The Twins 2011 season has been a disappointment for the most part, but they have played well enough in June and July so that they now sit just 6.5 games back of Detroit at the All-Star Break. For a season recap check out my previous article which illustrates how injuries have plagued the Twins 2011 season. I believe that the Twins will ultimately be involved in another close race in the AL Central which they will win for the 7th time in 10 years.
Since June 1st the Twins have quietly compiled an impressive record of 24-11, which includes a six game losing streak during against the Giants and Brewers on the road. The Twins have found ways to win games without their main DH (Jason Kubel), 2/3 of their starting outfield (Denard Span & Delmon Young), and with injuries that have seriously hindered the production of their two best players (Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer).
The good news on the health front is that Delmon Young has just been activated to play, Denard Span and Jason Kubel are both expected to be back in about two weeks, and Justin Morneau should return in mid-August. With these key players returning from injuries as the second half progresses, I can’t help but envision the Twins catching fire in August and September as they are accustomed to.
Delmon Young was hitting .321 in 84 June AB’s before getting injured, Denard Span hit .298 in April and .296 in May before his concussion early in June, and Jason Kubel hit .351 in April and had 20 RBIs in May before he sprained his foot in June. Although Justin Morneau’s stats are not accustomed to what we are used to from the former MVP, they can be attributed to his neck injury which was causing problems in his arms and hands which affected his swing. The neck surgery that he is recovering from will help him return to being the dangerous hitter that he is capable of, and should give the Twins a huge boost down the stretch.
Starting pitching has been a strength all season. Scott Baker could have been named an All-Star replacement if he had not pitched on Sunday with a 3.01 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and an efficient 104-30 strikeout to walk ratio on the season. Carl Pavano has a 2.71 ERA in his last seven starts, Francisco Liriano has a 3.45 ERA in his last 10 starts, Brian Duensing has a 2.50 ERA in his last seven starts, and Nick Blackburn has a 3.91 ERA in his last 13 starts.
The overall depth of the starting pitching has been juxtaposed with a revolving door type of bullpen. Glen Perkins has been the most consistent by far with a 1.87 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 33.2 innings. Since Joe Nathan returned from the DL he has been throwing the ball much better and in his past 5.1 innings he has given up just three hits to go along with six strikeouts and no runs. Matt Capps has six blown saves on the season and I believe at some point will have his closing duties stripped in favor of Joe Nathan. The Twins have lost nine games where they were leading after seven innings, a number that will need to come down in the second half.
To improve bullpen depth I believe the Twins should trade Kevin Slowey for another reliever, since there have been indications that Slowey has fallen out of favor with the Twins. Although Slowey was a promising prospect at one time, injuries and a crowded pitching rotation forced him to the bullpen which is a move he has resisted before and after his injury this season. Although his stock is not as high as it was a few years ago, hopefully a team will see Slowey’s potential and be willing to give the Twins a solid middle reliever or set-up man to bolster the bullpen.
With an already solid rotation and key players coming back from injuries, the Twins have put themselves in a position to make a second half run. The middle infield combination of Alexi Casilla (.308 in his past 9 games) and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (.348 in his past 7 games) has been playing very good defense and Nishioka especially has been looking more comfortable and hitting the ball much more sharply recently. To read more about Nishioka’s adjustments at the plate, check out this article.
The lineup should be much more potent in the second half not only because of better health but also for one very important reason. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Joe Mauer (career .324 hitter, 3 time batting champ) will not hit .243 this season. Mauer also should benefit from getting more starts at 1B during games when Gardenhire wants to give his legs a rest from catching.
Justin Morneau is more of a wild card because of his injuries, but hopefully the surgery will help him to regain his MVP form before a concussion derailed his brilliant 2010 season (.345, 1.055 OPS, 18 HRs, 56 RBIs through 81 games).
The Twins will have a much more favorable schedule in the second half which includes seven more home games than the Tigers. They will play Kansas City and Chicago 9 times each (12 at home), two teams which they have had great success against this year and in previous years. They will play Cleveland and Detroit 13 times, giving them plenty of games to make up ground in the AL Central. The Twins previous dominance against AL Central opponents (47-25 in 2010 & 46-27 in 2009 which included a game 163 victory against Detroit) has been key to their success in winning the AL Central and will be imperative in winning the Central this year.
An opening 12 game home-stand against the Royals, Indians, and Tigers to start the second half will be a good test and opportunity for the Twins to make up games quickly.
The Tigers look to be the Twins biggest competition even though the Indians have been a surprise, they have overachieved and don’t seem to have the pitching depth to win the division. The Tigers have a shaky rotation besides Justin Verlander, and holes in their lineup besides the formidable Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, and the surprising Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta. Under Jim Leyland the Tigers also a possess an underwhelming .459 winning percentage after the All-Star break, compared to to .574 for the Twins under Ron Gardenhire. The trade deadline will determine if any of the Central teams can improve some of their holes, but the Twins players who are recovering from injuries act the same as as midseason acquisitions.
The AL Central has notoriously been a close divisional battle to the end of the season, but the Twins have continued to find ways to pull it out. The Twins definitely underachieved through the first 54 games (17-37 record), but their 24-11 mark since then (despite holes in the lineup due to injured players who will be returning) illustrates how the Twins will be in the race for the AL Central crown once again.
About the Author
Written by Jonathan Fawkes
I was born and raised in Brooklyn but I'm a long suffering Minnesota sports fan (Twins, T'Wolves, Vikings). Looking forward to Teddy Bridgewater, Byron Buxton and Andrew Wiggins bringing a winning culture to Minnesota. Thanks for reading!