Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Halfway Home: Do the Minnesota Twins Have Enough to Contend in 2014?

The Minnesota Twins finished last season with a record of 66-96, their 3rd straight 90+ loss season in a row. Over the winter the Twins handed out $84.5MM for starting pitchers Phil Hughes ($3/24MM), Ricky Nolasco (4yr/$49MM), and Mike Pelfrey (2-year/$11.5MM), and while it seemed like a lot of money for a group of mid-rotation arms, it has worked out nicely for the Twins to this point. Minnesota’s depth has been tested throughout the season:  they lost Josh Willingham for the beginning of the season, and Trevor Plouffe is on the disabled list now with an oblique issue. Beyond facing those injuries, they have had to battle inconsistencies and poor production from several key players. Still, the Twins have found a way to hang around, despite very pedestrian overall numbers over the 25-man roster. Still, there is room for improvement and excitement in the Twin cities. 

Jun 17, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Phil Hughes (45) pitches during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Where Do the Minnesota Twins Stand? The Twins are 36-39, just .001 percentage points behind the Cleveland Indians, six games back of Detroit and in 4th place in the AL Central. The club’s Pythagorean record is also 36-39.

Manager: Ron Gardenhire is in his 13th season as manager of the Twins, and has won the AL Central with Minnesota six times. He is 8 for 18 on replay challenges (44 percent).

Rotation: The Twins’ starting rotation ranks 28th in team ERA (4.75), 26th in WHIP (1.40), and 20th in FIP (4.09) in MLB. Hughes is a new man away from the New York Yankees. His 3.40 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 82:9 K:BB over 95.1 innings leave him All-Star bound. The club’s patience with Kyle Gibson has paid off, as the former first round pick has managed a 3.92 ERA and 1.22 WHIP despite three starts in which he has allowed a total of 20 of his 37 earned runs in just eight innings. In his other 12 starts, he has a 1.99 ERA over 77 innings. Kevin Correia and Nolasco have combined to allow 219 hits and 23 home runs over 174 innings and 30 starts. Their 1.51 WHIP and 5.28 ERA show that they aren’t getting the job done, but with Pelfrey likely out for the remainder of the year due to elbow surgery, there is very little the team can do but hope for innings and effectiveness going forward. Yohan Pino, a 30-year-old right-hander, proved that you don’t mess with the Yohan in his debut, pitching seven scoreless innings, and the Twins will take what they can get out of him.

Bullpen: Minnesota relievers rank 14th in bullpen ERA (3.55), 10th in WHIP (1.25), and 17th in FIP (3.68). They have been rather lucky with their HR/FB percentage, posting the 2nd lowest in baseball (5.8 percent), likely aided by the spaciousness of Target Field. Glen Perkins continues to be a bargain (he was due $22.175 million between the start of 2014 and the end of the 2017 season in guarantees) with his 42:6 K:BB over 32.1 innings and 19 saves. Casey Fien, Matt Guerrier, Caleb Thielbar, and Brian Duensing have all contributed solid innings.

Jun 19, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier (2) hits a single in the eighth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Target Field. The Twins won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Offense: Brian Dozier has supplanted Joe Mauer as the club’s top offensive threat (.252/.366/.454, 132 wRC+, 15 home runs, 15 stolen bases). Ted Schwerzler (@tlschwerz), of Puckett’s Pond offered his opinion:

I have no problems with him being paid Jason Kipnis money and I’d argue he is one of the three best second basemen in the Major Leagues right now.  He doesn’t hit for a high average, but at his position, few hit better.  His power numbers are surprising, especially at Target Field, but the pop has always been there.  He is a mainstay on top plays with his glove and covers second base incredibly well.  His OBP is strong, especially considering where he has hit in the lineup this year.  Dozier is the best player on the Twins this year.

Eduardo Escobar (.291/.336/.434, 114 wRC+) and Danny Santana (.326/.364/.439, 126 wRC+) have been tremendous boosts to the club offensively filling in at shortstop, center field, and third base, while Willingham has been a masher since returning from the disabled list, popping seven home runs and driving in 23 in just 33 games played with a .390 wOBA. Mauer’s light stick hasn’t translated well to first base, and his numbers seem to be on the decline (.260/.332/.339, 87 wRC+) with $92 million owed to the face of the franchise between 2015 and 2018. Oswaldo Arcia has youth and a powerful left-handed swing, but his best years are in front of him.

Defense: The Twins rank 27th in MLB in defensive runs saved (DRS, -28) and Jason Kubel (-9 DRS) and Chris Colabello (-7 DRS) play a major role there by manning left field, though neither are still with the Twins (and neither player should have had a glove on to start). Mauer has provided 2 DRS at first, so he isn’t all that bad, and while Santana has 2 DRS in center, he has a -2 DRS at short. Overall, the Twins may have been playing one too many designated hitters in the field prior to Willingham’s return, so the defense may not be as bad over the rest of the season if the current group’s small sample size dictates.

On the Farm: Ted Schwerzler’s thoughts on the minor league system:

While starting pitching is a need at the major league level, starting pitching is far from skimpy throughout the minor leagues.  Correia has pitched for his life in his last three starts, and they’ve been great, but Trevor May is breathing down his neck.  The cornerstone of the Denard Span trade, was the Twins getting Alex Meyer from the Nationals.  While he has front-line starter potential, he has been up and down at Triple-A Rochester this year.  He will be called up at some point, and his ceiling is up there.  The biggest pitching names in the organization, outside of those two, may be a couple years away.  Jose Berrios has absolutely torn up Ft. Myers and is striking guys out left and right.  The Twins have an intriguing Aussie in Lewis Thorpe and obviously last years first round pick, Kohl Stewart, projects to be a stud.  I see a guy like Thorpe potentially being trade bait to land a bigger major league type talent in the coming year as the Twins push to contend.

Beyond the future rotation, the Twins have had a rough go of things with their position player prospects. While Jorge Polanco has moved up the pipeline and established himself as the second baseman of the future, it has come at the expense of Eddie Rosario, who has missed a lot of time due to suspensions for abusing marijuana. Beyond the middle infield, injuries to top prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano have put a damper on the Twins system this season, particularly Sano, whose power would have been quite useful this season had he stayed healthy and taken over third base.

Editor’s note: Trevor May was added to the MLB Futures’ Game roster after Schwerzler’s responses came in as an injury replacement.

Buyers or Sellers? Schwerzler’s thoughts on the club at the deadline:

From a longevity standpoint, my hope is that the Twins become sellers.  If Minnesota finds themselves hovering around the .500 mark, things could get dicey for Twins fans.  You’d hate to buy too early, trade away assets, and make your run before you’re ready.  The Twins best bet is to wait to go for it until next year when Sano is already on the roster, and Byron Buxton is a quick phone call away.  As sellers, this may be the Twins last chance to move Willingham.  He is producing, but is also older and has an injury history.  Perkins will likely be called upon again, and while the haul could be nice, he would be off-limits.  Correia would be a name that could be moved too if he continues this hot streak of pitching, an NL team may take a chance on him.

What to Expect in the Second Half: Schwerzler’s thoughts:

The second half of this season will define what the Twins are and can be going into next year.  The Twins were relatively in the same position a year ago, and due to injuries and poor play, watched themselves again lose 90 games.  This team has a shot to be so much more. While catching the Tigers isn’t going to happen, staying healthy and competing on a daily basis, could set up a strong finish right around the .500 mark.  If that ends up being the case, a roster with May, Meyer, Sano, etc to open next season, could really turn the tides of the AL Central.  The Twins aren’t far out, and the patience should pay off.

Overall, the Twins have a bright future, which was detailed on Wahoo’s on First several months ago. Dozier is the most underrated player in baseball, having been lost in the darkness of a smaller market, just as Ben Zobrist was for years before him in Tampa. The success on the current group of Twins could depend on what management sees as the long-term goal – win now or win with the core of young talent on the way. While fans want to see a winner, it isn’t worth mortgaging the future. In between a rebuild and contending is always a difficult situation, but this team isn’t what the Twins can be going forward with a little more patience.

Special thanks to Steve Kinsella and Ted Schwerzler of Puckett’s Pond for their contributions and efforts in their interview and information in compiling this piece.

Tags: Brian Dozier Cleveland Indians Joe Mauer

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