will play better.

Considering was has transpired for the Twins thus far, taking home the Central crown would be simply sensational. But thanks to the team's impressive play of as of late, it's certainly within the realm of possibility.

Let’s examine a few things that have happened in their 2011 season thus far. Then we can construct a hypothesis for the team’s final outcome.

Minnesota’s opening day lineup was very promising.

Leading off, Denard Span, followed by Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Danny Valencia and Alexi Casilla.

All but Nishi and Casilla have had proven big league success.

Mauer has three batting titles and an MVP, Morneau is a four-time All-Star with an MVP as well (thus the two being pitched as the M & M Boys - a famed moniker attributed to all-time baseball greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris). Moreover, at ages 27 and 29, respectively, the Twins sluggers are both in the prime of their careers.

Span, 27, is the Twins 2002 first-round draft pick and a player who has appeared to be a player on the rise (and was rewarded handsomely for it, netting a five-year, $16.5 million in 2010). Young, the overall No. 1 Major League Baseball draft selection in 2003, was returning from a breakthrough 2010 season - 21 home runs and a team-high 112 RBI. Cuddyer, who has been a 10-year-rock for Minnesota, made his first All-Star appearance on Tuesday.

The final two starting pieces of the lineup (Kubel and Valencia) had not shown MLB star caliber ability prior to this season, but have had nominal success in the Bigs. Kubel, 29, entered the season with periods of proven big league success and a spectacular spring training. Valencia, 24, exhibited the makings of a burgeoning star last year (producing 10 homeruns and 46 RBI in a half-season’s amount of at-bats), thus tabbed as the Twins opening day third baseman this year.

Offensive starters aside, this year’s Twins also featured the vast majority of a pitching staff that ranked tops in the AL Central last season (with a 3.95 ERA), veteran slugger Jim Thome (who batted .283 with 25 home runs in 2010) and a state-of-the-art, spectacular new ballpark.

Needless to say, excitement and expectations abounded for the Twins entering 2011.

Then came April 1 and an season-opening, three-game series at Toronto.

First game: Toronto 13, Twins 3. Disappointing, but what’s one game out of 162? Next game: Toronto 5, Twins 1. Game 3: Minnesota was able to win 4-3, however, a little bit of worrisome tone began to settle in Twins Territory nonetheless, albeit still only three days into the season.

Twins faithful rightfully believed this funky aura would soon rub away. But a trip to New York to face the Yankees was next, and the Twins lost two of three. Okay. But those were the powerhouse Pin-stripers, taking one of three could almost be considered applaudable. However, the Twins promptly came home and lost three of five to lowly Oakland and Kansas City.

The problems continued to mount. Mauer and Nishioka went down with injuries, Morneau, who was thought to have recovered from a severe concussion suffered last season, was not returning to form and the team’s losing ways continued.

The woes hit rock bottom when the Tampa Bay Rays came up to Target Field and swept the Twins in a three-game series April 27-28.

It was a series Twins fans would love to forget, but one still forged in the depths of their memory banks.

To refresh with details: Two words, Ben Zobrist.

The Rays utility man had the series of his life. In game one, Zobrist was relatively tame, collecting a two-run triple and a sacrifice fly in five plate appearances - although the triple did set the tone in a four-run first inning. Tampa won 8-2. As for the following day? (a day-night, double-header) Zobrist connected for a home run, two doubles and 8 RBI in a 15-3 Rays win in game one; in the nightcap, he tacked on another home run, double, 3 runs and 2 RBI to spearhead a 6-1 Tampa victory.

In total, Zobrist was 8-for-14 with six runs scored and 13 RBI. Tampa defeated the Twins by a collective score of 29-6.

Minnesota followed the Rays ruination with a pair of losses to Kansas City to finish its first month of 2011 with a 9-17 record.

The frustration had a distinct feeling of a disgust. As poor as the record was, the team's performance was worse, as the Twins flat out stunk.

On May 1, the Twins ranked dead last the American League in pitching (bearing a 4.88 ERA) and nearly last in all of baseball in offense - ranking 29th both with its run production (82) and team batting average (.233).

Only the Padres ranked worse in hitting (.211 average, 77 runs). But at least San Diego had the 3rd-ranked pitching staff in baseball.

The Twins stunk. And things worsened. The Mauer and Nishi injuries, along with the discouraging play from Morneau, were not the only problems. Other key players struggled, too.

Cuddyer, Young and Valencia were horrible at the plate.

Cuddyer, consistently batting fifth or sixth, managed a mere 4 RBI through his first 33 games of the season. Young, who primarily hit sixth, finished May with a .197 batting average, one home run and 5 RBI (very poor, although in fairness to Young - as opposed to Cuddyer - he missed several games with a rib injury). Valencia registered a .211 batting average with only two home runs through his first 95 at-bats.

The two pitchers thought to be the aces of the staff - Liriano (14-10 with a 3.62 ERA last season) and Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75 ERA in 2010) - were both awful.

Liriano owned a 1-4 record with an abysmal 9.13 ERA after his first five starts. Pavano (who was given a two-year, $16.5 contract in the off-season) posted a lofty 6.64 ERA with a 2-4 record through his first seven starts.

Then there’s Joe Nathan, who, much like Morneau, was also unable to make a successful return from a sidelining injury from last year. The four-time All-Star who is four saves short of becoming Minnesota’s all-time saves leader, blew three of five save opportunities before removing himself from the closer’s role and finishing April with an ERA of 10.00.

Only Span and Kubel were having success. Span had a .300 batting average with 29 runs scored through his first 203 at-bats, while Kubel was having an All-Star caliber start of the season (.310 average, 30 RBI in 200 at-bats).

But two players don’t make a team as the Twins followed its 9-17 April with a 8-19 May.

Mercifully, the team’s struggles seemed to have bottomed out on June 1, when its record reached twenty games below .500 after it was swept three games by Detroit at Comerica Park.

On June 2, the Twins were prescribed with just the right remedy - a four-game series at Kansas City. Visiting a ballpark, Kauffman Stadium, where Minnesota has been perennially dominant (albeit this time coming in more woeful than ever), the Twins did not disappoint.

The Twins swept the Royals to ignite a string of success the team is still riding as they come out of the All-Star break. Okay, they were temporarily deterred with a six-game losing streak in late June, but they were able to recover from it quickly.

How have they managed this turn-a-round?

Well, it’s almost a mystery.

Mauer and Nishi finally returned recently, but neither have posted eye-popping numbers. Morneau (wrist and neck injuries) has not played since June 9. Kubel and Span, the team’s only two solid hitters through April and May, have been out with injuries as well - Kubel (sprained left foot) hasn’t played since May 30, Span (concussion) has been out since June 6.

So how have the Twins gone 24-11 over the past six weeks?

Manager Ron Gardenhire and his staff have carved out a winning ballclub with the likes of Luke Hughes, Trevor Plouffe, Rene Rivera, Ben Revere, Rene Tosoni and Brian Dinkleman.

Okay, Dinkleman only had 14 at-bats, so he did not have much of an impact (I just couldn’t resist mentioning a guy with a name like that). But the rest of this group has had at least 60 at-bats and made clutch contributions that have bred sudden success for a team that, at one point, looked destined for historical shame.

The aforementioned group of players have not put up strong numbers or lit up many scoreboards; but they have complemented a hot stretch of hitting by Casilla (32-for-87 (.368), May 24 - June 17), an impressive offensive resurgence from Cuddyer and a stark turn-a-round from the team’s starting pitchers, to put themselves back into division (and playoff) contention.

It’s been an amazing ride. But can it continue?

The team has relied on clutch hits from inexperienced players and superb pitching performances from its starters to win ballgames for a long time now. But how much longer can this continue?

Players are beginning to return from the disabled list. As mentioned, Mauer and Nishi are back, and they’ve been playing better as of late as well. Thome, who missed time with back and toe issues, has returned. Young was officially re-activated yesterday. Morneau isn’t due to return until mid-August, but Kubel and Span are expected to return shortly.

This return to health should help a little, but the Twins have an awful bullpen and will still require strong contributions by prospects the team was not expecting to promote to the pros this season.

A division title is still possible. Difficult, but possible.

Thinking optimistically, let’s revisit those first month team statistics and rankings. Then compare them to where they're at today.

On May 1, Twins pitchers combined for a 4.88 ERA (which ranked last in the AL, 27th overall). The team’s offense, once again, was the second-worst in MLB in both batting average (.233) and runs (82).

As of today, Twins pitchers have shaved its cumulative ERA to 4.29 (which ranks 13th in the AL, 26th overall). The offense has produced 347 runs (13th AL, 25th overall) and raised its team batting average to .248 (11th AL, 21st overall).

The climb in rankings is not overwhelming; but the statistical (and record) improvement is remarkable, considering where the numbers were in earlier in the season.

It should be noted that the team's offensive upswing has been made without much improvement in power. On May 1, the Twins ranked 29th with 11 home runs. As of today (two and a half months later), the team has hit 55 homers.

Also, the team’s pitching numbers are weighed down significantly by its bullpen - which, at an ERA of 5.01, ranks last in baseball (Detroit is second-worst at 4.68). Thus further enforcing how impressive the starters have been.

Remember Liriano and Pavano’s drastic struggles earlier in the season?

Liriano, who pitched a no-hitter at Chicago on May 3, has still been inconsistent but has shown signs of recapturing his ability to dominate - lowering his ERA from 9.13 (April 27) to 5.06 and improving his record from 1-4 to 5-7. Pavano has improved mightily, re-emerging as one of the team’s most reliable pitchers - sharpening his ERA from 6.64 (May 8) to 4.10 and evening his record at 6-6.

Scott Baker ("Big Spot" Scott) has easily been the team’s steadiest pitcher throughout the season. The 29-year-old righthander is 7-5 with a 3.01 ERA and 104 strikeouts - his ERA and strikeout total rank 10th and 13th, respectively, among AL competition.

Of the newbies, Ben Revere has shined the brightest. Filling in for Span in centerfield, the excitable 23-year-old has made several outstanding catches, batted .275, stolen 11 bases and scored 24 runs. Revere’s downside is his lack of arm strength, but the former Twins 1st-round pick (drafted 28th overall in 2007) is winning over coaches, teammates, and thousands of Twins faithful, with his defense, speed and perpetual smile.

Revere wears jersey No. 11. Hmm, a Twins outfielder who wears #11 on his back and an endless smile on his face. Trigger any memories, Twins fans? (Ahem. Jacque Jones, circa 1999-2005)

Plouffe, who was recalled from AAA Rochester on Wednesday, put up some decent power numbers in his first stint (three home runs, 10 RBI in 58 at-bats) but the shortstop had some defensive issues. The Twins had Plouffe play some other positions at AAA and hope this time around will go a little better for him.

Tosoni, who was sent back to AAA on Wednesday, batted .205, but had two home runs and 10 RBI in 73 big league at-bats. The outfielder also came up with a couple late-inning hits that helped the Twins seal up victories.

Rivera, who split catching duties with Drew Butera when Mauer was out, batted only .181 with one homer and 4 RBI through 72 at-bats. However, despite his lack of offense and inexperience in the pros, the 27-year-old Puerto Rico native showed terrific gumption and leadership with handling Twins pitchers (both the rookies and veterans).

Lastly, but not least, among Minnesota’s new players making an impact this season is Luke Hughes. While he’s not been spectacular (.249, three home runs, 15 RBI in 168 at-bats), like Tosoni, he, too, has come up with some clutch hits. Hughes has also filled a void defensively, playing second base when Nishi was out and first base in place of Morneau.

The contributions by the team’s rookie call-ups aside, the biggest key to the Twins offensive rebirth has unquestionably been Cuddyer. Since about the time Kubel went done with his injury, Cuddyer has risen from his early season woes and carried the team with his bat.

Three solo home runs and four RBI. That’s it. That was Cuddyer’s production as of May 10. The 10-year Twins veteran was admonished in local newspapers and by fans (and rightfully so). But Cuddyer remained confident and upbeat, and he now leads the team with a .298 batting average and 13 home runs, while boosting his RBI total to 43.

Moreover, Cuddyer has achieved his recent success while playing terrific defense at right field, first base and second base. He’s also been a wonderful mentor to the Twins' rookies.

The consistent leadership both on the field and off merited Cuddyer an All-Star selection - the first of his career. And although he saw one pitch and popped out, he was proud to represent his team and the Twins were proud to be represented by him. Also, whereas some of the veteran All-Stars skipped the game due to other plans and the slightest of injuries, Cuddyer was overjoyed with being chosen and soaked up the honor as best as possible.

So bringing the first-half analysis full circle and back to today ... Can the Twins, once 17-37 and left for dead, make the playoffs?

It will definitely be a difficult challenge. But yes, they can.

There are two competitors that are particularly daunting - Detroit and Chicago.

Detroit has a terrific lineup, led by Miguel Cabrera (.311, 18 home runs, 59 RBI), Victor Martinez (.316, 50 RBI) and Jhonny Peralta (.312, 14 homers, 50 RBI). The Tigers also have a bona fide ace in All-Star Justin Verlander, who is 12-4 with a 2.15 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and an ML-best 147 strikeouts.

Chicago, who is currently 5 games behind Detroit, has a stronger overall pitching rotation (led unexpectedly by Twins castoff Phil Humber - 8-5 with a 3.10 ERA). The White Sox also have a power-packed offense, which, with the exception of Paul Konerko (.319, 22 home runs, 67 RBI), has vastly underachieved thus far. Thus, despite the cringing of Twins' fans when hearing Chicago announcer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson make his "He Gone!" call, it's safe to expect the bothersome phrase to be echoed more often throughout the rest of the season.

Cleveland has been great, but there’s no way they can sustain their current success. The Indians have a chance to finish .500, which, all things considered (youth- and talent-wise), would be a positive sign for them. Kansas City has some exciting rookies and a potent offense, but they are still a losing ballclub. The Royals pitching woes trump its solid hitting as the team appears to be destined to finish in last place.

It will be very difficult to surpass Chicago and Detroit, but Minnesota is definitely capable of it.

Below, I’ve outlined some of the keys to a Twins title run:

* The team is getting some key cogs back. Strangely enough, however, the Twins have played its
best when its been the least equipped ... Minnesota cannot expect sustained success from back-ups and call-ups. Veteran staples, such as Mauer, Morneau, Span and Young, will have to be healthy and play well in the final ten weeks of the season.

* As similar with the first point, some of these veterans will have to get on hot streaks, as the
team cannot (nor should not) rely on Cuddyer to continue carrying the them for the remainder of the season.

* Valencia, who has played well in July thus far (batting .349 with 2 home runs and 13 RBI through 11 games), will need to continue to supply more power and play consistent defense at third base.

* Nishioka must continue to progress well. The Japanese import has improved his defense and hitting in recent weeks. Minnesota cannot expect the 26-year-old to have phenomenal success in his first MLB season, but finishing with a .270 batting average and scoring runs at a higher frequency are objectives within his reach.

* The starting rotation must continue to pitch well and go deep into games. Minnesota’s bullpen is shaky and the offense, while it should improve, is unlikely to become a powerhouse.

* Matt Capps, Nathan and Glen Perkins must provide a solid back-end of the bullpen. The middle relief has been awful and its unknown how well it will improve (either via trade or improvements within). Perkins has been a bright spot all season (1.87 ERA, 36 Ks in 33.2 innings) and Nathan has been better of late. Those two will have to keep throwing well and Capps must regain the dominant form that merited him a $7.15, one-year contract this past offseason.

* Players such as Hughes, Plouffe and Revere must continue contribute well. The health and level of play from Twins veterans is not imminent. Three players in particular - Morneau, Span and Thome - all have nagging conditions and injuries, and can not be counted on for consistent production. Thus, the aforementioned rookies will be needed to fill gaps at the first base, designated hitter and outfield positions.

* Minnesota will need to play good defense. This team is unlikely to be the best defensive
team in baseball, but it will need to make the routine plays and be above average overall.

* Lastly, the team will require some good fortune. As mentioned, Detroit and Chicago have top-tier talent likely to play better baseball in the second half of the season. The Twins will have to win 49 of its final 73 games to reach 90 wins. That’s a lot to ask for. It might be possible for the Twins to win the division with a win total in the mid-80s, but whatever the case may be, Minnesota must benefit from some luck to achieve such a win total and/or for the Tigers and White Sox to fall short that many wins.

It’s sure to be an exciting 10 weeks (July 14 - September 28) as three teams (possibly four, if Cleveland can keep winning) battle it out to the end.

The MLB’s unbalanced schedule will add to the excitement, as the majority of the teams’ series with division opponents have yet to be played.

For the Twins, beginning with its game last night against Kansas City, the team plays 45 of its final 73 games against the Indians, Royals, Tigers and White Sox - whereas the team played just 26 divisional games in its first 89 games.

Minnesota will look to start its second half strong as it has a tremendous opportunity to gain significant ground immediately. The Twins, who have won 13 of its past 17 home games, come out of the All-Star break with 12 straight games at Target Field.

The team hosts four-games series with Kansas City (July 14 - 17), Cleveland (July 18 - 20) and Detroit (July 21-24).

**The photos used in this story are (from top to bottom) as follows: Joe Mauer high fives Matt Capps after a July 8 win at Chicago, Mauer congratulates Justin Morneau at a 2010 road game, Carl Pavano fires a pitch in Minnesota's 13-3 opening day loss at Toronto, Tampa Bay's Ben Zobrist cracks a three-run bomb against the Twins on April 28 at Target Field, Joe Nathan gets removed from a game at Tampa Bay on April 16, Luke Hughes congratulates Rene Tosoni after a home run May 10 versus Detroit, Reliever Jim Hoey (who posted a 7.71 ERA and 2.14 WHIP before being demoted June 23) exits the mound at a May 14 game versus Toronto, Ben Revere rounds second on a lead-off triple against the Dodgers on June 29, Michael Cuddyer appears at the July 12 All-Star Game in Arizona with his son, Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander, Chicago first baseman Paul Konerko, Valencia slugs a home run in Minnesota's 9-7 win over Milwaukee on July 3, Perkins delivers a pitch in the May 14 defeat of Toronto, Young crushes a double in an 8-4 Twins' victory over the Royals on July 14.

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