Here it is, the end of the All-Star break and a return to the baseball season. The AL Central has had its' detractors, and presently the Detroit Tigers are leading both the White Sox and the Twins by a handful of games. Detroit will begin the 2nd half in New York, while Chicago begins with the Orioles at home. The Twins will travel to Texas for a warm series before facing the White Sox in a crucial series. Still, it is a little early to think any one set of games is vital in July.
These three teams have emerged as the contenders from the pack of five. The Cleveland Indians have tanked from the get-go, with a lack of good starting pitching, bullpen support, and any resemblance of consistent hitting. Having Grady Sizemore hurt and/or not playing well has impacted this club. The Royals started fast and then faded. It would not be outside the realm of possibilities to see them make a run in the late season, as they seem better equipped at this point than the Indians, and none of the three teams above has been projected to run away with the division.
Minnesota has begun to solidify a starting lineup...
Outfielder Denard Span has been cemented in the leadoff spot. He is hitting .292 at the break in just over 70 games. He is tied for the team lead with 50 runs. His .381 OBP is 4th on the team.
Infielder Brendan Harris has gotten hot, and has held the 2-spot for a week or two. The recent call up of Casilla suggests this spot is not permanent, though Harris has performed better than the others from this position in the batting order. He is batting .275 on the season, but his strikeout ratio (56 in 273 ABs) is a little high for Harris to be considered secure. Harris can play 2nd, shortstop, or third depending on who starts.
Catcher Joe Mauer is batting third, and has the highest batting average in MLB. At over .370, he has been phenomenal since his late start from injury. the only criticism from some Twins fans is that they feel Mauer should bat 2nd. Otherwise, he is the hometown hero.
First Baseman Justin Morneau holds the cleanup spot, and holds it well. He is batting .311, with 21 HRs and 70 RBI, on pace for somewhere around 40 HRs and 140 RBI. He has to be considered for league MVP. The only negative here is that the Twins have been suspect to lefty starters and relievers, as the beef of the lineup is all lefty.
Designated Hitter / Outfielder Jason Kubel has been batiting 5th, or 6th in the lineup. Again, three lefties are not always a good thing, but Kubel has outhit the competition for the 5 spot. He is tied with Morneau for 2nd best BA in the regular lineup at .311. He has added 14 HRs and 45 RBI despite sitting about every five games. His improved slugging means the Twins appear to have a shot at 5 hitters with 25-30 HRs.
Outfielder Michael Cuddyer has been batting here, though he is competing with fellow outfielders Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young for playing time. Cuddyer seems to have the edge over the other two, as he has over 100 ABs more than each. So far cuddy looks on-track for near 30-100, which would mean he has finally delivered on his promise of 2006. At .273 he is hitting near his career average of .269, though his defense has shown some troubles for the first time in a long while.
Third Baseman Joe Crede has been a nice addition to the need for power the Twins have had. He is hitting only .234, but no one seems to mind as he has brought a bigger bat to third than has been seen in a long time in Minnesota. His defense is good, and with 14 HRs and 40 RBI in only 68 games, the future looks bright .. if he can stay healthy.
Outfielder Carlos Gomez has recently begun to hit well, and has taken playing time away from Young. he is the best of outfielders defensively, and often is a replacement for Young late in games. Thisis demonstrated by his 77 game total with only 187 ABs. He is hitting a mere .235 with only 2 HRs. Delmon Young is getting better all the time, just beginning to show signs of being selective at the plate. Young is up to .266, but has only 3 HRs in a few more ABs than Gomez. The upside appears much larger for Young, but fans grow impatient with his lack of patience at the plate, and a history of poor defense.
Shortstop Nick Punto is probably the player most under the microscope. His .201 BA is the reason Alexi Casilla has been recalled, and his pension for sliding into first, injuries, and lack of any power have fans crying for his removal. But Casilla's .180 average suggest this issue is unresolved at this time. in 2006, Punto batted .290 in everyday play. He is a contact hitter, and can draw walks as his .319 OBP is higher than Crede, Young, Casilla, Harris, Gomez, and Redmond. But letting Jose Morales go back to AAA is a sign managment wants something better.
The reserves include Brian Buscher, along with the aforementioned Redmond, Young, and Casilla. Both Matt Tolbert and Morales have been recently sent down, the latter for an additional pitcher. The bench is not a strength for the Twins, as the best PHer in the group was probably Morales. With the outfield depth, the resting player may take on that role down the stretch ... OK, except for Gomez.
The pitching appears to be on the road to recovery, the starters looked semi-solid, while Joe Nathan continues to dominate the closer role. Middle relief, of course, is the 'elephant under the carpet'. Nick Blackburn has been outstanding, leading the staff in innings pitched, 2nd in wins, and tops in ERA among starters at 3.06. Kevin Slowey is temporarily on the DL, but his 10-3 record in 16 starts is impressive. His ERA is too high at 4.85, but the 5 to 1 ratio of strikeouts to walks has played a major part in his success. Scott Baker is quickly improving his statistics, after a rough start beginning with a DL stint. Baker is 7-7, with an ERA of 5.42. But his lifetime ERA is a full run better, and last year he was 11-4 with an ERA of 3.45. If he returns to this form (as expected) Minnesota becomes much more capable of winning the AL Central. Francisco Liriano is 4-9 with an ERA of 5.47 in 18 starts. He has averaged less than 6 innings a start and worries are that he will never return to his pre-injury form. Remember in 2006 he was 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA. But there has been a few positive sings his last handful fo starts. Glen Perkins is presently the 5th slot, with a 4-5 record, with an ERA of 4.71 in 13 starts. He too was injured during the 2009 campaign. Last year he was 12-4 with a 4.41, so better times should be ahead. Anthony Swarzak is filling in for Slowey, and may get a few starts to prove himself. He had an up and down start to his career in his first call up, highlighted by a solid game versus the Cubs. But at 2-3, with a 4.50 ERA he is probably headed back to AAA soon.
The bullpen is scary still. After Nathan, there is so many question marks. Bobby Keppel, Jose Mijares, and Matt Guerrier have been excellent to date, but only Guerrier has any experience that suggests the success will last. R.A. Dickey has come back to earth after carrying the pen for most of the first half of the season. He is extra valuable to the pen in that he can pitch more frequently with as little damage to his success. Brian Duensing has looked OK, but not enough to keep the Twins from just calling up another player form the Mets deal for Johann Santana in Kevin Mulvey. Minnesota fans are hopeful that he can contribute and take a little more sting out of the loss of Santana from the trade. Mulvey is a starter being expected to offer long relief.
Well, that is it. It should be a competitive second half run for the AL Central. I think we can do it .. it would be real nice to solidify the bullpen with the acquisition of a power arm like the ones on the Oakland Athletics roster. But of course, that would cost the future, something the Twins are reluctant to spend.