When the Twins traded Johan Santana last year, they were given up for dead. And yet, despite an uncharacteristically porous defense and some clunkers on the pitching staff (Boof, Livan and Everyday Eddie), finished in second place with 88 wins. Their final record was pretty much the same as it was the year before. This year, they faced a start of the season with Joe Mauer on the disabled list and they had a terrible start. Again, they were given up for dead. But now the Twins have won seven of eleven and they are right in the thick of the scrum near the top of the AL Central. And Mauer is on his way back.
In the first eleven games of the season, the Twins' run differential was -30. Ouch. But in the last eleven, they've been much better at +8. So their overall differential of -22 is misleading. The biggest difference so far has been the defense. Last year, the Twins made 108 errors in 162 games. So far this year, they have only made 8 in 22 games. That's a vast improvement over a year ago. And astoundingly, the standard infield set of Crede (0), Punto (1) and Alexi Casilla (1) have only made two errors between them.
Jose Morales, who is filling in for Redmond, who was filling in for Mauer, has been a surprise thus far and has Mauer-like production. His current OPS+ is 132, which is excellent.
At least half of the team has struggled offensively. That same infield trio that is doing so well in the field is wasting away at the plate in an an astounding way. The OPS+ numbers of the trio? Casilla (29), Punto (63) and Crede (89). 29! You have to be nearly comatose to have that low a number. Crede's 89 is actually not bad for him, but he had a hot start and has faded of late. Brenden Harris has played in half of the Twins' games and has filled in for the light hitting crew at all three positions and is hitting .350. So that helps. It also helps that he hasn't made any errors either.
All of the offense has been supplied thus far by Morales, Harris, Morneau, Span and a surprising Jason Kubel, who has an OPS+ thus far of 148. That's fantastic. But those guys need to get some help from the rest of the outfielders and the infielders.
Ron Gardenshire got in hot water over the winter by stating that his outfield was set with Span, Cuddeyer and Carlos Gomez. The obvious omission was Delmon Young. Gardenshire later backtracked and stated that all four outfielders would get plenty of At Bats. Span has been great, but Gomez, Cuddeyer and Young are all struggling mightily. The trio has OPS+ numbers of 47, 65 and 71 respectively (before Wednesday night's game) and all have an OBP under .300. What looked like a strength has been a real weakness so far.
The return of Mauer will be a boost, but with the offense Morales has been providing, it won't be that much of a boost except that Mauer is a known entity. The team will go as far as their pitching can take them. Their team pitching stats are in the bottom third of the American League thus far and their 5.37 is not a pleasant sight. But they have only had three poorly pitched games out of the last eleven and all of their starters are intriguing.
Scott Baker had a really good year last year, but this year has been more like "Home Run" Baker as he has given up seven homers already in 21 innings. And his 9.82 ERA is rather ugly. But some of his stats seem to indicate he will be okay. His strikeout to walk ratio is 3 to 1. And his stikeouts per nine innings of 7.4 is exactly the same as last year. Those numbers seem to favor him bouncing back and being okay the rest of the season.
Glen Perkins has pitched really well and is a hard-luck 1-2 despite a 2.48 ERA. His WHIP is 1 even and he hasn't given up a homer in four starts. He also has better than a 3 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio. He looks great so far. Nick Blackburn pitched well Wednesday night and upped his record to 2-1. His appearance will push his ERA+ over 100.
Kevin Slowey has some funky numbers but has been great his last two starts. The number that jumps out immediately is that he has given up 36 hits in only 26+ innings of work. But he has 19 strikeouts in those 26+ innings and incredibly, has only walked two batters all season. If he keeps pitching like he has the last two outings, he'll be great.
The puzzling pitcher on the staff is Francisco Liriano. He's not the dominating pitcher he was two years ago and he is currently 0-4 with a 6.04 ERA. But his numbers aren't terrible except that his walks are high at 3.5 per nine innings. He's not as bad as his numbers indicate but he's not going to be great like he once may have been.
But overall, a rotation of Liriano, Slowey, Blackburn, Perkins and Baker can be very competitive. The bullpen, on the other hand has been pretty bad with the exception of Nathan at the end. He is his usual dominant self. But he isn't getting much help out there. In limited action, Jose Mijares has been dominating and might make a nice 1-2 punch with Nathan.
After mulling over the above information, the Twins are a pretty good bet to be in the mix of things in the AL Central. They pitch well and field well and have a few hitting stars. They need more offense from their infield and from three quarters of their outfield, but if that picks up, this could be a fun team to watch all summer.