Twenty thoughts on the Twins with 20 percent of the season complete

Nelson Cruz
Minnesota Twins’ Nelson Cruz hits a three-run home run against the Chicago White Sox during the eighth inning of a baseball game in Chicago, Sunday, July 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

PITTSBURGH — The Twins improved to 10-2 on the season with a 5-2 victory over the Pirates on Wednesday. It doesn’t seem possible, but Minnesota has now played 20 percent of its schedule. With that in mind, here are 20 thoughts on the 2020 Twins.

1. The bullpen has been incredible

Everyone thought the Twins would have a good bullpen this year, but I’m not sure many thought they would be this good. This bullpen might be the best in the league. Tyler Duffey, Taylor Rogers, Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard, Trevor May, Matt Wisler, and Cody Stashak had given up a combined two earned runs in in 29.1 innings entering Thursday’s game. The bullpen did struggle a bit in a 6-5 loss Thursday as Romo gave up a run in the eighth and Rogers surrendered two runs in the ninth as the Pirates rallied.

2. The starting staff has been nearly as dominant as the ‘pen

Despite Jake Odorizzi having yet to appear in a game (he’s starting Saturday in Kansas City), and Homer Bailey and Rich Hill being on the injured list after making only one start apiece, the rotation has been fantastic. Randy Dobnak leads the way with an 0.60 ERA in 15 innings pitched. Kenta Maeda had a 1.64 ERA entering Thursday’s start. Bailey and Hill were both effective in their lone starts. Only Jose Berrios, the presumed ace, has struggled a bit (4.80 ERA). If he figures it out, they could have one of the better rotations in the American League. The Twins pitching staff as a whole, by the way, ranks second in the AL in team ERA (2.69), behind Cleveland.

3. The offense hasn’t fully clicked

And yet, the Twins are third in the AL in runs at 5.25 per game. Only Nelson Cruz, Max Kepler, and Marwin Gonzalez are hitting above what they did in 2019, by OPS. Mitch Garver, Miguel Sano, and Eddie Rosario have struggled to find their timing early in the year. Josh Donaldson has been bothered by a calf strain. Byron Buxton is still working his way back after missing most of summer camp. If those guys get back to something resembling their 2019 numbers, the offense should again be perhaps the best in baseball. It was a good sign that Sano and Buxton both homered Thursday.

4. Injuries are a concern

The Twins aren’t immune from the injury bug that has plagued a number of teams early in the year, particularly on the pitching side. Odorizzi, Hill, Bailey, and Zach Littell are currently on the IL. Donaldson isn’t on the IL, but hasn’t played since July 31. Donaldson’s injury may be particularly concerning, given his history of calf issues (more on that later).

5. The Twins have the luxury of being cautious with injured players

The bad news is the Twins have injuries. The good is that with their fast start and the expanded playoff field, there isn’t the urgency there otherwise might be to rush those players back. Minnesota’s “rest and recovery” approach should work again this year, with the hope that they will be at or near full strength when the tournament starts in October. Last October, Max Kepler, Luis Arraez and others played hurt against the Yankees, and it showed. This year, a healthy squad will be critical to surviving the four-round playoff gauntlet.

6. COVID-19 isn’t going away

Shocking, I know. It will be a constant area of concern for all teams, particularly given the outbreaks we already have seen on the Marlins and Cardinals. The Twins, by all accounts, are taking this very seriously, and yet we know a team can do everything right and still get hit.

7. The season is in constant jeopardy

Baseball has withstood the aforementioned outbreaks and tightened their protocols. There’s now the equivalent of a hall monitor with all teams, in an attempt to ensure no one breaks protocols. Still, it’s a day-by-day season, and that won’t change through October. When teams fall out of contention in September, will they still take the protocols as seriously?

8. Age is just a number for Nelson Cruz

The 40-year-old Cruz continues to be a force. He’s already been worth 0.7 bWAR despite not playing the field, and was slashing .391/.440/.652 entering Thursday. He’s carried the Twins’ offense when a number of players are still finding their timing. Cruz may not be able to sustain his current numbers, but if he’s close to where he was last year at the end of the 60-game sprint, he will be the Twins’ best offensive player and in line for a nice payday in free agency.

9. The infield defense is better

Jorge Polanco is never going to win a Gold Glove, but he’s making all the routine plays at short, and hasn’t yet had the throwing issues that plagued him last season. Arraez, to my eye, looks much improved, though his range is limited. Sano is a work in progress, but he’s mostly made the routine plays and a few not so routine ones. (Note: He misplayed a ground ball Thursday that started a three-run inning for the Pirates). He has looked out of position at times, too, which isn’t unexpected in his first year at a new spot. Donaldson, when he returns, makes everyone better.

10. The Twins don’t steal, like, ever

They have two stolen bases on the season, one each from Kepler and Polanco. Running never has been a big part of the Bomba Squad’s game, but it’s virtually nonexistent this season. That should change a bit when Buxton starts getting on base more frequently (he was thrown out in his one attempt this year).

11. The league has made an adjustment to Mitch Garver

After Garver’s huge 2019, when he slugged 31 home runs in only 311 at-bats on his way to a Silver Slugger, some regression was expected. So far, in a small sample, that has happened. Garver is 3-for-24 with one home run and 12 strikeouts. He’s getting a lot more off-speed pitches this season, and he will need to adjust to opposing pitchers’ adjustments to get back to being the offensive force he was in 2019.

12. The A.L. Central is much improved

If the season ended at the start of play Thursday, the Central would send four teams to the playoffs. You read that right. The Twins (10-2) and White Sox (7-5) would make it automatically as the top two finishers, and Cleveland (7-6) and Detroit (5-5) would be in line to snag both of the wild card spots. Detroit probably can’t keep up a .500 pace, but the Twins, White Sox, and Indians should all be in contention through September.

13. The Twins and White Sox have a budding rivalry

Chicago’s an exciting team. Luis Robert already looks like a superstar, and Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Nick Madrigal, and Lucas Giolito are all young, talented, and under team control for the foreseeable future. The 2020 White Sox mix in veterans Tim Anderson, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu and Yasmani Grandal to form one of the better lineups in the American League. This team is good now, and their winning window is only starting to open. These two teams should battle it out in the Central for much of the next decade.

14. Cleveland’s pitching staff is still elite

Their offense has struggled mightily early, but their starting staff has been incredibly good. Cleveland might be the best team in baseball at developing starting pitching, allowing them to trade away stars such as Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer and maintain their dominance. Shane Bieber is the early Cy Young favorite in 2020, and Mike Clevinger, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale, all have ERAs below 4 and high strikeout rates. Their entire starting staff was developed in Cleveland’s minor league system. Derek Falvey, of course, got the job in Minnesota in part due to his work developing pitchers in Cleveland.

15. The Twins have to hope Josh Donaldson’s calf issues won’t linger

This is perhaps Minnesota’s biggest concern in the early going. Donaldson won National League Comeback Player of the Year in 2019 with the Braves, but before that missed part of 2017 and most of 2018 because of calf and shoulder injuries. Donaldson posted on his Instagram that he had torn his calves seven times in two years. The Twins can be patient for now, but having him healthy in October will be critical. His offensive numbers are great, but I’d argue the Twins would miss his Gold Glove caliber defense more than anything.

16. Tyler Duffey is one of the best relievers in the league

Duffey’s transformation has been impressive. After spending most of his first four years with the Twins on the Rochester-Minnesota shuttle, Duffey figured it out in 2019. After spending the first month again going up and down, Duffey settled in and became a trusted late-inning weapon, finishing the year with a 2.50 ERA and 12.8 K/9. This season, he has 10 strikeouts in five scoreless innings. Duffey’s a smart guy, and he’s talked about incorporating the information disseminated from the front office into action on the field. Clearly, that approach has worked.

17. Randy Dobnak needs to be in the rotation

Dobnak is no longer just a good story, he’s a really good pitcher. After Wednesday’s gem in Pittsburgh, he now has a career ERA of 1.25 in 43.1 innings pitched. That’s not sustainable, but it’s clear Dobnak is legit. He needs to be pitching every fifth day, even after the injured veterans return

18. September will be fun

The Twins face the White Sox six times and Indians three times in the final month. They also play at the Cubs, who entering Thursday were tied with the Twins for the most wins in baseball. It will be a good test for what comes next …

19. The playoffs will be extra crazy

No matter how good a regular season you put together, you will be fighting for your life in a best-of-three first round series. I don’t think that’s the best format, because it really doesn’t reward the top teams at all. The only benefit they get is home-field advantage, which means little without fans. The Twins will surely hope to avoid Bieber and the Indians in the first round. A true ace is always critical in the postseason, but with the best-of-three first round series, it could lead to inferior teams taking out some of the top dogs right away.

20. Baseball is being played

For that, we are grateful.