The Twins were expected to go head-to-head with the White Sox this season and push for their third consecutive AL Central title. Tonight, they play their 50th game of the season, and already, there are some writers (it was me) who have left the Twins for dead. Just a few days ago I put the question to the steadfast readers over at MLB Trade Rumors: Should the Twins sell? Over 67 percent of 7,000+ contributing readers thought the time was now for the Twins to pull the plug and start shopping their available veterans.
I hate to say it, but they’re right.
It was Twins’ GM Thad Levine who prompted the question with his recent comments, as reported by MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand. Levin said, among other things, “We think it’s very talented, but we’re getting close to an inflection point where we’re going to need to see some more sustained momentum, as we believe we’re in a very competitive division, let alone league.” Even with a four game winning streak heading into Friday night’s action, the Twins were ahead of only the Orioles and Tigers in the American League.
They are 20-30 before Saturday’s contest when they will play their 51st game of the season. And while 50 games is no longer a small sample, they still have 112 games left to go. There is time to right the ship. It’s easy to panic early in the season, but even a couple of days can make a huge difference. I wrote that piece for MLBTR five days ago, at which point the Twins were 9.5 games out of first and 11 games out of a wild card spot. They’re still nine and a half games behind the White Sox in the AL Central, but they’ve made up some ground in the wild card race, now trailing by 8.5 games. It’s not going to be a cakewalk, but the Twins are not done.
Remember the Nationals, who at 19-31 on May 24, 2019, gave hopes to all those slow starters by rebounding for a 93-win season and a world championship. The Houston Astros in 2005 started out even worse at 18-32, and they made it to the World Series as well before falling to the White Sox. But of course, it’s easy to remember the outliers.
With the loss yesterday against the Royals, they would have the worst record through 50 games of any team in the Wild Card Era to win their division (should they recover to win the division). Which is to say, they’d be the first to recover from this kind of start to win their division. It’s not likely.
There have, however, been six teams with 21 wins or less through 50 games to come back and win a wild card spot. The playoffs are not entirely out of reach.
And yet, it’s time for the Twins to really look themselves in the mirror: is this a special group? It needs to be a special group if they’re going to recover to make the playoffs.
The two teams who have made the biggest in-season turnaround to make the playoffs are the aforementioned 2005 Astros and 2019 Nationals. The common denominator for those two teams: insanely reliable front-of-the-rotation arms. The Nats aren’t hard to remember, as Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin led that club to a title. Maybe in retrospect – given the injuries that have followed that magical run – that trio doesn’t seem like the most reliable set of arms, but at the time, they were (largely) healthy, and they were on their games.
’19 Nationals #1-3 Starters After 50 Games
The Astros, as well, had an otherworldly group of starters to lean on to keep them in game on a game-in, game-out basis. You might remember these guys.
’05 Astros #1-3 Starters After 50 Games
The Twins have a deep lineup, an MVP-caliber centerpiece in Byron Buxton, and some interesting young players like Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach joining an already deep lineup. What they don’t have is a starting staff like the Nationals or Astros of yore.
When fully healthy, the Twins have three solid arms to lean on at the front of their rotation: Kenta Maeda, José Berríos, and Michael Pineda. That may be a rotation capable of getting a team to the playoffs under normal circumstances, the hole the Twins have dug for themselves is the definition of an abnormal circumstance.
If Maeda remains on the injured list, close the book. They need him. Randy Dobnak, J.A. Happ, and Matt Shoemaker are going to provide palatable production at best from the back half of Minnesota’s rotation. Those guys aren’t going to be capable of the consistent efforts like the Nats and Astros got from their staffs.
Maeda was a Cy Young candidate in 2020 when he showed himself capable of the type of production the Twins will need. He made 11 starts with a 2.70 ERA/3.00 FIP across 66 2/3 innings. Minnesota needs those numbers for more like 20 starts, and that’s something Maeda hasn’t done in his ML career. Still, it’s feasible. But he’d have to get healthy – fast.
Berríos owns a tantalizing arm, and there’s long been the belief that he has the ability to reach another level. But it hasn’t happened yet. In 10 starts this season, he has a 3.67 ERA/3.26 FIP, which would both be career lows were he to maintain at that level for the rest of the season. That gets him kinda close to the numbers put up in ’19 by Strasburg and Corbin, but at the far tail end.
Pineda, like Berríos, has been better in eight starts this season than we’re used to seeing from him. He owns a 3.95 ERA/3.55 FIP for his career, but the past eight games is the best we’ve seen of Pineda since early in 2015.
It’s not a great sign that two of the Twins top three starters have been better than usual, and they’re still where they are in the standings. They simply can’t expect to get a whole lot more from their rotation than they’ve gotten so far. If anything, there’s a better chance than not that Pineda and Berríos perform a little worse throughout the rest of the season than they have thus far. And with Maeda hurt, there’s not telling how quickly or effectively he’ll be able to get himself back on track.
The Nats and Astros literally had Hall-of-Fame performers driving their comebacks. Strasburg has Hall of Fame talent, but he might not be healthy enough to put up the long-term production. Corbin isn’t a Hall of Famer, but he has at least a year or two of near-ace production. The other four pitchers – Scherzer, Clemens, Oswalt, Pettitte – are Hall worthy or at least had Hall-worthy peaks. These are studs. Aces. Full stop.
The Twins don’t have that kind of rotation. There are other ways to win baseball games, of course. The Twins might have an otherworldly offense, capable of leading a .700 winning percentage kind of run. But in the past, a comeback like what the Twins need has come via a star-studded rotation that the Twins do not have.
We can’t entirely write off the Twins after 50 games. But the teams that have pulled themselves out of this kind of hole in the past have had a very particular construction. It’s not a slight to say the Twins don’t have a Hall of Fame rotation. It’s the facts.
Based on these facts, it’s time to bet against the Twins.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (JustParaDesigns on Twitter)