Key questions for Twins, other division leaders

Rockies, Brewers also among those at top who are off to a surprising start

May 25th, 2017

Coming off their fifth 90-plus-loss season in the past six years, a last-place finish for the fourth time in that stretch and a season in which they had the worst record in the big leagues, the Twins were easily overlooked coming into this season by most prognosticators.

But not Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who did not hesitate to make his feelings known in the aftermath of the Twins' three-game sweep at Camden Yards this week

"That's the team I thought it was going to be last year," Showalter said.

What kind of a team have the Twins been this season? Well, they are sitting atop the American League Central standings, and they have an AL-best 14-5 record on the road. As a point of reference, Minnesota didn't claim road win No. 14 a year ago until July 19.

• MLB standings

This is a team that won its season opener.

Big deal? Yep.

That's something the Twins had not done in nine years, dating back to 2008, when Livan Hernandez went seven innings, earned the save and hit cleanup. Joe Mauer, and Pat Neshek are the only players among the 14 who appeared in that game for Minnesota who are still playing.

The Twins have built off that Opening Day win ever since, thanks in no small part to the middle-of-the-lineup presence of (.300, 11 home runs, 37 RBIs) and a resurgent , who, at the age of 34 and coming off a five-year stretch when he won more than nine games just once, has gone 7-2 with a 1.80 ERA.

Is it enough, however, to hold off the charge of the defending league-champion Indians in the AL Central?

That's one of the questions facing the six division leaders as the season unfolds:

• Can the Twins get additional pitching support for Santana? And can Santana maintain his torrid early-season pace? Santana and (3-0, 1.66 ERA) have seen Minnesota win 10 of their combined 13 starts, but five other pitchers who have started a game for the Twins are 10-11 with a 5.66 ERA in the 30 games they have started.

• Can the Rockies continue to see their youngest-in-baseball rotation dominate hitters over the course of a 162-game season? Colorado went into Thursday with the best overall record (31-17) and road record (18-7) in the National League thanks in no small part to the efforts of four rookie starters -- , , and -- going a combined 16-5 and the Rockies winning 19 of the 26 games they have started.

• Can the Brewers survive a battle with both the Cardinals and defending World Series champion Cubs in the NL Central? After three years in Korea, has been the talk of baseball (.302, 13 home runs, 26 RBIs). However, as he becomes better known, can Thames adjust to a revised approach from the opposition?

• Can Yankees rookie outfielder make the in-season adjustments as pitchers change their approach after watching him hit .315 with 15 home runs, 30 RBIs and 36 runs scored in the opening months of the season? He's quickly become the newest icon for a Yankees fan base looking for the next Derek Jeter.

• Can the Nationals fine-tune their bullpen to get ready for a postseason run? Face it, there's not even another team in the NL East that is even .500, and Washington's offense can explode against even the best pitchers in the game. Closing out close games, however, could be a challenge. , who is in only his third pro season, appears to be the latest candidate to get the 27th out. Yes, the Nationals went into Thursday with a 28-17 record and a 7 1/2-game lead on the second-place Braves, but they rank 10th in the NL with a 60 percent save-conversion rate, and they have the worst bullpen ERA (5.27) in the big leagues.

• Can the Astros' rotation ignore the rigors of hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park? Led by (7-0, 1.84 ERA) and Lance McCullers, Jr. (5-1, 2.43 ERA), Houston's starting pitchers have been the best in the AL in terms of record (21-10) and ERA (3.56) despite struggles from Joe Musgrave (3-4, 5.63 ERA in nine starts) and Mike Fiers (1-2, 5.14 ERA in eight starts).