Next week should be an exciting time for Minnesota Twins fans. The Milwaukee Brewers will cross the border for two games on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then the Chicago White Sox come to town for a four-game set to close out the first half.
Milwaukee is the best team in the NL Central and among the better clubs in the senior circuit. Vegas Insider and FanGraphs projected the White Sox to win the AL Central, but they are hovering around .500, and the Cleveland Guardians are arguably a bigger threat to the Twins.
Minnesota is on a trajectory to go from worst to first in the division. They have exciting players like Carlos Correa, Byron Buxton, and Luis Arraez. Prospects like Jhoan Durán, José Miranda, and Joe Ryan are coming into their own. So why have they received such a lukewarm response from fans?
Because it’s hard to see how this team would win in the playoffs right now.
Durán is holding the bullpen together. Rocco Baldelli hasn’t been able to rely on veteran relievers Tyler Duffey and Emilio Pagán, and the Twins haven’t fully installed their pitching pipeline yet. Jordan Balazovic, Matt Canterino, or Simeon Woods Richardson haven’t emerged from the minors to round out the relief corps or the rotation.
Griffin Jax has been a revelation. The Twins moved him from starter to reliever, and he’s flourished now that he doesn’t have to face opposing lineups a second time. But it’s not enough. Minnesota will have to trade for relievers at the deadline, and they will have to hope they turn out to be Sergio Romo, not Sam Dyson.
It’s more than just the bullpen, though. Ryan has been great, but the Twins don’t have a bona fide ace. Sonny Gray may be the best starter of the Derek Falvey-Thad Levine era, and Ryan always gives them a quality start. Still, neither are Johan Santana-caliber aces.
Dylan Bundy, 29, has shown flashes of the player scouts projected him to be, and Minnesota’s plan for Chris Archer, 33, seems to be working. But Bundy is no longer the best pitching prospect in baseball; Archer is no longer an All-Star.
Minnesota has young pitchers who can fill out the rotation like Bailey Ober, 26, and Josh Winder, 25. Devin Smeltzer, 26, has recovered from a serious neck injury to become a reliable lefty starter. But high-upside prospects like Balazovic or Canterino are unlikely to join the rotation this year. Who are the pitchers they would rely on in the playoffs? And are they good enough?
Trading for an ace at the deadline is probably too expensive, especially for a team that’s had a lot of success with their prospects recently. However, because there aren’t major-league-ready pitchers waiting in Triple-A, they’re unlikely to get the internal boost the pitching staff needs in the second half.
The Twins have also been erratic on the road. Earlier in the year, they dropped four of five to the Detroit Tigers, then immediately took two of three from the Toronto Blue Jays. They’ve lost series to the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks, two mediocre NL teams. Minnesota won two of three on the South Side but imploded in Cleveland.
That’s not a great sign for a team that will have to win on the road in the playoffs.
They also will need some of their players to be game-breakers in the postseason. Correa has been solid, but he has yet to have a signature moment in Minnesota. Buxton continues to battle injury and isn’t available full-time. Royce Lewis got hurt playing center field because Correa is at short, and Buxton can’t play center every day.
Such is life. The Twins can’t manufacture moments for Correa, and they have Buxton’s medicals. They have to know they got a $300 million player for $100 million because of his injury history. Minnesota probably shouldn’t put Lewis in center again, but it’s not as though the idea was unjustified. It’s just too risky now.
Still, great teams have players who can change the game at a moment’s notice. Correa will perform in the playoffs because he’s been there before. But will Buxton be available to play in them? We know that Lewis won’t be back in time.
The upcoming Brewers and White Sox series should be more highly-anticipated. People on both sides of the St. Croix should be able to fantasize about a potential Border Battle World Series briefly. Twins-White Sox would be more fun if Chicago was better. Minnesota’s success this season would be more exciting if there was reason to believe they could upset the New York Yankees in the playoffs.
I’m not presenting a doomsday scenario here. Nor am I trying to slam a first-place team. The trade deadline isn’t until Aug. 2, and there’s a lot of baseball left. Still, the Twins can’t be satisfied with winning the Central after losing 73 games last year. They need to push to become bona fide contenders.