In a different world -- the world in which the Twins hoped to find themselves in 2021 -- this would have been quite the exhilarating stretch of the schedule to kick off the final two months of the regular season.
Minnesota is coming off a pair of hard-earned series wins against first-place teams after going on the road to take three of four from the Astros at Minute Maid Park before returning home to snag two of three from the White Sox behind a pair of sparkling pitching performances from rookie starters. Up next are the Rays, Cleveland, the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Brewers, in that order.
But instead of jostling for playoff position themselves, the Twins have long since ducked out of the race, as the outcomes of their games impact little more than their opponents' postseason seeds and Minnesota's eventual Draft position.
Still, there's important work to be done in these final two months. The Twins have been open about their desire to return to contention sooner rather than later. Building back up to that will be a process that begins with evaluating what they have on this roster, what pieces to keep, and how to best build around those players.
With that in mind, these two months could be quite important for some Twins more than others. Which five have the most to prove before this regular season is over?
OF/DH Brent Rooker
Since Spring Training, the Twins have been very clear about their desire for Rooker to improve his defense in the outfield, expressing confidence that the former SEC Player of the Year winner at Mississippi State will be productive with the bat -- if they can find a fit in the field.
The tough part for Rooker has been that all of his Minor League production hasn't yet translated effectively to the big leagues. His bat showed signs of life shortly following his recent recall to the Twins on July 2, but he's still hit only .188/.263/.391 in this most recent big league stint, and though he hits the ball hard when he makes contact, said contact has been elusive.
This might be the best opportunity Rooker will get for consistent at-bats, with injuries to Byron Buxton and Alex Kirilloff creating a more fluid outfield situation, and Nelson Cruz's trade to Tampa Bay leaving an opening at designated hitter. The Twins don't have any plans for Rooker to play first base, their corner-outfield situation is crowded, and it's increasingly rare to find any team willing to give players everyday at-bats at DH -- especially younger ones.
At 26, Rooker isn't a younger prospect, and he's showed about as much as he can in the Minors. Considering his defensive limitations, a quick acclimation to the big leagues at the plate will likely be his path to future playing time.
OF Rob Refsnyder
Is the 30-year-old Refsnyder's big start with the Twins a real indication of a mid-career turnaround, or is it just a product of small sample size? The onetime Yankees farmhand, now a veteran journeyman, made wholesale changes to his swing and his approach this spring with Triple-A hitting coach Matt Borgschulte. Will they be enough to help him keep this up?
A .309/.385/.471 line through 24 games will certainly earn Refsnyder more looks down the stretch, especially since he's coupled that with a newfound ability to play center field -- mostly out of necessity due to the Twins' decimated depth at the position earlier this season. He's not a Gold Glover in center, but he certainly hasn't looked out of place, either.
If Refsnyder can capably fill in at all three outfield positions and use this opportunity to show that he can continue to hit lefties well, he'd be a natural fit to assume the Twins' fourth-outfielder role, with the ability to spell Max Kepler, Trevor Larnach or Kirilloff against lefties. That's a role currently held by Jake Cave, who owns a .599 OPS since the start of 2020 as a less natural fit due to his left-handed bat.
LHP Lewis Thorpe
Thorpe has now returned to the rotation in Triple-A St. Paul (albeit on a limited pitch count) following his recovery from a left shoulder strain that sidelined him for two months. It's likely that the former top prospect will find himself back in the big leagues when health permits, because the Twins don't have much time to evaluate his ability to fit into their future pitching plans.
The 25-year-old left-hander had two forgettable stints for the Twins in 2019 and '20 but created buzz this February when he reported to Spring Training with a better body and more zip to his fastball. But that was nowhere to be seen in his four big league outings during the regular season, which he self-reported as dead arm, before he hit the sidelines with the shoulder issue.
The time is now or never for Thorpe, who received a fourth Minor League option before this season and has used it in 2021 -- but the Twins likely haven't had a chance to use this extra time for meaningful evaluation considering the injury. He'll have to break camp with the team in '22 or not at all, and even if he only gets a handful of starts in the remainder of this season, those data points could be as telling as any, especially since the Twins have no shortage of young starters near the Major League level in their pipeline.
UTIL Nick Gordon
Gordon is down in the Minor Leagues again, working to get consistent at-bats and touch up his ability to play around the diamond, with more of an emphasis on shortstop, third base and left field after the Twins primarily used him at second base and center field, which he had to learn on the fly due to the Twins' decimated depth.
This will likely be his last chance to lean on a Minor League stint for that development, because he, like Thorpe, will also be out of options following this season and need to break camp with the 2022 Twins if he'll hope to stay on the roster.
At age 25, Gordon is no longer the top prospect once selected No. 5 overall in the 2014 Draft, but with his hit tool and athleticism, it's clear that the Twins hope that by expanding his defensive skillset, they hope he can impact the team moving forward by trending towards a super-utility option who can fill in around the infield and outfield.
They have so far shied away from using him at shortstop in the big leagues -- an important part of that utility toolkit -- and it'll be important for him to use these two months and the upcoming spring to get to a point where the Twins feel more comfortable with him away from second and center.
RHP Kenta Maeda
Maeda stands out from the others on this list because he's not a youngster jostling for a roster spot, but his performance in the remainder of 2021 could also help the Twins determine the path for their immediate future.
The Twins' lineup shouldn't be much of a question in 2022 and beyond. It's a productive group now, and it will likely improve as the rookies in the group gain more experience. Minnesota's ability to contend moving forward will depend on its ability to pull together a workable pitching staff, and seeing as Maeda is the only veteran starter on contract beyond this season, how the team views him could be significant.
Is Maeda the ace and AL Cy Young Award runner-up they saw in 2020? Was his volatility at the start of '21 a product of his injuries, or was '20 simply the outlier? In essence, is he a front-line starter around whom the Twins can build a playoff rotation, or will they need much more help than that? Should they try to trade him this offseason? They'll have to determine that in the coming months.