This is not where the Minnesota Twins want to be. This is not where the Twins expected to be. This, quite frankly, is not where the Twins should be.
But at the all-star break, this is where the Twins are: Sporting a 39-50 record, they are 15 games out the division lead. They’re tied for third in the five-team American League Central with the Tigers — and they’re that high only after sweeping Detroit in a four-game series last week to cap off the first half of the season. They’re well out of playoff contention.
It has been a first half filled with injuries and disappointment for the Twins, but July should provide plenty of intrigue as the Twins make moves before the trade deadline. Before that happens, here’s a look at three things that have gone right for the Twins and three that have gone wrong:
What went right
Nelson Cruz’s aging: Before relief pitcher Taylor Rogers was a late addition to the AL all-star team, 41-year-old designated hitter Nelson Cruz was on pace to be the Twins’ lone representative at Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic in Denver.
It was his seventh all-star nod, and he more than deserved it after hitting .304 with a .381 on-base percentage and .549 slugging percentage in the first half of the season. Cruz’s OPS currently sits at .930, and his 18 home runs lead the team.
Cruz has often said he feels younger than his age, and his results on the field have shown that. While the numbers took a slight dip in May, particularly after being hit by a pitch in the wrist, Cruz has rebounded from that and put up the offensive showing the Twins have come to expect from him, regardless of his age.
But while Cruz has been productive — and the offense as a whole largely has, too — he’s found his name swirling in trade rumors lately as a veteran on an expiring contract who could step in and help a contending team.
Emergence of young players: The Twins have plenty of innings and at-bats to give to young prospects — and there should be even more to come once the July 30 trade deadline passes.
In his first taste of the big leagues, Alex Kirilloff, who has been shifting between the corner outfield spots and first base, has hit .265 with a .315 on-base percentage and .450 slugging percentage. He has hit eight home runs and driven in 34 runs in his 54 games. Fellow top prospect Trevor Larnach has shown off his patient approach, and has batted .247 since he was first called up in May.
Nick Gordon, once a top prospect whose career was slowed by health issues, finally debuted and has helped infuse some speed into the lineup. He also has provided some added value by adapting quickly to center field, a new position for him.
The Twins also have had a chance to get an extended look at Bailey Ober, who joined the starting rotation when the Twins shifted Matt Shoemaker to the bullpen. Ober has shown promising flashes, including a scoreless, five-inning outing against the White Sox earlier this month during which he picked up his first career win in the big leagues.
Byron Buxton’s breakout: It probably would have been safe to say that Byron Buxton was a star before this season began.
But Buxton certainly raised his profile and cemented his star status early in the season with an electrifying month of April, both in the field and at the plate. For his efforts, Buxton was named the American League’s Player of the Month.
He drew the attention of fans across the country, nearly being elected an all-star game starter despite missing ample time with injury. Buxton lost out on the all-star opportunity on the last day of voting by fewer than 5,000 votes.
Buxton currently is hitting .369 with a .409 on-base percentage and .767 slugging percentage, and he transforms the team whenever he steps on the field. His OPS is at 1.176. And his WAR, per FanGraphs, still leads the team at 2.7 despite playing in just 27 games.
What went wrong
Injuries, injuries and more injuries: Buxton’s season, more than anyone’s, has been marred by injuries. The Twins’ center fielder suffered a Grade 2 hip strain in early May that kept him off the field for three weeks.
Three days after he returned, he was hit by a pitch on the left hand, suffering a boxer’s fracture in June, a devastating blow both for the outfielder and the team in a season filled with injuries.
Teams around the league have been hit particularly hard by injuries, and the Twins have been no exception. Catcher Mitch Garver has been out for more than a month after being struck in the groin by a foul tip, requiring emergency surgery. Along with Buxton, Max Kepler, Luis Arraez, Michael Pineda, Caleb Thielbar, Kyle Garlick and Rob Refsnyder have all required two separate IL stints this season.
Josh Donaldson strained his hamstring during his very first at-bat of the season, Miguel Sanó was also forced off the field with a hamstring strain, Kirilloff had a wrist issue … and the list goes on and on.
Center field and starting pitching depth have been stretched exceptionally thin at different points this season. Starting options Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe are all currently on the IL. The spread of COVID-19 earlier this season within the clubhouse also knocked four players off the field for a period of time — three who tested positive, one who was a close contact.
Free-agent pitchers: Looking to shore up a rotation that had lost multiple starters and bolster their bullpen, one that had been one of the best in the league a season ago, the Twins added four veteran pitchers to their staff via free agency this offseason.
Those signings have not worked out as anticipated.
The Twins brought in Hansel Robles first on a low-risk one-year, $2 million deal. Robles has been the best of the bunch, converting nine of 11 save opportunities, but his control has been shaky this season, issuing 5.1 walks per nine innings. His earned-run average sits at 4.15.
Robles has seen some of those save opportunities in the place of Alexander Colomé, who the Twins brought in this offseason to help shore up the back of the bullpen. That move hasn’t worked out since the very start of the season when Colomé’s blown save led the Twins to a tough 6-5 loss in Milwaukee right off the bat.
Colomé had an 8.31 ERA after the month of April and the situation had gotten so untenable that the Twins removed him from high-leverage situations almost entirely.
Planned improvements to the starting staff have not worked out, either. In fact, Shoemaker’s outings in Minnesota were so ineffective that the Twins eventually designated him for assignment. He is now on the Triple-A Saints’ roster.
In one game, Shoemaker gave up nine runs (eight earned) while recording just one out against the Royals. Following that start, the Twins removed him from the rotation. At the time they DFA’d him, he had an 8.06 ERA and was 3-8.
The Twins also brought in J.A. Happ on a one-year, $8 million deal. The veteran had a 1.95 ERA after the month of April but was hit hard in May and June and sports a 5.90 ERA at the break.
The bullpen: Turning games over to the bullpen has been an adventure this season — and not always the good, fun kind of adventure. The Twins’ bullpen was a particular strong suit last season. It has been one of the worst in the majors this year.
Colomé’s early-season struggles forced everyone else up the leverage ladder, and aside from Rogers, whose season earned him his first all-star nod, it’s been often hard to come by clean innings for the Twins.
The Twins have had a particular challenge stranding inherited runners, and while that number has come down from the astronomical heights it was at earlier in the season, the Twins’ bullpen still has let in 56 percent of inherited runners. League average is 35 percent.
At the break, the bullpen’s collective ERA is 4.91, which is 25th in the league. That number was at 3.38 last year, sixth in the majors.