There are times where we could have spurted a little bit and taken advantage of some momentum of things we were doing pretty well. That being said, if you had looked back from the beginning, to be where we are, it would probably be encouraging.
— Twins manager Paul Molitor after an 11-5 loss to the Orioles, Minnesota’s third in five days
The Minnesota Twins need to resolve their starting pitching issues if they are going to take advantage of a surprising 45-43 record going into the All-Star Break. Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana have proven to be a capable one-two punch at the top of the rotation, but the other three spots are important question marks.
Adalberto Mejia, who arrived in the Eduardo Nunez trade with the San Francisco Giants, has gone at least five innings in his last four starts, but has gone six only four times since being recalled for a May 21 start.
“Just one of our young guys who just so happens to have a half a season under his belt now, and he seems to be understanding what he needs to do to give himself a chance each and every outing,” Molitor said of Mejia before his start against the Baltimore Orioles, a 5-1 loss where he went 6.2 innings and gave up four runs. “We talk a lot about Ervin’s influence on some of our young pitching, and I think Mejia, although he throws from the opposite side, is trying to take some of the things that Ervin does, the composure and some of the things he brings to the mound.”
Kyle Gibson has the stuff and smarts to be a better pitcher than he is, but at 29 the 2009 first-rounder is no longer a prospect, and a 6.31 ERA (71 ERA+) makes him a fringe rotation starter that could find himself in the bullpen, or worse, in the second half.
“Our conversations have been a little bit redundant about him,” Molitor said before Gibson’s start against the Orioles, a four-inning, seven-run outing, “about what he needs to do, what he’s trying to do, times he does it.”
Minnesota’s most immediate hope from the minor leagues is 44-year-old Bartolo Colon
There are also options in the minors. Felix Jorge went five innings in his first start, July 1 vs. the Kansas City Royals, but was optioned to Triple-A after failing to get out of the second inning against Baltimore on July 7. Stephen Gonsalves, 23, is a 2013 fourth-rounder that was considered the Twins No. 2 prospect by Baseball America before the season started and could get the call in order to fill out the rotation.
But in truth Minnesota’s most immediate hope from the minor leagues is 44-year-old Bartolo Colon, who will start in Triple-A Rochester but is expected to be on the major league roster in the near future. How old is Colon? He’s the same age as Brad Radke. They were both All-Stars in 1998 — a year before Royce Lewis, the Twins first overall pick this year, was born. Paul Molitor faced him in the last game he ever played in.
“We kind of laid out a little bit of a plan with a minor league contract, potentially pitching the first game out of the break for Rochester which would be next Thursday and we’ll see how we proceed from there,” Molitor said before the break. “The guy’s been around. You know he’s been around a long time if I faced him.”
“He’s one of those guys who’s reinvented himself a number of times throughout his career,” said Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey.” He was a guy who relied almost exclusively on velocity at a much younger age and has now learned how to pitch more effectively at a lower velocity rate.
“We felt like there were some signals that the stuff was similar to what it had been in years past, but maybe a little bit unlucky — strand rates, ball-in-play rates — we felt like the stuff was similar to what it had been and this was an opportunity to bring in a guy who’s been really successful the past couple of seasons and has had a tough start this year.”
If the Twins can correct their pitching situation, they can capitalize on a lineup that is starting to come together.
Mauer (104 ERA+) is essentially the same hitter as last season despite his higher average
The table-setters have been established. Brian Dozier (.242/.328/.417,13 home runs) has come back to earth after his 42 home run season last year but been used primarily as the leadoff man in the lineup. And on-base specialists Joe Mauer (.286/.360/.402) and Robbie Grossman (.256/.379/.387) have typically occupied the two-hole.
Mauer (104 ERA+) is essentially the same hitter as last season despite his higher average but has played well defensively at first base. He is also currently on the 10-day disabled list. Grossman (106 ERA+) is proving to be a solid waiver wire pickup, although his defense in the outfield remains suspect.
Miguel Sano, who earned his first All-Star appearance this year, has virtually locked down the three-hole after hitting .276/.368/.538 with 21 home runs. He also leads the league with 120 strikeouts.
“He’s learned a lot about playing up here in a short time,” said Molitor. “What the commitment is, your ability to bounce back — the game is not always gonna come to you easily, you gotta overcome a lot of adversity. And all of these areas that he’s just grown exponentially in a rather short time.”
The primary concern is who will hit behind Sano going forward. A combination of Max Kepler, Kennys Vargas and Eduardo Escobar occupied the four- and five-holes so far this season.
Kepler has established himself as a major leaguer, but Vargas has been back and forth between Triple-A and the majors (“We’re just trying to get him to understand, don’t just be satisfied with being that guy who might hit one over the fence on a given day,” Molitor said before the break), and Escobar has typically been used as a utility player throughout his career, so solidifying the middle of the order is still a work in progress.
If Mauer doesn’t have lingering back issues, he and Grossman could occupy the No. 2 and 3 spots in the lineup, moving Sano to cleanup, which he may be able to handle at this point of his career.
A major X-factor is Byron Buxton, given his upside. Jorge Polanco has struggled at the plate in the first half (.224/.273/.323) and Jason Castro (.223/.317/.370) is known more for his defense and pitch framing than his bat.
Eddie Rosario (.287/.325/.458) is offensively capable, but is over-aggressive on the basepaths and can make questionable decisions in the field — likely an element of his over-zealous style of play — and could be challenged by Zack Granite or Mitch Garver for an outfield spot in the second half.
But Buxton, already one of the best defensive players in the game, hit .379/.438/.483 in nine July games before the break. He also hit .254/.321/.380 in May, but owns a .216/.288/.306 line this season because of two sub-.200 months.
The Twins will have to compete with the Cleveland Indians, last year’s AL Champion, and the Kansas City Royals, the 2015 World Series Champions, to win the Central if they want to make the postseason — or earn the second Wild Card spot and compete in a one-game playoff to earn a playoff series.
After looking at the holes on the roster — the back-end of the rotation, who is going to hit behind Sano and the bullpen outside of Brandon Kintzler and Taylor Rogers — that looks like a tall order. Due to all the blowouts, the Twins have been outscored 403-463 so far this year. According to Bill James’ pythagorean winning percentage, which uses run differential to determine how lucky a team has been, they should be 30-50 right now.
Perhaps this year will be like 2015, when they rode a 20-7 May to an 83-win season. Maybe they will start to look like the 103-loss team they were last year. Odds are, they’ll fall somewhere in-between.
“I understand the hesitancy, given our track record over the past half a dozen years,” Molitor said when asked about the attendance at Twins games, which ranks 23rd out of 30 MLB teams. “There’s a lot of options out there, all the things that go with getting fan support.
“We’ve given some people that enjoy baseball a reason to at least pay a little bit of attention, for now, and hopefully it goes on for a few more months.”