Mackey: Twins face a key fork in the road over the next two weeks
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MINNEAPOLIS - Now that the All-Star festivities are finished, it's time to set up the second half of the MLB season.
If the downtown fireworks on Monday night didn't rattle your cranium too badly, you'll remember the Minnesota Twins dipped a season-low 10 games below .500 to start their pre-All-Star break road trip, but bounced back to within six games of .500 before returning home.
This little mini-surge bumped the Twins' playoff odds to 5% according to the hamster on a wheel at ESPN.com - odds which Lloyd Christmas would surely jump at, but general manager Terry Ryan must make a purely objective decision over the next two-plus weeks: Continue to chase that carrot on a stick beyond July 31? Or trade away veterans for, in all likelihood, mediocre prospects?
The good news for Ryan is he doesn't need to make a decision yet. The Twins, who still sit 10.5 games out of first place in the American League Central and six games back in the loss column for the last wild card slot, open a 10-game homestand on Friday against the Rays (44-53), Indians (47-47) and White Sox (45-51). If the Twins are going to get hot before the trade deadline, this is the most advantageous part of the schedule.
Of course, the Twins were in a similar boat in 2011. An eerily similar boat, actually. A hodgepodge of bilateral leg weakness, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, injuries and embarrassingly bad pitching pulled the Twins 20 games below .500 just two months into the season. Then they caught fire and became the best team in baseball for like two months. The wrong two months. The two months leading up to the trade deadline.
Some idiot local media member even claimed, "ItsHappening."
Then-GM Bill Smith kept his eye on the standings throughout July. The Twins began the month nine games back and 11 games below .500, and by July 29 they had come to within just six games of .500 and six games of first place. Smith elected to hang onto impending free agents Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, who (aside from Kubel missing time with a foot injury) were both having very good offensive seasons.
The Twins went onto lose seven of their first eight games after the trade deadline, falling entirely out of contention. The rest (99 painful losses) is history.
Yes, we are starved for competitive baseball in this town. Yes, it would be fun to watch the Twins try to play competitive baseball in the second half of the season. But the great small- and mid-market franchises capitalize when it's time to cut bait on players and salvage value via trade. The Twins have often erred on the "we like to hang onto our guys" side (not including Denard Span and Ben Revere, both of whom were correctly traded in the eyes of this amateur scout).
One key player makes a case for exactly that - hanging onto the veterans.
"We're competitive, and that's the hardest part," All-Star closer Glen Perkins told 1500 ESPN earlier this week. "The last couple years we haven't been competitive, and you understand when they trade guys away. ... I think if we can do enough to stand pat and give ourselves a chance, and I know that's kind of been the rhetoric the last couple years is, 'let's try to play competitive baseball,' and for the most part this year we've done that. That's a step in the right direction. It's not enough, and I don't think anybody's happy, but at least it's a step in the right direction that day in and day out, every game we play, we have a chance to win. It wasn't like that the last couple years.
"If we trade our guys away, I understand for the long-term future of the club that's what they may do, and that's part of when I signed my deal for four or five years that we might have to go through that."
If the Twins trade away any combination of veterans - we're talking the Kurt Suzuki, Josh Willingham, Kendrys Morales, Kevin Correia, etc. bunch - it's likely those absences will result in more losses down the stretch. Is there value in holding on to these veterans, assuming no Grade-A prospects will be offered in exchange, in hopes of finishing around .500 for the first time in four seasons?
The Twins' best trade chip is probably Perkins' fellow All-Star teammate Suzuki, who has experienced an offensive rejuvenation at age 30. A team like the St. Louis Cardinals, for instance, who lost stud catcher Yadier Molina for perhaps the rest of the season, could be highly interested in adding help behind the plate.
The Twins essentially have two-plus weeks to figure out if Suzuki is a part of their plans beyond 2014, and a lot of that likely depends on whether the organization believes Josmil Pinto is ready to catch regularly in 2015.
What's more valuable? A non-premium prospect or two from a catcher-hungry team like St. Louis or Baltimore? Or Suzuki in a Twins uniform in 2015 and 2016?
For the record, when asked earlier this week if the Twins had approached him or his agent about a possible contract extension, Suzuki said, "not to my knowledge." Any extension would likely need to be at least two years, otherwise Suzuki would just wait to see his other options this winter. Suzuki's presence beyond 2014 would also come at the expense of Pinto.
As far as the other trade commodities, Willingham and Morales would be rent-a-bats and wouldn't garner premium prospects in return. Same with Correia, who has been very consistent these past few weeks. If the Twins could land Eduardo Escobar-type players for any of the three aforementioned players - a la the Francisco Liriano trade - that would seem to be a successful haul.
Again - non-premium prospects? Or push for a .500 season?
"We want to be competitive, we want to keep plugging away, but you can see both sides of it," Perkins said.
"The last couple years we were bad. This year we're not a bad team."