The continued dithering of the Detroit Tigers has kept the AL Central race interesting. Most of that attention rightly centers on the Cleveland Indians, who are in a virtual tie for first coming into Monday’s games. Some media observers have noted Kansas City on the outside. There’s one more team in the mix too—completely under the radar is the fact the Minnesota Twins are only six games out of the lead. Is it time to consider the Twins a legit dark horse contender if Detroit can’t get it together?
I don’t want to get carried away—Minnesota is, after all, still 36-42 and it’s the weakness of the division that’s allowing them to be in contention. But I think we should also acknowledge that even if this weren’t the case, the Twins are not as bad as a lot of observers thought they’d be, and if they don’t become sellers at the July 31 trade deadline, there are reasons to think they could play even better.
The assumption that Minnesota won’t deal off some its vets is admittedly a longshot, but no more so than the notion that the team would be within six games of first place on July 1, so for today’s MLB coverage let’s take a look and see how they’ve hung in and if they can kick it up a couple notches.
THE BULLPEN BRINGS RELIEF
Minnesota’s bullpen is far and away the strength of the team. The Twins are third in the American League in bullpen ERA, and closer Glen Perkins is the biggest reason why. Perkins is quietly having an extremely good year, nailing down 20/22 save chances, with a 2.05 ERA. The rest of the pen isn’t spectacular, but it’s consistent and well-balanced. Ryan Pressly has a 2.63 ERA and then you have four more arms with ERAs ranging through the 3s.
There might not be one arm that scares opposing teams, but when you can trot out this many good relievers, keep yourself in games and then close down the ones you have a chance to win, you’re going to stay in the race and have a chance to surprise people. It’s the formula the Baltimore Orioles used last season to win at a level beyond what you’d expect based on the first glance at a team’s roster.
Offensively, this is not a good team—10th in the American League in runs scored—but they aren’t horrible, and they do keep runners on base consistently. That’s what you’d expect from a lineup with Joe Mauer, and the catcher is churning out another big OBP year, at .404. Also effective at getting on base steadily are corner outfielders Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia.
Furthermore, third baseman Trevor Plouffe and second baseman Brian Dozier are playing their best baseball of the season right now, both getting on base and showing some pop. Dozier has been on fire, and over the last month alone he’s drawn 15 walks and popped five home runs.
Speaking of home runs and power though, leads us into this offense’s weakness. The Twins have not been effective at picking up their base runners and we have to start with Willingham. His .356 OBP is great, but the left fielder needs to hit for power if he’s going to have value to the team—either as a part of the lineup or as a trading chip, and a .398 OBP is awful.
Mauer has a nice slugging percentage of .480, but here again is a case where a player simply must do more. The catcher got a huge contract a couple years ago, and a small market team can’t afford to have high-priced stars be good at drawing walks. That’s fine if Mauer were paid an average salary, or even a little bit above it. But he needs to either hit more home runs—he’s got eight on the year—or at the very least, ramp up the number of balls he drives into the gaps.
Driving the ball into the gaps is what Justin Morneau has started of late, with nine doubles in the last month, and the Twins have to be hoping that he can finally become a genuine power hitter again. Morneau has bounced back from his concussion problems to again be a respectable offensive player. I don’t think anyone expects him to repeat his MVP numbers of 2006, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement between “respectable” and “MVP-caliber”. Hopefully the last month is a sign of good things to come.
Arcia has been a revelation in right, slugging .469, with his best work being recently. He’s a nice addition, although this team must ultimately get steady power from Mauer, Willingham, Morneau and Plouffe if they’re going to push past the .500 plateau.
And runs are needed big-time, because the starting pitching has been a train wreck. Vance Worley was a good offseason acquisition that simply hasn’t worked out. Worley, after solid work in Philadelphia, did a complete about-face, put up a 7.22 ERA and had to be sent to the minors. Mike Pelfrey has been hurt, and is still on the disabled list. Scott Diamond, a highly regarded prospect is enduring growing pains.
Kevin Correia has been pretty steady, with a 4.08 ERA in his 16 starts, but when he’s your ace, that’s a big problem. The only real positive is the work of young Samuel Dedundo, with a 3.32 ERA in his seven trips to the post.
Minnesota has to decide whether to trade off veterans over the course of the next month. Detroit could make that decision easy by getting their act together and pulling away with the Central. But what if it starts to look like this division might be won with 85 wins? Is there a reason a team with a deep bullpen, and four or five good offensive players, several of whom can hit a lot better than what they’ve shown, can’t do that? What if Worley reverts back to being the pitcher he was and stabilizes the top of the rotation?
I’m sure if the Twins can get a good package of prospects back in a deal they’d pull the trigger and I don’t blame them. The gray area is, what if Willingham—the most logical deadline deal piece—can’t bring much back? Presuming the race stays close, why not go for it? You’ve got players like Dozier, new centerfielder Clete Thomas and Deduno, who are the future. Given them a crack at a playoff race, if the Tigers want to keep this close.
There’s no way I’d pick Minnesota to make the postseason right now, with the pitching problems. But they’ve played better than people have expected, and no one should be surprised if they sneak into a winning season. Then it’s up to the divisional competition to see how close to the playoffs that gets a team.
AROUND THE AL CENTRAL
Detroit (43-37): Anibal Sanchez and Alex Avila are on their rehab assignments right now, as the Tigers try and shake out of their funk.
Cleveland (44-38): Brett Myers hasn’t pitched since April 19 due to a forearm injury, but he’s on rehab himself and could be a big reinforcement to a bullpen that needs it.
Kansas City (38-41): That the Royals aren’t taking fuller advantage of Detroit’s struggles is an indictment of KC’s first half play, and their league-worst slugging percentage is inexcusable.
Chicago White Sox (32-47): Jake Peavy is on the DL until the middle of the month with rib problems, but he’s still drawing trade interest. It’s a great opportunity for this organization to get younger.