Image courtesy of Joe Nicholson, USA TodayOffensively, the two clubs have been equally productive. Entering Sunday's series finale, the Twins and Indians had both scored 310 runs, with nearly identical team OPS marks (.754 and .759).
Only one offense really showed up over the past four games, however. The Indians piled up 28 runs in the sweep while the Twins managed to push only eight across. Minnesota was at the mercy of a vastly superior staff, a disadvantage that will make retaking first place an exceedingly difficult proposition.
The formula for the Twins has pretty much gone like this: Ervin Santana, Jose Berrios, pray for rain (or lots of run support). Neither of the two top starters was available in this series and rain mostly stayed away, so the remainder of a highly unimpressive rotation took its beatings. Meanwhile, the contrast in bullpen quality was blindingly evident, as Cleveland countered ineffectual efforts from the Twins with dominance from the likes of Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw.
Measured by Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), the Indians rank as the best staff in the American League, and the Twins rank worst. So the lopsided outcomes are fairly unsurprising and trading places atop the division was all but inevitable. Cleveland's lead is likely to expand, too, unless the Twins can find a way to solve the hopeless patchwork comprising the back half of their rotation.
The Contention Conundrum
There is one school of thought that goes like this: the Twins aren't ready to compete yet, and winning in the short term should not be a primary consideration.
I can only respond by channeling Eduardo Escobar: C'MON!
I'm all for keeping the big picture in mind, but at the same time, the Twins are doing themselves a disservice if they don't make efforts to get the most out of this season. You cannot take for granted that you'll have another year where so many things play out right. It's easy to get caught up in the team's weaknesses after a demoralizing sweep, but let's not overlook the strengths that kept them in first place for five straight weeks.
Miguel Sano is mashing at an elite level. Basically every other hitter is at least holding his own at the plate. Byron Buxton, one of the few who isn't, has finally been healthy and is changing games with his defense. Jose Berrios is fulfilling his potential before our very eyes. Ervin Santana has been one of the league's best starters. Brandon Kintzler has, somehow, been one of the its most effective closers.
Cleveland is good, but it's not clear any of the other AL Central teams are. The Twins have some glaring flaws, to be sure, but there's a real opportunity to compete into September and maybe beyond.
Focusing on that goal may force the organization to make some tough calls.
No Easy Answers
I think we can safely say plugging in waiver wire fodder like Adam Wilk and Chris Heston is not going to be the solution to Minnesota's pitching woes. Nor does it appear that Nik Turley is going to get it done. Kyle Gibson and Adalberto Mejia have been erratic messes. Yet, for now, there is little choice but to keep running them out there.
Hector Santiago appears close to returning (he'll make a rehab start this week) but he brings little assurance at this point. Phil Hughes is not all that close, and may come back as a reliever.
I got this text last week from one of my more optimistic, bright-side-seeking Twins fan friends: "I know this is easier said than done but I really think if we could find even two more adequate starting pitchers and like three more bullpen arms we'd be just fine."
I mean, you said it man.
Unfortunately, finding adequate arms is a challenge that has vexed this franchise for the better part of a decade.
In the minors, the Twins really have two players with the legitimate ability to enter the mix as difference-makers in the rotation. At Class-AA Chattanooga, Fernando Romero and Stephen Gonsalves (ranked Nos. 1 and 2 on Twins Daily's top prospect list) have both been tearing it up for the past several weeks. They have stuff that could play in the big leagues.
But this is where the front office must weigh that big picture against maximizing the team's chances in the present. You certainly don't want to throw a guy into the fire before he's ready; neither prospect has made even 20 starts at Double-A, or any at Triple-A. There is also the matter of protecting arms. Romero missed two entire seasons before returning to throw 90 innings last year, while Gonsalves missed the first chunk of this year with shoulder issues. The organization is trying to carefully manage workloads and strain, which is much harder to do in the majors.
Then again, there are not a lot of alternatives. Trading away significant talent for an impact starter would be more harmful to the long-term structure, and we've seen the types of replacement level talent out there in waivers and free agency. The Twins can either stick with that plan, or they can turn to the best internal options they have, slightly ahead of schedule.
These are the tricky decisions involved with trying to hang in a race. It's nice to be in a position to tackle them again, and we'll learn much about the new regime in seeing how they proceed.
- brvama, Dance with Disco Dan, mickeymental and 4 others like this