On the surface, this 2012 Twins campaign seems painfully similar to last season's train wreck. On this date a year ago, the Twins sat with a 56-77 record, which sadly compares favorably to their current 52-77 mark. Both seasons were marked by abysmal starts, midsummer rebounds and late implosions (at least the current squad is headed that way, with an 8-17 record since the start of August).
Yet, looking beyond the similarly horrible results, this season has provided Twins fans with much more in the way of long-term reasons for hope.Last year, aside from the brutal on-field results, you had a front office that appeared lost, numerous injuries that placed the future outlooks of key players in doubt, and setbacks striking high-profile prospects
throughout the organization.
Here are some of the developments that have me feeling much better about the franchise's future than I did a year ago, even as the Twins continue to maintain their label as one of the worst teams in baseball.
This is big. Injuries were the No. 1 storyline in 2011 as the roster was ravaged by bad break after bad break. Seemingly minor ailments kept players on the shelf for weeks, team doctors conjured up bizarre diagnoses, and we began to wonder whether franchise cornerstones Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau were permanently damaged goods.
Both those players have stayed on the field and produced this year, along with most of their teammates. In fact, free agent acquisitions Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit have enjoyed unprecedented health. Clearly, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. One can certainly make the case that the team's awful performance in spite of many players avoiding injury is a bad thing, but there's no denying that team-wide good health is a positive harbinger for the future.
2. Chris Parmelee
A person could hardly be blamed for not being sold on Parmelee's "breakout" last year, which involved a fairly solid second half in Rochester and a great final month with the Twins. The first baseman showed some nice signs, but not enough to overshadow four years of unspectacular performance in the minors, especially after he looked overwhelmed during an early stint with the Twins this year.
Nevertheless, you simply can't overlook what the guy is doing in Triple-A right now. His .341/.460/.655 line with 17 homers (already a career high) is nothing short of jaw-dropping. His plate discipline has been superb and his power legit. Parmelee suddenly looks like a building block – one that gives the Twins a fair amount of flexibility going forward.
3. The Stacked Outfield
Heading into the offseason, the outfield picture looked a little shaky. Denard Span had missed a sizable chunk of the season due to a concussion, while Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer were both likely to depart in free agency. As it turns out, Span has been healthy this year and the Twins have found two other guys who figure to be entrenched for the next few years in Josh Willingham and Ben Revere. On top of that, Darin Mastroianni has emerged as a great asset as a fourth outfielder.
With all these players under control through at least 2014, the Twins are set in the outfield for several years, and that's not even mentioning top prospects like Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia who are rapidly rising. We're looking at a potential embarrassment of riches in the not-too-distant future. That's much different than any kind of embarrassment we were talking about last year.
4. Scott Diamond
In a season where so much as gone wrong with the starting staff, it's easy to overlook just how impressive Diamond has been. Despite one of the league's worst strikeout rates, he continues to turn in strong outing after strong outing and he's not really slowing down – he'd notched five consecutive quality starts before being ejected in Texas last week, though he experienced another hiccup against the M's on Tuesday.
I'll admit I'm somewhat skeptical that the lefty can maintain his minuscule walk rate going forward, but he's definitely a strike-thrower and his 55.3 percent grounder rate – seventh-highest in the majors – is no fluke. It's a good recipe for success even without the strikeouts; a recipe that should make Diamond a quality, inexpensive mid-rotation piece for many years.
5. Glen Perkins and Jared Burton
Building a bullpen from the ground up can be a challenge, as the Twins learned last year. Building a bullpen around a couple of established, reliable late-inning arms is a different story, which is why it's hugely encouraging that Perkins has maintained – and perhaps even elevated – his brilliance from last year while Burton has emerged as an excellent righty setup man.
These two look like a solid back-end core for Terry Ryan to build around, negating the need to overspend on an established "closer" while focusing on identifying hidden gems like Burton.
6. Trevor Plouffe
Plenty of people are getting down on Plouffe now that he's slumping badly since coming off the disabled list, but I'm pretty bullish on him at this point. He's probably not the elite slugger that he resembled earlier this summer, but the comparisons to Danny Valencia are premature and misguided. Plouffe's offensive outburst was not totally isolated – he's been building up to this point for several years, showing steady improvement in the minors and majors as he's inched toward his physical prime.
Now, at age 26, Plouffe is entering that prime and regardless of his current cold spell he looks like a player who can respectably hold down the hot corner for several years. The Twins have been in desperate need of such a player for a long time.