Development usually takes place before you get here for the most part, but we’re in a position now where we have to consider development to some degree up here.
— Twins manager Paul Molitor
No, we’re not talking about changes to the front office here — not yet — although that’s not out of the realm of possibility in the offseason, especially given how poorly the Minnesota Twins have played this year.
No, we’re talking minutiae here. The small moves that make a big difference in the long run.
The Twins are in a weird place right now, to say the least. They are a better team than their record indicates, yet can’t fully realize their potential both because of how they started the season and because they seem to have a negative balancing act going on.
Just when Brian Dozier (.259/.341/.463) and Kurt Suzuki (.279/.316/.424) are heating up, Joe Mauer (.276/.367/.385) and Robbie Grossman (.262/.400/.467) have cooled off. Only Eduardo Nunez (.311/.341/.470) has held steady all season long, and he will likely represent Minnesota in this year’s All-Star Game.
The question with Nunez, of course, is if he’ll see his production drop off after a strong first half. It happened with Suzuki and Dozier, as well as Glen Perkins, who was unstoppable in the first half of last season, earned his third All-Star appearance and then struggled in the second half.
He owns a 9.00 ERA this year and recently underwent season-ending surgery.
Mauer looked like himself to start the season after seeing his production drop off in the past two years, likely related to post-concussion symptoms. Grossman arrived via the waiver wire, where the Twins had top priority, and appeared to be cementing himself as part of the team’s future, even if it was only as a fourth outfielder.
The odd thing about this team’s roster is that there are logjams, even when there are few bona fide All-Stars
“I don’t think it’s too early,” said Twins manager Paul Molitor when asked if he could be considered part of the team’s plans going forward. “But if he is part of the big picture, depending on how some other people do, are you going to assume that he’s going to be ahead of Kepler or Rosario or Buxton or some of these other people long term?
“I don’t think we’re at that point, but he’s definitely put himself in the mix as a guy who could be a part of a good team, whether it’s as a regular of backup outfielder, whatever it is. Right now, he’s a starting outfielder for us. From that standpoint it’s not too early because he’s earned his keep.”
The odd thing about this team’s roster is that there are logjams, even when there are few bona fide All-Stars. Normally there would be multiple positions up for grabs on a team that is on pace to win roughly 50 games this season, but that’s not the case here. It speaks a little bit to both the mediocrity and the inexperience of their roster, but it also indicates how weird this season has been. Basically, there are players that need the playing time, because they have proven themselves at every level other than in the big leagues.
This means that there is a legitimate question as to where Miguel Sano will play when he returns. The Twins are preaching positional versatility with him, basically saying that they want to keep his bat in the lineup as much as they can.
“Get him in the lineup,” said general manager Terry Ryan, bluntly, when asked where Sano will play. “He can go a number of places: You can DH him, you can play him in right, you can play him at third, you can probably play him at first.
“It’s need [based]. [Max] Kepler’s doing pretty good. [Trevor] Plouffe’s doing pretty good. [Joe] Mauer’s at first. So we’re gonna have to mix-and-match a little bit and figure out exactly on a particular day versus who we’re seeing. And some of it will depend on him. How is he doing?”
Positional versatility isn’t a bad thing for a player, especially one who should be in the lineup full-time. Still, he shouldn’t be spending much time in the outfield from here on out. Not only is he too large, 270 pounds, but he could injure another player, as he almost did with Nunez, likely the team’s only All-Star this season. If he collides with Buxton, resulting in another injury for the slight but speedy outfielder, Minnesota’s future goes out the window in a flash.
Not only is Sano, who committed an error in right field during his Triple-A rehab stint, a poor outfielder, but there’s also a logjam at all three positions. Kepler is holding his own in right field, despite some mental gaffes, as well as at the plate. Buxton needs to hit, but no player on this roster, and maybe the league, matches his speed in center. And Grossman is capable of manning left.
Additionally, Eddie Rosario is hitting above .300 in Triple-A and deserves another shot with the big league club after a strong rookie season last year.
“I never worry about it,” said Ryan. “Let’s worry about it…when he’s ready to come back. I might have to call him back early because somebody else goes down, I just had to do that with Santana. That’s not unusual.
“We’ve got roster crunch, that means that we probably are adding a guy like Sano. We’ll figure it out.”
Odds are that Byung-ho Park will get sent down, allowing Sano to ease back into the lineup as the designated hitter, then move over to third, his natural position. He will have to lose weight to hold down the position long-term, but there are plenty of replacements for him this season if he has issues defensively — Plouffe, Nunez and probably Danny Santana in a pinch.
Park is tied for the team lead in home runs but is hitting below .200 and should be sent down anyways. And Sano looked good at third in the short stint he played there this year, likely meaning that the team will have to move on from Plouffe in the near future.
Finally, there is an interesting development in the bullpen, where Molitor has used his closer for 4-out saves recently. In fact, he’s even gone away from the traditional closer role entirely, splitting the ninth inning between two veterans — righty Brandon Kintzler and lefty Fernando Abad — depending on matchups.
“I don’t know if it’s easier,” said Molitor when asked if it’s a better situation for 4-out saves when there are essentially two closers. “I’ve thought about, ‘Okay, make those two guys your semi-closers, and on a given day have one do the eighth and one do the ninth according to where they look like they have the best chance of getting three outs.’”
He’s not quite there yet, he says, but things are trending in that direction.
“Adapt or die,” Billy Beane’s character said in the movie Moneyball, and that’s what’s happening here: forced change. It’s for the better for an organization that is in its fifth losing season in six years. Sano staying in the infield is a good thing. Closing by committee with Perkins on the DL is a good thing. Change, in general, is a good thing right now, no matter how small those changes are.