The Twins have put themselves in a position few thought they’d be in at this point in the season.
At 45-43, Minnesota entered the All-Star break just 2.5 games out of first place in the A.L. Central, and 1 game behind Tampa Bay for the second wild card. Despite a bad bullpen and lack of starting pitching depth that’s led to a number of blowout losses, the Twins have generally played pretty good baseball–particularly defensively, where they struggled mightily in 2016–and have managed to stay above .500 basically all year. Simply put, they’re in the thick of the playoff race in the American League entering the unofficial second half of the season.
Based on recent comments from GM Thad Levine, the Twins aren’t intent on “going for it” this season, and in my opinion that’s the right move. Twins CBO Derek Falvey and Levine seem to recognize that the Twins are just entering their “winning cycle.” That cycle, in my mind, begins in earnest in 2018 and goes through at least 2021, when Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton will hit free agency, followed by Max Kepler and Jose Berrios in 2022.
While the front office’s focus rightly remains on building a long-term contender, let’s focus here on the potential competitiveness of the 2017 squad. This year’s Twins have earned the right to at least be thinking in those terms based on their position in the standings.
In my view, the feasibility of the Twins staying in the race through September hinges on their performance over the next 15 games. While mortgaging the future to try to win a championship this season is probably off the table, a good 15 game stretch leading into the deadline could convince the front office to hold on to tradeable commodities like Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana, and perhaps trade for controllable pitching that could help both this year and in the future. A bad 15 game stretch, on the other hand, could make the Twins full-blown sellers, with the focus shifting exclusively to building a winner in 2018 and beyond.
So, if any hope for this season depends on playing well over the next 15 games, let’s do an NFL-style breakdown of who the Twins will be facing during that stretch. (Spoiler: It’s not going to easy)
Houston Astros (60-29): The Twins begin the second half with a very difficult task, facing the Astros in Houston in a 3-game set. Houston has been far and away the best team in the American League this year, and trails the Dodgers by a half game for the best record in baseball. Their A.L.-leading run differential of +162 is 64 runs better than the Yankees—the team with the second-best run differential in the American League—and their 527 runs scored is best in baseball by a wide margin. If there’s one saving grace for the Twins, it’s that they won’t have to face Dallas Kuechel or Lance McCullers Jr in this series, Houston’s two best starting pitchers. Kuechel is on the DL and McCullers Jr. is scheduled to pitch on Monday, after the Twins leave town. The Twins also won’t face a left-handed starter in the series; they’ve struggled left-handed pitching all season.
New York Yankees (45-41): Following the Houston series, the Twins open a six-game homestand with three against New York. The Yankees struggled entering the break, but led the A.L. East for most of the first half and have a +98 run differential on the season. They’ve scored 477 runs on the season, second only to Houston. Their starting pitching remains a bit in flux, though the Twins will likely have to face All-Star Luis Severino, who’s slated to pitch Friday in Boston, which would put him in line to pitch the final game of the Twins’ series on Wednesday.
Detroit Tigers (39-48): After facing the two most potent offenses in the American League, the Twins will get a bit of a reprieve in the form of the fading, aging, Tigers. The Twins should also catch a break in this series because Detroit’s two best starting pitchers—Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer—are not scheduled to pitch, assuming Detroit doesn’t have any rainouts. It’s fair to say this is a series where the Twins will have an opportunity to make up ground they may lose against Houston and New York.
Los Angeles Dodgers (61-29): The Twins will head west to take on the Dodgers in L.A. from July 24-26. The Dodgers have been the top team in baseball over the past month, and won their last six heading into the break. They currently own baseball’s best record, and lead the majors in run differential. They’re particularly tough at home, owning a 39-11 record. One thing to keep an eye on over the next week is when Clayton Kershaw pitches his first game of the second half. The Dodgers want to give him extra rest, and are not pitching him in their opening series in Miami. If he pitches his first game of the second half Tuesday at Chicago, he’ll likely miss the Twins’ series, which would be a huge break for Minnesota. Nevertheless, the Dodgers have a stacked starting rotation and lock down bullpen, and have allowed the fewest runs in the majors this season.
Oakland (39-50): If the Twins can somehow keep their heads above water as they navigate through the Astros, Yankees and Dodgers, they’ll get rewarded with three games against the last place A’s. Oakland is a bad team that’s going to get worse when Billy Beane engages in his annual trade deadline purge, and it’s possible that process will have already started by the time the Twins roll into town. If the Twins are not in sell mode by this point, this series could be a real opportunity to bank a couple of wins in the final days before the deadline.
Summary: The Twins face a daunting task over the next 15 games. They play on the road against the two best teams in baseball, and the five teams they’ll face between now and the end of the month currently have a combined record of 244-197. In some ways, this is probably a good thing for the Twins. If they can remain in the playoff picture after this difficult stretch, they’ll have gone a long way to demonstrating to the front office that they’ve earned the right to make a run at a playoff spot this season. If they fade badly, 2017 competiveness will no longer be a variable the organization will need to account for when making trade deadline decisions.