Week in Review: Trouble at Home
Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 8/19 through Sun, 8/25
Record Last Week: 3-3 (Overall: 79-51)
Run Differential Last Week: +7 (Overall: +151)
Standing: 1st Place in AL Central (3.5 GA)
Willians Watch: 7-for-19 (.368) at AAA
Willians Astudillo moved his rehab up to Triple-A, where he continued to rake with seven hits in four games. He mixed in at catcher, third base and right field for Rochester, and should be back in Minnesota by the end of next weekend.
In more objectively important injury recovery news, Byron Buxton went through a full complement of baseball activities on Friday without a hitch, and opened up his own rehab stint at Cedar Rapids on Sunday. Starting at DH and batting second, Buxton went 1-for-2 with a walk and a signature hustle double.
The easiest thing would be for Minnesota to wait until rosters expand next Sunday to activate Buxton. But at the same time, every game is important right now, and he's such a difference-maker. If he looks fully back up to speed early in the week, will they accelerate his timeline and maybe get him back for the Tigers series... or even for Chicago on Tuesday? (Dick Bremer astutely noted in Sunday's broadcast that Cedar Rapids is a short jaunt...)
Buxton's imminent return, along with news that Cleveland has likely lost Jose Ramirez for the rest of the season with a hamate bone fracture, would seem to bode very well for the Twins. But of course, they have to go out and capitalize on the opportunities thrown their way.
In a quiet week for transactions, the only other move worth mentioning is that Ryne Harper was optioned to Triple-A on Saturday, coming off another lackluster performance against the Tigers. Cody Stashak is back (Zack Littell was not an option since he went down less than 10 days ago). Harper was arguably Minnesota's second-best reliever in the first half, but hitters have gotten wise to his two-pitch mix, leading to a 7.36 ERA in August. He'll likely be back in September.
When the Twins made their biggest offseason splash by signing Nelson Cruz, we all naturally wondered: Can he maintain the elite power production that's been his norm, or will age start taking a toll and limiting him?
The answer, as it turns out: yes and yes.
Cruz has already sat out more games this year than any of the past five, held back from interleague action and nagged persistently by a wrist that might've healed more cooperatively in his younger days. But when on the field, the 39-year-old has played through his barking wrist with unbelievable effectiveness – especially in his return to action last week off a stunningly short absence.
Showing no ill effect from a ruptured tendon, Cruz swung the stick like a man possessed at Target Field, piling up five extra-base hits and seven RBIs amidst a 9-for-27 week hat featured some epic exit velocities. Despite losing 28 games to a pair of IL stints, the veteran slugger remains on pace to exceed 40 home runs and 100 RBIs.
Leading the offensive charge alongside Cruz last week was one now-customary name – Miguel Sano, who clubbed three homers and drove in seven across six games – and a more unexpected one: Jake Cave (or "Caveman," in the parlance of Player's Weekend).
Buxton's injury opened a window of opportunity for Cave, and the outfielder has lunged through it with vigor. Aided by more regular playing time, Cave has seen his OPS climb rapidly during the month of August, and last week he was at his best, belting three home runs and two doubles while raising his seasonal slash line to .278/.378/.460, including .423/.492/.769 since the All-Star break. His monster production hasn't been coming cheaply.
Cave is showing that his solid work as a rookie last year, and his outright dominance of Triple-A this year, were not flukes. His bat has been a boon for the Twins lineup this month with others absent or lagging. It's hard to see him getting a ton of action once Buxton returns, but he's proven himself as a solid backup and pinch-hitting option.
Also enjoying nice weeks offensively: Jorge Polanco (two homers and a double), Max Kepler (two homers and two doubles, propelling him past the 35-HR milestone), and Eddie Rosario (5-for-12 against Chicago before sitting out the Detroit series with a hamstring strain).
On the pitching side, the biggest positive was Trevor May continuing to build on his excellent August. Looking confident and more than capable, the right-hander logged 2 1/3 scoreless innings across three appearances, striking out two and walking none. After a very rough stretch in July, followed by a bit of a mental break courtesy of Rocco Baldelli, May has re-emerged as the powerful late-inning weapon Minnesota needs him to be. He threw 30 of 41 pitches (73%) for strikes last week.
Alarms are loudly blaring in the starting rotation. Jose Berrios continues to grind through start after start, minus the velocity, command, and consistency that fueled his All-Star first half.
Facing the lowest-scoring offense in baseball on Friday, Berrios was handed an early lead, but he gave it up on a crippling grand slam in a game where he was disturbingly hittable. By the time he was lifted with one out in the sixth, he'd allowed five runs on 10 hits and two walks, pushing his ERA up to a season-high 3.53. Just a monumentally disappointing performance against a pitifully bad Tigers lineup.
It marked the sixth time in nine starts since the beginning of July that Berrios was unable to complete six innings, a feat he accomplished in all but two of his 17 outings through June. Sagging velocity continues to take a toll on him, as he and his coaches continue to search for answers.
The Twins are in huge trouble if Berrios can't get back on track. This goes without saying. But it sure doesn't help that his counterparts in the rotation are so very uninspiring right now. Kyle Gibson looked similarly poor against the lowly Tigers on Saturday, coughing up 10 hits and five runs (four earned) over 5 1/3 innings. Earlier in the week he gave up five runs against a White Sox offense that isn't much better than Detroit's (third-to-last among AL teams in runs and OPS). Those same Sox touched up Jake Odorizzi for four runs on eight hits over five frames on Wednesday.
The rotation contributed just one quality start all week – when Martin Perez held Detroit to two runs over six innings on Sunday. At home, in this stage of the season, against this caliber of competition, that's just not acceptable. Skeptical Twins fans and national onlookers will rightfully be dubious of the club's ability to make any real noise until they demonstrate they can suppress even pedestrian lineups.
Minnesota isn't going to be able to outslug opponents on command. Pressure is mounting on Wes Johnson, Jeremy Hefner, and the Twins starting pitchers to turn things around, with the erstwhile ace Berrios ranking as the utmost priority.
He's not going to be a magical elixir for this rotation's afflictions, but Buxton's return will provide a big boost for the pitchers. He's arguably the most valuable defender in baseball and he changes games, although Kepler and Cave deserve credit for their solid glovework in the interim.
Fans await Buck's activation with bated breath, but regardless of what happens there, the Twins will be receiving a huge influx next Sunday when rosters expand for September. The front office will almost certainly be upping bullpen depth by recalling a handful of arms that have helped them already this year – the likes of Littell, Harper, Kohl Stewart, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe, Randy Dobnak, etc. Rehabbing righty Trevor Hildenberger is another likely candidate, with intriguing impact potential. Fernando Romero might not be in the plans, which is sad but fair.
And then there are other potentially impactful additions that are not yet on the 40-man roster, such as the two we'll lead off with below.
DOWN ON THE FARM
Settling in at the highest level of the minors following their recent promotions, Brusdar Graterol and Jorge Alcala are acclimating very quickly. Graterol threw two scoreless innings in his Rochester debut on Wednesday, then followed with another clean appearance (1.1 IP) on Saturday. He already has International League hitters out of sorts (and turns 21 on Monday, so give him a shout on Twitter!).
Alcala's first week at Triple-A also went smoothly, as he tossed four shutout innings across three appearances, striking out five and – importantly – walking only one. I mentioned here last week that the Ryan Pressly trade was starting to turn around for the Twins, with Alcala positioning himself to help the MLB bullpen and Gilberto Celestino going on a complete tear at Cedar Rapids. Well, now Celestino too has moved up a level. He joined Fort Myers on Wednesday and is 7-for-17 with four doubles through his first four games with the Miracle.
Incidentally, Pressly underwent knee surgery last week and will miss the next 4-to-6 weeks for the Astros.
That isn't the only midseason trade from 2018 paying dividends. Jhoan Duran was dazzling in his sixth start at Double-A on Friday, carrying a no-no into the late innings before finishing with two hits allowed and 11 strikeouts in eight shutout frames. According to the data at Baseball Reference (and this seems too absurd to be true), Duran threw 58 of 68 pitches for strikes and induced THIRTY-ONE swings and misses. Even if those numbers are stretched, it was one of the most dominating performances you'll see from a pitcher all year.
Although not to the same extent as Graterol and Alcala, Duran is a sleeper candidate to help the needy big-league staff before this year is over.
They didn't make hay at home following a 5-1 road trip, but now the Twins will travel again for a repeat of the past week's match-ups, with redemption on the mind. Last Wednesday, Chicago's Lucas Giolito threw the best start of his career against Minnesota, and on Friday Detroit's journeyman mediocrity Drew VerHagen unleashed an out-of-nowhere burst of dominance with 11 strikeouts. Can the Twins exact some revenge in hostile territory, where they've been so comfortable all year long?
Cleveland, reeling from the news of Ramirez's loss and a gut-punch loss on Sunday, opens its week with the Tigers (ugh) but then travels to Tampa for a series with the Rays. Opportunity knocks once again.
TUESDAY, 8/27: TWINS @ WHITE SOX – RHP Michael Pineda v. RHP Lucas Giolito
WEDNESDAY, 8/28: TWINS @ WHITE SOX – RHP Jake Odorizzi v. LHP Ross Detwiler
THURSDAY: 8/29: TWINS @ WHITE SOX – RHP Jose Berrios v. RHP Dylan Cease
FRIDAY, 8/30: TWINS @ TIGERS – RHP Kyle Gibson v. RHP Drew VerHagen
SATURDAY, 8/31: TWINS @ TIGERS – LHP Martin Perez v. RHP Edwin Jackson
SUNDAY, 9/1: TWINS @ TIGERS – RHP Michael Pineda v. LHP Matthew Boyd
Catch Up On Twins Daily Game Recaps
Game 125 | CWS 6, MIN 4: Twins Unable to Mount Comeback, Drop Series Opener 6-4
Game 126 | MIN 14, CWS 4: Cruz Leads Twins Offensive Explosion
Game 127 | CWS 4, MIN 0: Giolito Throws Complete Game as Sox Take Series
Game 128 | DET 9, MIN 6: Berríos, Bullpen Can’t Hold Baseball’s Worst Offense
Game 129 | MIN 8, DET 5: Sano 3-Run Bomba, Bullpen Boost Twins to Victory
Game 130 | MIN 7, DET 4: Pérez Impresses, Twins Beat Detroit for Series Win
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