Six weeks after many of us wrote off the season as a lost cause, the Minnesota Twins begin the second half today only 6-1/2 games out of first place in the American League Central Division despite a 41-48 record that ranks as the fourth-worst in the league.
You know it’s a weird season when the Pirates enter the All-Star Break with a better record than the Twins, and two of the three teams ahead of the Twins in the division race have already fired coaches. Detroit dumped pitching coach Rick Knapp, and Cleveland replaced hitting coach Joe Nunnally.
It will be intriguing to see whether general manager Bill Smith adds or subtracts players in the coming weeks, especially given the tough payroll decisions he faces this off-season. In light of that, we offer Five Twins to Watch in the second half, folks whose play may determine where the Twins commit discretionary dollars in 2012.
Two weeks ago, Nishioka was a wreck at shortstop. Now he looks comfortable and capable. What happened?
Talks with manager Ron Gardenhire and extra work on the field, beginning with the late June series in Milwaukee, helped Nishioka regain his confidence at the position where he won two Gold Gloves in five years in Japan. Gardenhire thought Nishioka was rushing, so he told him to look grounders into his glove. Fielders are supposed to do that anyway. But it slowed Nishioka down, allowing him to stay balanced and in front of the ball.
Although Nishioka lacks a great arm, Gardenhire said he’s learning when he needs to cut loose. Gardenhire and bench coach Scott Ullger direct Nishioka from the dugout where to play hitters, and Gardenhire trusts Nishioka to decide whether he or second baseman Alexi Casilla should cover second on ground balls with a runner at first. (Before every pitch, Nishioka picks up the catcher’s sign for location, brings his glove to his face and signals Casilla with an expression, usually an open or closed mouth. The infielder on the side where the batter is likely to hit the ball is supposed to hold his position.)
“I’m pretty excited about it, because he’s paying attention,” Gardenhire said. “A lot of times, when you tell a guy something basic like looking the ball into your glove, you get, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m a Gold Glove winner.’ But he’s paying attention, and he wants to learn.”
It helps that Nishioka’s grasp of English improves every day. Pitcher Brian Duensing said Nishioka understands enough to communicate on the field and cheer from the dugout. And his teammates have his back. When asked about Nishioka’s improvement, Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer insisted he never looked shaky, but just wasn’t making plays. Whatever, but Nishioka needs to be reliable the rest of the way or the Twins will be looking for a shortstop for the fourth time in five years.
It’s hard to imagine the Twins trading their guttiest player, clubhouse leader and only All-Star, especially if they stay in contention deep into August. But Cuddyer, a free agent after this season, might be the most marketable non-pitcher on the roster.
Cuddyer is making $10.5 million in the last year of his three-year deal and, at 32, stands smack at the cutoff age where the Twins hesitate to offer long-term extensions. That Cuddyer has been the only one of the regulars injured in spring training to stay healthy and productive complicates matters.
There could be wide interest in the versatile Cuddyer, especially among National League teams like Atlanta. The Braves need another right-handed bat with Dan Uggla underperforming, and might be willing to part with someone from one of baseball’s deepest bullpens. Braves special assistant Jim Fregosi rarely comes to Minneapolis, but showed up here shortly after a Braves’ advance scout made a scheduled stop to see Texas.
Thing is, with so many hitters injured or struggling, the Twins need Cuddyer so badly that there will be a clubhouse rebellion if he is dealt. More likely, the Twins will wait until the off-season to choose between Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, another free agent who is three years younger, to play right field. Cuddyer prefers to stay in Minnesota. A big second half could convince the Twins he’s worth it.
Expected back any day after missing more than a month with a concussion, Span may have prolonged his recovery by not being honest with the team’s medical staff. Span complained mainly of a sore neck after a home plate collision June 4 in Cleveland. Two days later, he talked his way into the lineup and went 0-for-4.
“I just wanted to try to play,” Span said. “That’s the kind of player I am.”
It didn’t take long for Span to realize his mistake. After Span made an out early in the game, hitting coach Joe Vavra asked what kind of pitch he swung at. Span had no clue. “I remembered being up at the plate,” Span said, “but I didn’t remember anything else.”
Span’s absence enabled Ben Revere to prove himself a major-leaguer, at least defensively. Revere reaches more balls than Span, which is critical in a big park like Target Field. Revere’s weak arm may be less of an issue at Target Field because the ball carries poorly straightaway, encouraging confident centerfielders to play shallow. (Watch where Curtis Granderson, the ex-Tiger, positions himself when the Yankees are here next month.)
So where does that leave Span? Probably back in center for now. But Revere has shown enough to argue for the job next spring, and Span’s future here may hinge on how other payroll decisions play out. He’s a bargain at $3 million next year, the third of his five-year $16.5 million deal. Span offers better range in left or right than Cuddyer, Kubel and Delmon Young, although without their power. What do the Twins want out of left field? If it’s speed and defense behind a pitch-to-contact staff, that favors Span.
How often Mauer plays first base the rest of the way may predict what happens with Cuddyer, who has been the primary fill-in for Justin Morneau since 2009. If Mauer plays there regularly, and with proficiency, that’s one less reason to keep Cuddyer.
Mauer’s defense, particularly his throwing, will be monitored closely by advance scouts in this opening 12-game home stand against A.L. Central opponents. Will more teams presume he’s banged up and try to run on him?
Nathan’s future is intertwined with Matt Capps, who despite his recent struggles remains attractive to other teams. Two scouts I spoke to recently asked whether the Twins might deal Capps, who, like Nathan, will be a free agent after this season. Neither mentioned Nathan, who is still trying to regain velocity and form after Tommy John surgery. The Twins hold a $12.5 million option on Nathan for next year with a $2 million buyout; Capps’ $7.15 million contract has no 2012 option.
If the Twins wouldn’t pay $5 million a year to bring back even one of their four free-agent setup relievers, it’s hard to see them committing $20 million to two potential closers. The bullpen, even with the emergence of Glen Perkins, is still too thin for the Twins to risk trading Capps. Unless that changes, Capps and Nathan will be auditioning for 2012.