The Twins opened the season on March 28 with more unknowns than anything.
Rocco Baldelli had never managed a big-league game. There were several new additions (C.J. Cron, Nelson Cruz, Martin Perez and Jonathan Schoop among them) but uncertainty as to how they would work out. Jake Odorizzi was coming off a disappointing first season in Minnesota. Byron Buxton was entering a make-or-break season.
And on and on the list went.
Even chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine were uncertain of what to expect. Three-plus months later, the majority of the results have been better than anyone could have expected.
The Twins will open the “second half” of their season on Friday with a 56-33 record and 5.5 games up on Cleveland in the American League Central. The Twins and Indians will start a three-game series on Friday in Cleveland and play 10 more times after that. The early portion of the season went so well that the Twins held an 11.5-game lead in early June before the Indians started to play much better baseball.
All of this raises some interesting questions for the Twins as they attempt to win their first AL Central title since 2010, their first season in Target Field. Here are four items — one for each month of the season (sorry March, you don’t count) — that will be answered in the coming weeks and months.
NOW OR NEVER
The Twins’ path to success is probably a year ahead of plan and that means we are going to find out whether Falvey and Levine are willing to sacrifice some of the future to make a run at the World Series this season.
If you look at all the rosters of the AL contenders right now, it’s fair to say you would pick the Yankees and Astros before the Twins. But there have been rumblings, and it’s no surprise, that the Twins are looking to add one starting pitcher and potentially two bullpen arms. The Twins’ bullpen hasn’t been the mess that some have made it out to be, but there is no question another top arm needs to be added to go with lefthander Taylor Rogers.
Any pitching additions will come at a steep price. It would be very surprising to see the Twins trade top prospects, such as shortstop Royce Lewis and outfielder Alex Kirilloff, to get help but anyone else, or a package of prospects, could be on the block if the return is a guy like the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner and/or Will Smith, or the Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman and/or Ken Giles.
The trade deadline — and there’s only one this season — will be July 31 so somebody is going to make deals for those pitchers soon. This is Falvey and Levine’s third season in Minnesota and they have never been in this spot before. Will they pull the trigger in order to strengthen this club? We’re about to find out.
Baldelli is the youngest manager in the big-leagues at 37 — he will turn 38 on Sept. 25 — and so far there seems to be nothing that fazes him. Of course, Baldelli has never managed in the heat of a pennant race before so this could get interesting.
It’s not so much that Baldelli is going to meltdown on anyone — he has talked about the fact he sees no real point in getting angry at players and he certainly hasn’t criticized them in the media — but if the Indians keep this thing close for the rest of the summer, Baldelli’s in-game management will become more and more scrutinized.
What might not be noticed in April, May and June can suddenly become a very big deal in September. Because of the Twins’ structure, which seems to be a more team-oriented approach between Falvey, Levine, Baldelli and the coaching staff, there are likely many decisions that used to be only up to the manager that are now handled by committee.
But there are some decisions during the course of a game that a manager simply has to make and Baldelli could be making those decisions under a microscope in the coming months.
ODO THE ALL-STAR
Odorizzi was replaced on the AL All-Star roster by teammate and fellow pitcher Jose Berrios after he developed a blister that landed him on the 10-day disabled list. But the fact that Odorizzi was initially the lone Twins pitcher on the All-Star roster spoke to the expectations that will be put upon him for the rest of this season.
Odorizzi’s selection to Tuesday’s game was the result of an incredible eight-game stretch from late April to early June during which the righthander went 7-0 with a 0.76 ERA (four earned runs in 47.2 innings). Since then, Odorizzi is 1-2 with a 7.85 ERA in four starts. He departed his last start, in Oakland, because of the blister.
While Odorizzi (10-4, 3.15 ERA in 17 starts) can’t be expected to duplicate his brilliant eight-game stretch, it will be necessary for him to get back on track once he to start Saturday .
In a playoff situation, the assumption is that the top three in the rotation would be Jose Berrios, a yet-to-be acquired pitcher and Odorizzi. Kyle Gibson, Martin Perez and Michael Pineda have had up-and-down seasons and could make cases for themselves to be in a playoff rotation as the season progresses, but right now Odorizzi looks like the key guy out of that group.
MAKE OR BREAK
Among the biggest questions entering this season was what the Twins would get from Buxton and Miguel Sano, who had yet to come close to living up to their potential and no longer could be considered prospects.
Buxton spent some time before the All-Star break on the injured list, but it’s safe to say that he has not disappointed. Batting ninth for almost the entire season, Buxton has slashed .253/.314/.502 with nine home runs, 42 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 73 games. He also has continued to play Gold Glove defense in center field. Every time Buxton gets on base, it’s an adventure (and we don’t mean that in a good way) for the opposing team.
Sano is another story. The big third baseman — who played the last couple of games before the break at first in place of the injured Cron — began the season on the injured list after suffering a cut around his right Achilles’ during the winter.
Sano did not return until mid-May and since then it has been an adventure. He is hitting .236/.321/.574 with 13 homers and 24 RBIs in 40 games. Sano has looked terrible at times — he went 5-for-45 (.111) with three home runs and 26 strikeouts from June 14 to June 27 — but after working with hitting coach James Rowson on his approach at the plate, Sano put together a stretch before the break when he went 12-for-30 (.400) with four home runs and nine RBIs in nine games. He struck out eight times in those 30 at-bats.
If Sano can begin to consistently contribute at the plate, the Twins already powerful lineup (an MLB-leading 166 home runs) will get that much better. Sano also will have the opportunity to answer the question of whether he should be considered a part of the Twins’ long-term plan.