You'd figure a team that lost 99 games last year, and now finds itself on pace to lose 96 this year, would instill little confidence in its fan base. Yet, as we creep up on the season's halfway point, I find myself feeling rather optimistic about the Twins' future.
No, I don't believe the club is going to miraculously climb back into the AL Central race this year. But I do think that, given some of the positive signs we've seen, the path back to contention is looking shorter than we once may have feared.
Coming into this season, the Twins were in a state of disarray. A disastrous 2011 had caught them like a sucker punch, sullying their reputation as an organization to be emulated and prompting a major front-office shakeup. Alarming question marks swirled around several of the roster's key players, many of whom were amid long-term deals that had the potential to become quite burdensome.
Given the number of health concerns attached to position players, and the see-what-sticks approach taken with the pitching staff, no one really knew what to expect from the lineup, the relief corps or the rotation. Fortunately, two of those units have proven solid.
The bullpen has been a very pleasant surprise for the Twins, with a WHIP ranking fifth in the majors. Glen Perkins and Jared Burton give them two legitimate back end relievers who are under control for multiple years, Brian Duensing continues to excel as a lefty specialist, and several guys have emerged in the minors as possible blocks with which to build around those three (not to mention all the college relievers drafted earlier this month who figure to be fast risers). All in all, the outlook for this unit is fairly bright.
The offense, after a slow start, has also come into its own. The Twins lead the majors in hits this month, and several embattled players are alleviating concerns through their performance on the field. Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have all been relatively healthy and productive; along with Josh Willingham, Ben Revere and Trevor Plouffe, this gives them a quality core that is entrenched beyond this season.
Granted, the starting pitching is a mess, but that appears to be the only thing holding the Twins back at this point. Building a rotation isn't easy, of course, but the ability to focus on a specific area – as opposed to the across-the-board retooling required during this past offseason – makes returning to contention far less daunting.
If the Twins can keep the lineup and bullpen together for the most part, they could find themselves back in the mix as soon as next year IF they get significant improvement from the starters. That's obviously a substantial "if," but between Scott Diamond, Liam Hendriks, Kyle Gibson, Nick Blackburn and some freed up money (from departing starters like Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker) to hypothetically put toward a deep free agent pool, the Twins may have some decent options available.
It's enough to make you think twice about the notion of trading away guys like Willingham, Morneau and Span (or Burton and Perkins
), who could all contribute to a revival next year if they're still around.