The Baseball Notebook

June 25, 2010 9:06 PM

A Minnesota Meltdown?

Minnesota's lead has quietly melted away in the AL Central, as they are down to a 1/2 game margin on Detroit. Just as alarming, the race is no longer a two-team affair as the still-surging White Sox have closed to 2.5 of first place. The Twins aren't playing horribly, but this is not a high point of their season as they are 4-6 in their last ten and now have the fifth-best record in the AL, behind Texas and the East's Big Three. Let's give them a closer look and see what the odds are of Target Field getting playoff action in the first year of its existence.

The Twins's strength is their offense, keyed by the incomparable Joe Mauer, and the almost-as-great Justin Morneau. The latter is posting huge numbers, with a .623 slugging percentage. Mauer's numbers don't dazzle the same way--.387 OBP and .445 slugging--but I use the greater superlatives with him because the value he gives the Twins by producing like that from the catching position, a spot most teams have to just try and cut their losses. The M&M boys get solid support from Orlando Hudson, Jason Kubel and Denard Span, who are pretty steady at getting on base. And Delmon Young not only gets on base, but has some pop of his own. It gets even better for the Twins, when you consider that Jim Thome gets a decent chunk of at-bats at DH and is as reliable as ever, and Michael Cuddyer has shown the capacity to do more than what he's done to this point. Runs aren't going to be a problem as the season grinds on. Nor will fundamentals, as this club is traditionally one of the best drilled in the game at the basics.

Pitching is the problem in the Twin Cities. Francisco Liriano's having a very nice year at the top with a 3.11 ERA and Carl Pavano's been effective behind him at 3.64. But the remaining trio of Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey have been shaky. Thus far, the offense seems to play to the level of their starting pitcher as W-L records are comparable up and down the rotation, but it can't cover up the fact that Minnesota's got two problems. The first is that at least one of the bottom three needs to step it up. The second is that anytime Carl Pavano is mentioned as your #2 guy, you have problems. I think it safe to say that no one in the Bronx is exactly fearful about facing him in the playoffs.

Internal improvement can bring about what's necessary to win another Central crown, and Blackburn, Baker and Slowey all have the track records that suggest they're capable. I think the bigger question the front office has to address is whether they want to make a deal for another starter--Cliff Lee comes to mind, that would be a big-time ace in October. That sort of trade would all but seal the division and give them a real shot at winning the World Series. Of course it would also cost them dearly in prospects, and Minnesota doesn't have the resources to just buy up free agents. It's the conundrum small-market teams face and it will be interesting to see how the Twins answer it. For now, I see them as the top team in the Central. And while they'd still be an underdog in October, the gap is smaller than what it was last fall. Not bad for the game's most overachieving franchise.

It's been so long since Minnesota closer Joe Nathan was lost for the year in spring training that we almost forget to mention him. But his injury not only left a void in the Twins' pen, but in the All-Star race for American League closers, which we'll look at today.

Nathan, along with Boston's Jonathan Papelbon had developed into the most consistent challengers to the throne held by New York's Mariano Rivera. Not only is Nathan hurt, but Papelbon is not pitching well, having blown three saves already and sitting on an ERA of 3.98. So the door is open for new challengers.

Jon Rauch has done a nice job in filling in for Nathan, and it's not so much the closer spot per se that's weaker in the Twin Cities, but the depth overall, as Rauch had to be moved out of setup. Texas is getting excellent work from Neftali Feliz, who's 20-of-22 on his chances with a 2.78 ERA. But when it comes to pure shutdown capability, no one's touching Detroit's Jose Valverde, who's sitting on an 0.57 ERA. Rivera is his usual brilliant self, but if the season ended today, he'd have to play second fiddle to the new man in Motown.

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