What's on Twins' mind entering second half?

July 3rd, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins couldn’t find another dose of ninth-inning magic against the Orioles on Sunday afternoon as they fell, 3-1, in the series finale, thus opening the second half of their 162-game schedule with a performance -- and three-game series -- that looked indicative of the first 81 games as a whole.

The starting rotation continued to prove a significant part of this team’s overall success, with Devin Smeltzer’s six innings of three-run ball giving the Twins their 16th straight game in which their starter allowed no more than three runs. There was star power on display earlier in the weekend, with Byron Buxton’s walk-off homer on Friday night and an important breakthrough from a youngster in Jose Miranda’s walk-off single on Saturday afternoon, but it was juxtaposed with periods of confusing offensive malaise like Sunday.

All that has led to the Twins opening their final 81 games of the season with a defeat that still has them at the top of the American League Central at 45-37, two games ahead of the Guardians. They’ve gone from worst to first, but they’re still not as far ahead of a largely disappointing division as they could -- and arguably should -- be.

“On March 7, if you said to me, ‘OK, you’re signing up for getting into July and you’re in first place in the Central,’ and I didn’t know any of the game differential or how we got there, sign me up,” said president of baseball operations Derek Falvey. “That part, we have to be proud of or happy with, so to speak. But we’re not happy enough. We want to do more.”

What should the Twins be thinking about as they embark upon this second half?

1. Where will the relief help come from?
For all its inconsistencies, the Twins’ offense has delivered a 112 wRC+, the fifth best in the Majors behind the Yankees, Astros, Blue Jays and Dodgers. That’s pretty good company. The rotation’s 3.54 ERA entering Sunday was the sixth best despite heavy injury attrition for a chunk of the season.

And then there’s the bullpen, which ranked 27th in the Majors with 0.4 fWAR, 16th with its 3.84 ERA and 14th with a 0.29 Win Probability Added.

Many factors have played into that, including a lingering injury to Jorge Alcala and struggles from Joe Smith, Tyler Duffey and Emilio Pagán. All four of those pitchers had been counted on to be important pieces in the middle to late innings, and the Twins have had to make do without season-long consistency from any of them.

The trade market should heat up soon, and the Twins appear to be gearing up to add to that group. That could prove pivotal in the ultimate course of these final few months. But Minnesota has also expressed confidence in its younger arms in the Minors who have the raw stuff to potentially impact the bullpen soon – pitchers like Matt Canterino and Ronny Henriquez.

So the question here is threefold. How much can the Twins count on Alcala and perhaps even Kenta Maeda out of the bullpen later in the year? Who are the best targets on the trade market? And which of the prospects could be immediate difference-makers?

2. Will Buxton’s right knee heal?
In Sunday’s seventh inning, with the Twins trailing, 3-1, Kyle Garlick lined a one-out single and Alex Kirilloff followed with a two-out walk. Though Buxton was available off the bench, Minnesota opted to let Gilberto Celestino hit -- and the 23-year-old grounded out to end the threat.

Manager Rocco Baldelli said that “a small” part of the decision was hoping to avoid Buxton playing the field for multiple innings on his maintenance day. It’s unclear if Buxton’s knee will actually fully heal this year from the patellar tendinitis that has flared up at times, and the Twins have expressed no sentiment that the pain has gotten noticeably better for the center fielder, who regularly receives lengthy treatment sessions before games to prepare him to play.

Sunday marked the first game Buxton had sat out altogether since June 23 with the center fielder coming off the bench late in games three times in that span. Despite dealing with the knee all season long, he’s only missed five games since the start of June.

Will there be a noticeable difference in the condition of Buxton's knee and the Twins’ willingness to push it on tough days when the games grow more important in August and September? They’ll have to think about that.

3. Will the offense find its consistency?
One of the biggest mysteries of this season has been how an offense that has been so effective in the aggregate can experience so much variance in its results. One day, it’ll be teeing off against Gerrit Cole; a few days later, it will fall almost completely silent against Tyler Wells.

The Twins are tied for the Major League lead with 18 games of scoring eight or more runs. They're also tied for the lead with 10 games being shut out.

All season long, when asked, they’ve maintained that it’s pitchers just having great performances or bad luck -- or some combination of both.

As unsatisfying as it may be to attribute such results to luck, there’s something to that, too. Based on the quality of their batted balls, the Twins carry the fourth-best expected batting average in the Majors (.268) and the second-best expected slugging percentage (.499). They’ll be counting on that to mean that their results will level out in the long run at a high level -- and if not, they’ll need to search for the difference.