Lost in the Minnesota Twins’ 18-4 win over the Seattle Mariners on May 18 was that all four runs Seattle scored came in the fifth inning. The Twins scored 15 of their 18 runs in the first five innings of the game, including five runs in the second and third inning. Jose Berrios was unable to get out of the fifth, even with ample run protection.
It didn’t matter, of course. Minnesota went on to win, improving its record to 30-15 — continuing the unexpected tear through the American League and further separating itself from the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central. But it highlights one of the problems Minnesota is encountering now that it is one of the best teams in the AL.
“That is definitely something that we’ve had to deal with a few times,” said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, adding that pitching coach Wes Johnson communicates with the pitchers to try and figure out how to keep long layoffs from cooling the pitchers off.
“Each one of our guys handles that type of situation a little bit differently. Some guys do very little and just kind of stand up and move around a little bit, and other guys have fairly elaborate routines that they like to get into once they start waiting past a certain amount of time.”
It’s not just pitchers who are feeling the negative effects of the team’s offensive output. Because the Twins went out and signed Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez and all three of their catchers are hitting Baldelli has had to be creative with the lineup in order to make sure that everyone who is hitting well stays hot.
It was going to be impossible to replace Mitch Garver’s production (.329/.418/.747, 203 OPS+) when he got hurt, but it helps that Jason Castro is hitting well after being injured most of last year (.329/.418/.747, 145 OPS+) and that Willians Astudillo is still a better hitter than most third-string catchers (.262/.275/.405, 70 OPS+). And there has been more than enough offense to cover for Cruz (.270/.354/.508), who hasn’t played since May 12.
While the Twins have power potential in the infield (Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, Schoop, Cron), their utility infielders are hitting as well. Gonzalez, who started out slow, is hitting .309/.385/.481 in May, Ehire Adrianza is hitting .429/.500/.762 in the last two weeks and Luis Arraez has hit .467/.550/.733 since being called up on May 18.
Gonzalez can play in the outfield, so he’s being used as both a utility infielder and the fourth outfielder. Adrianza and Arraez can play second, short and third, which allows them to be worked into the lineup on a semi-regular basis. And with Cruz out, the designated hitter spot is now open.
“Everyone is a semi-regular here,” said Baldelli. “When you get kind of below a certain threshold of at-bats, I think it does get difficult to go out there and perform. This is a game of timing, and if you’re not out there seeing major league pitching on a fairly regular basis, you’re gonna probably have a tough time getting locked in.”
Again, having a glut of hot bats is a nice problem to have, but it’s something that has to be handled correctly. The starters will eventually need days off, even when they’re playing well, and players tend to hit better when the opposing pitcher cannot work around any of the players in the lineup. If the utility players regress because they have not played recently, they create a break in the lineup when a starter is either injured or has a scheduled day off.
All the Twins’ winning has many benefits, obviously. After exhausting the goodwill of escaping contraction and winning six AL Central titles from 2002-10, Target Field is selling out again and young players like Buxton, Sano, Polanco, Berrios and Eddie Rosario benefit from playing in a winning environment.
Well, at least most of the time they do.