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Zulgad: Sound the alarm: Twins’ early-season struggles at the plate shouldn’t be dismissed

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Minnesota Twins
Apr 25, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Twins first baseman Willians Astudillo (64) swings at a pitch against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fifth inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

If you were looking for any sign of panic or urgency from the Twins following their 11th loss in 13 games on Sunday, you weren’t going to find it coming from manager Rocco Baldelli. “I think the guys all have to understand we’re not going to get it all back on one swing or one at-bat,” Baldelli said following a second consecutive 6-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Target Field. “We’re going to have to take what the other teams are giving us and just go out there and grind it out.”

Baldelli’s reaction to this mostly putrid stretch of baseball doesn’t come as a surprise. Rocco’s philosophy on life is to roll with the punches, never get too high or too low and work under the assumption that no matter what happens, the sun will rise the next day. (Insert any other cliche you want to this list.) This is a solid approach for a manager to have most of the time, and Baldelli probably wouldn’t benefit from changing now.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference between Baldelli’s reality and the true reality of the situation. And that’s exactly why the Twins’ 7-13 start — their seven wins are tied with AL Central foe Detroit for the fewest in baseball and their .350 winning percentage is only better than the Tigers’ .318 — is reason to hit the panic button.

Twenty games into the season, the Twins are a mess and thinking things will magically change because players return, it gets warmer, or their luck takes a turn, seems like a dangerous assumption. The primary issue has been the fall of the group once known as the Bomba Squad.

The Twins got off to a 5-2 start, averaging 6.6 runs and hitting .278 in the opening seven games. But in the past 13 games, the Twins are averaging three runs and hitting .218. They have gone from getting 10.1 hits and four walks per game to 6.8 hits and 2.5 walks.

You also have to factor in that the Twins scored 12 runs in an extra-innings loss to the Athletics last Wednesday in which struggling reliever Alex Colome blew a save and then took the loss thanks in part to the Twins’ ineptitude in the field. Subtract that game and the Twins are at 27 runs over the past 12 games (2.3 runs) and are hitting .198 as a team.

The Twins scored six runs in the three games against the Pirates, going 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position and losing the final two against starters with a 9.69 ERA (veteran righthander Trevor Cahill) and 13.50 ERA (righthander Wil Crowe, who had pitched in only one game and hadn’t started one this season).

It’s easy to point to the fact that backups Willians Astudillo and Jake Cave have been forced into full-time roles with first baseman Miguel Sano (hamstring) and right fielder Max Kepler (COVID-19 list) out of the lineup. Astudillo and Cave had home runs in the Twins’ 2-0 victory over the Pirates on Friday, but Cave is hitting .155 in 20 games and Astudillo is best used as a utility player.

The main problem is there is no guarantee the return of Sano and Kepler are going to provide significant upgrades. Sano was slashing .111/.310/.244 with two home runs, four RBIs and 20 strikeouts in 45 at-bats before he went on the 10-day injured list last week. Kepler had a miserable spring training, had three hits on Opening Day in Milwaukee and then hit .190/.286/.262 with no home runs and seven RBIs in 13 games before being put on the COVID-19 list.

Sano almost certainly will go through a hot stretch at some point, but it’s also likely he will cool off and go through another significant slump that could last weeks or months. Kepler had 36 home runs in the year of Bomba, but in 2020 his average dipped from .252 to .228 and he hit nine homers in 48 games in the pandemic-shortened season.

The first four hitters in the Twins’ lineup on Sunday were Luis Arraez, Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz and Byron Buxton. None of them had great weekends, but all have been reliable. The problem is that Jorge Polanco is slashing .200/.274/.240 with no homers and seven RBIs in 20 games and does not look anything like the guy who was named the American League’s starting shortstop in the 2019 All-Star Game.

The problems don’t end there. Mitch Garver, coming off a terrible 2020 after winning the Silver Slugger award as the top hitting catcher in the AL in 2019, struck out four times Sunday and is hitting .160/.208/.340 with two homers and six RBIs in 16 games. Ryan Jeffers, the Twins’ other catcher, is slashing .167/.242/.200 with no homers and one RBI in 10 games. That gives the Twins’ catchers a combined .163 average.

Odds are good those numbers will improve, but there’s no guarantee the improvement will be substantial. As far as help being on the way, shortstop Andrelton Simmons should return in the coming days after battling COVID-19. Simmons isn’t only one of the best shortstops in baseball, but he also was hitting .355/.474/.452 in 10 games before being sidelined. Simmons, however, is a career .270 hitter over his 10-year career and is likely to come back to earth at the plate.

Cruz’s solo homer in the eighth inning Sunday was only the Twins’ 21st of the season. They entered the game tied for 23rd among the 30 big-league clubs in homers, making the major league record 307 homers they hit in 2019 a distant memory.

Maybe there is a significant hot stretch to come. Maybe Baldelli is right that his team will get in a groove as it begins to play more night games and returns to a normal routine. Perhaps Baldelli’s no-sweat approach is the right one to take.

Right now, however, with the Twins and Tigers keeping each other company in the cellar of the AL Central, it feels as if pushing the panic button is justified.