Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr, former Times intern Logan Marxhausen and sports fan Ben Johnson. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: After 34 games the Minnesota Twins are 17-17 and just two-and-one-half games out of first place in the Central Division heading into this week’s home stands against the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox. After that Minnesota embarks on a nine-game road swing against Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee. At this point last year the Twins were 9-24 and nine games out of first place. The team’s 2013 start has surprised many “experts,” as many predicted the Twins were headed for another 90-loss season. Analyze what’s right and what’s wrong with the Twins so far.
-Dorr: What’s right is the pitching of Pittsburgh castoff Kevin Correia (4-2, 3.09 ERA) and the relief pitching by at least six relievers, especially Brian Duensing, Jared Burton and Glen Perkins. On the offensive side Justin Morneau, despite a lack of homers, has become quite the RBI man, with Oswaldo Arcia chipping in with some big hits. What’s wrong is that six starters are hitting .239 or lower. The Twins are not likely to keep winning regularly with that kind of performance. But there have been different heroes on many nights and maybe that’s the way this team will be in 2013. Starting pitchers Vance Worley and Mike Pelfrey have not been very good, although Pelfrey has been better lately. Check these stats and see if you think the Twins are doing it with smoke and mirrors: The staff ERA is 11th among AL teams, the batting average against of .286 is second worst among the 15 teams, and their team strikeout total is, by far, worst among the 15 teams. On offense their team batting average is 10th,they’re 9th in runs scored and 13th in homers. And still they’re 18-17 after Monday night. So, will the bubble burst or will they do even better when some of those statistics get better?
-Marxhausen: There is a lot to be said for a team that was supposedly going to be in last place all season but is now close to the Central Division lead. What is going right for the Twins now is that their bullpen is carrying the load for nearly half the game. In the Baltimore series alone, not one of Minnesota’s starting pitchers made it to the seventh inning, with the longest completion being Mike Pelfrey’s six full innings (Vance Worley went five and one-third and Scott Diamond lasted five and two-thirds). The bullpen has carried too much of the load and that makes it difficult to utilized those pitchers in upcoming games because they were overworked in the previous games. Along with those irregularities in pitching there are also irregularities in hitting. The consistency of the hitters is what is wrong, but the Twins have been able to score more than a few runs in some of their victories. When watching the Twins, their wins are not nail-bitters that finish 1-0 or 2-1, but rather like the win against the White Sox on Monday, 10-3. The bats are there, but it is the timing of the hits that is key in the victories.
-Larson: Count me among those who predicted the Twins were headed for 90-plus losses. And, I’m still not convinced that they won’t hit that mark, even with their impressive start. The starting pitching has been decent for the most part, the bullpen has been good for the most part, Joe Mauer has been hitting well and….that’s about it. You could add that the Twins have received timely hits from unlikely sources like Oswaldo Arcia, Wilkin Ramirez, Pedro Florimon and Eduardo Escobar. And, Justin Morneau is driving in runs.
A stat to keep an eye on is the team’s home attendance numbers. After 16 dates, the team was trailing its 2012 mark by 68,222. Certainly the poor spring weather has affected attendance, but that can’t entirely be blamed for the drop. On Monday against the White Sox the attendance was just 25,605 (39,021 is capacity). And the weather was pretty good Monday night. I think many fans decided this wasn’t going to be a good year to hang out at Target Field and they’re waiting to see if the team’s 2013 success continues. If it doesn’t attendance totals for the season will take a big hit.
-Johnson: I had the Twins losing 100 games this year and I have been pleasantly surprised at their success thus far. If you look at team stats among all of the MLB teams, you will find the Twins somewhere in the bottom 33 per cent in almost all categories in hitting and the bottom 10 per cent in all categories in pitching. The Twins’ pitching staff is 29th in the majors in quality starts, 29th in opponents’ average, and last in the majors in strikeouts. The Twins lineup is 27th in home runs, 27th in stolen bases, and 25th in extra-base hits. It is remarkable that they are above .500. Where are the wins coming from? The team’s success thus far stems from timely hitting, a great bullpen, and good defense. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have been on fire at the plate. When these two are hot at the same time, the Twins can win games regardless of what the starting rotation does. With that being said, I think their rotation is still in shambles. I figured once the first few series got underway a few of the starters would begin to prove worthy of being a Major League starter. As the season stands, the only pitcher that should have any sense of job security in the rotation is Kevin Correia (4-2 with a 3.09 ERA). Pitching coach Rick Anderson will earn his pay this season.
•Question: Do you feel the Twins will continue to play at a .500, or reasonably close to .500, pace? Or, do you think the team will sink as the season goes on?
-Dorr: A reader/critic reminded me last week that I had picked the Twins to finish 81-81 and wanted to know if I would stand by that prediction. He said he thought it would be more like 70-92. That may still be the case but the Twins are definitely a better team than last year. As I said above, the starting pitching has been good at times and not so good other times. Former Phillie Vance Worley has to pick it up considerably for the Twins to stay near .500 (and probably for him to stay in the rotation). The offense has to be better and it has been a little better lately, although Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham have to start sharing the RBI load. You say Mauer is hitting .343? Yes he is but he has only 13 RBIs. Trevor Plouffe (.239) has 14, Aaron Hicks (.152) has 15, Ryan Doumit (.215) has 16, rookie Oswaldo Arcia in 60 fewer at-bats has 12, and part-time light-hitting shortstop Pedro Florimon has 10 in 70 fewer at-bats. I think the offense will eventually provide enough runs to stay near .500 but the pitching will have to be better to make that happen. The team likely will fall or rise on the strength, or lack of, starting pitching.
-Marxhausen: It is entirely up to the Twins how they handle this season. They have benefitted greatly from lack of injuries to the lineup and have had time to build team chemistry as well as improve from the start of the season. Aaron Hicks came into the game against the White Sox batting .137 with only five multi-base hits in 117 plate appearances, but Monday night he not only robbed Adam Dunn of a home run, but hit two himself in his first-ever multi-hit game. The players have the ability to have career nights, but they need to be able to pick each other up as the season progress. The Twins will remain at the .500 pace for awhile. They want to prove the “experts” wrong and that they are capable of having a winning season.
-Larson: Look for the team’s record to steadily drop below .500 between now and mid-July, then dip more rapidly after that as the pitching arms wear down. For the team to avoid a big slump, Morneau needs to keep driving in runs, Mauer has to start driving in runs and Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe, Ryan Doumit, Chris Parmelee, Aaron Hicks and Brian Dozier need to make much larger contributions to the offense than they have so far.
-Johnson: The biggest question mark coming into the season was the starting rotation and that question mark still remains. Every starter in the rotation seems to have fallen into a cycle of having one good start and then two terrible starts. The Twins will have to find consistency in their rotation because their lineup and bullpen will not sustain the success they have had so far. Once the starting rotation starts to put together a number of quality starts from at least four of their starters, then look for me to jump on the playoff bandwagon.
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