When the Orioles played and got swept by the Twins just before the All-Star Break, the two teams were both right in the thick of the Wild Card race in the American League. A month later, the Orioles have surpassed the Twins, but with a four game series coming up this weekend, if the O's don't play their best, they could stumble right back out of the picture and let the Twins back into it.
Minnesota was not expected to offer much in the way of contention when the year began. Have they about come to the end of their surprising contention or do they have what it takes to walk back through the door? To get some thoughts on this Minnesota team, I checked in with Andrew Bryzgonia, a fellow blogger on Twinkie Town, SB Nation's Twins blog. You can find my thoughts on the Orioles on their site.
Mark: The Twins have been surprisingly hanging around in the wild card spots and near them for a while, though those hopes seem to be growing more dim in a tough 6-12 August. Do you hold any hope that they'll get the ship turned back around? What would that take?
Andrew: I tend to be more of a realist as a Twins fan, so I don't see the team turning this around this year. Even though they were doing well prior to the All-Star break, the offense and pitching were below-average, but were the beneficiaries of clutch hitting with men on base and locking down opposing offenses when the games were close.
Now the team has started to regress and they've been playing more like what I expected earlier in the season. However, at this point Twins fans should be pleased if the team finishes around .500, and then the organization can use this as a stepping stone to perhaps become a serious Wild Card contender next year.
Mark: If things are starting to slip into "maybe next year" territory, what IS the outlook for next year? Having Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton lined up must be a nice start, at least.
Andrew: I hinted at this a little already, which is that the Twins are starting to leave their troubles behind. The pitching, which for years had been one of the worst staffs in the majors, has improved into below-average territory (trust me, this has made a huge difference this year). Also, top prospect Jose Berrios should be called up shortly and will likely be a fixture in the rotation next year, which will only make the pitching rotation better. With the right tweaks, this team should be above .500 and fighting for the Wild Card next year.
Sano is currently hitting like he's a major league veteran. His plate discipline has been unbelievable and he has no fear whenever he gets to two strikes in the count. Yes, he strikes out a ton, but he also has the highest walk rate on the team and it's not even close. Meanwhile Buxton did look overmatched earlier this season, but we knew that his bat would be the last tool to arrive in the majors. Orioles fans do get lucky that Aaron Hicks pulled his hammy in the final Yankees game on Wednesday, because Buxton is possibly the best prospect in the majors and Billy Hamilton may be the lone man faster than Buxton in the majors.
For next year, the Twins will need to make some adjustments to the bullpen because they can't simply rely on Kevin Jepsen (a trade deadline pickup) and Glen Perkins. Trevor May should be shifted back to the rotation, and the team will also need to figure out what to do with Trevor Plouffe. He's transformed into one of the better position players on this team, but he's blocking Sano from playing third base, so perhaps Plouffe will be traded in the offseason to help out the relief corp.
Mark: The currently-listed starter for Thursday is Tyler Duffey, a player of whom I must admit I have not heard. What's his story? Do you envision him as having any future with the Twins staff, or is he just some kind of sacrificial lamb as a season falls apart?
Andrew: Don't feel bad, not many Twins fans knew of Duffey as well before his call-up. With the terrible pitching from years past, the Twins undertook a radical experiment of drafting college relievers and turning them into starters. Most have failed but Duffey is one of the success stories, making his major league debut just two and a half years after becoming a full-time starter.
Some Twins fans are a little annoyed with Duffey's presence simply because Jose Berrios is the prospect with higher upside, but Duffey has pitched very well in Triple-A (2.53 ERA, 7.17 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, .221 batting average allowed) and was certainly deserving of his promotion. He throws in the low-90s with a very good curveball, but his numbers look terrible over two starts because his debut came against the vaunted Blue Jays offense in Rogers Centre. His second start was much better as he held the Indians to one hit over 6 innings, though he did hand out far too many walks.
Duffey isn't a lock for the rotation next season unless a bunch of injuries strike, but with a solid finish to the season he should be one of the first starting pitchers to be recalled if needed next season. Another prospect, Alex Meyer, isn't panning out like we hoped so the Twins definitely will need some pitching depth if necessary next year and Duffey could be that guy.
Mark: Pending Orioles free agent Matt Wieters was once hailed as "Joe Mauer with power" as a prospect, although he's never quite managed to turn into even Joe Mauer. Are you and Twins fans generally glad the hometown guy stuck around? What do you think the team will get out of the last few years of his contract now that he's permanently shifted out from behind the dish?
Andrew: Mauer is such a polarizing figure at the moment. His insane 2009 prompted his contract extension, and for the first couple years it appeared to be paying off even if he wasn't hitting 20 home runs again. However, then he had his "bilateral leg weakness" year in 2011 (it really should have just been called "complications from offseason knee surgery") and ever since, he's been a lightning rod for criticism.
Suffering a concussion at the end of the 2013 season prompted his permanent switch to first base, and although he's been just fine defensively, his offensive skills have eroded. He's now hitting like a middle infielder but while earning $23 million a year, so you can understand why Twins fans aren't very pleased with him at the moment.
I'm convinced that his struggles are a combination of him getting older with that 2013 concussion still affecting him as well. I remain hopeful that he'll return to a level that's even 80% of what he did for the first decade of his career, because otherwise he'll be remembered more for being a disappointment after his 2009 MVP year instead of being one of the best hitters in Twins history.
Mark: We're now most of the way through a full season for your new manager, Baseball Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. How do you feel about the job he's done so far? What does he do that drives you crazy? Is there anything you think he does particularly well?
Andrew: Through the first half of the season, Molitor was getting a ton of praise for his management of the team because, well, we couldn't figure out why the team was hitting so well with runners in scoring position and why the bullpen shut down opposing teams in close games. Now that the team has started slipping, the grumblings have started to appear.
Overall though, I've been pleased with his work. He's introduced far more defensive shifts to the infield, plus he's been willing to platoon more than Ron Gardenhire. Also, he's had Glen Perkins pitch more than one inning at a time along with putting him into tie games on the road, which is a huge change in philosophy when Gardy was in charge.
As of right now, I don't think I could say there's much that drives us crazy. We do get frustrated by the excessive playing time for some of the scrubs on this team, but that's been more of a function of roster construction and Molitor trying to do the best with what he has. The team has also been really bad with stolen bases this year (getting thrown out far too often) so that suggests he's been calling for steal attempts at the wrong times.
Mark: If you ask an Orioles fan who was their favorite Oriole it's probably either Cal Ripken Jr. or Brooks Robinson, depending how old they are. Those are boring answers, though - because most people have their unheralded favorites, too. Who's your favorite of the more obscure players in Twins history? What did he do to earn your undying loyalty?
Andrew: You know, my answer has changed over the years. I did have a thing for Tony Fiore - winning 10 games in relief in a single season while wielding a palmball can do that - but I have two answers to this question. Coincidentally, they're both relievers as well. The first is Pat Neshek who endeared me with his funky sidearm delivery. The Twins have had a severe lack of sidearmers and submariners since I became a baseball fan 15 years ago (Micheal Nakamura and Brian Fuentes are the only others I can think of and neither lasted more than a few months) so getting to see Neshek for an extended period was fun.
The other is the most obscure of obscure players... Carmen Cali. There's nothing remarkable about him as he was a terrible LOOGY that I actually forgot about for years. I rediscovered him just a couple months ago and was shocked to see that the majority of his brief career was spent as a Twin, plus I'm simply amused that his name evokes visions of a Jessie James-type pop star more than a baseball player.
I can certainly relate to Andrew's appreciation of Pat Neshek and side-armers generally. One of my early favorite Orioles was Todd Frohwirth, entirely because he was a submariner. I also liked Mark Williamson because his name was Mark, just like me.
So there you have it on the Twins. I don't know about you, but I learned a good bit. Nothing personal to Andrew or any of the Twinkie Town people, but I kinda hope the Orioles find a way to walk out of this series having dealt out their second sweep in the span of the homestand. That would be A-OK.
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