Shipley: For 2019 Twins, tinkering might be enough
MINNEAPOLIS — After a surprisingly dominant start, the Twins have settled into simply being one of the best three or four teams in baseball. This is where it really gets fun, high summer with a team headed for the playoffs.
The Twins start a nine-game homestand on Tuesday, June 11, against the Seattle Mariners with the American League Central in their back pocket and a handful of players trending high in All-Star Game balloting.
But there is a flip side. Satisfied that the Twins are good, one looks ahead. From now until the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the circumspect will be assembling the deals that will make the Twins a genuine World Series threat.
The Twins are 22 games over .500 and have a 10 1/2-game division lead, but after 64 games it’s easy to see what the team is missing: relief pitching. The bullpen is weak — 21st in baseball with a combined earned-run average of 4.68 — and they don’t have a closer.
The Twins are hardly alone in this predicament but unique in a potentially fatal way: they have quantifiably the worst bullpen among the three or four best teams in baseball. At some point, this will become a bigger problem. Because the starting rotation has been so good — fourth in baseball with a 3.59 ERA — relievers have pitched only 103 innings. Eight teams have bullpens with at least 131.
So, it could be worse, and will be without changes. No one knows this better than the Twins. No one knows better than their fans that the Twins are much more likely to tinker than remodel. If you weren’t, watching the Cubs throw money at Craig Kimbrel was a solid reminder.
Clearly, the Twins are trying hard to make Taylor Rogers a closer, and it’s been tense — although no more tense than Blake Parker’s save Friday at Detroit. It was Parker’s ninth in 10 tries, but he looked like a man on a tightrope without a pole. It was exhausting just to watch it.
From here it appears they could use another starter, but with their record at 43-21, it’s difficult to quibble. Fifth starter Michael Pineda, the man paid $2 million to rehab last season, might be rounding into shape; he has quality starts in four of his past five appearances. If not, Devin Smeltzer held a potent Milwaukee lineup in check in his MLB debut and appears ready for the big leagues at 23.
On the other hand, the Twins are 4-12 when they score three or fewer runs. Right now they lead the majors in runs scored (382) and runs batted in (369) and are second in home runs (125) — so, you know, phew. But that seems ominous.
Right now, it all does because if the Twins have an overarching weakness, it’s the playoffs, period. They’ve been there seven times in 19 years — four as a division winner — and won one series. In 2002. The best Twins team since then, the 2010 Central Division champion, was swept by the Yankees, part of 16 straight playoff game losses.
This is why fans basking in the glow of 43 victories at mid-June will start fixating on the weaknesses; every blown lead and failure to get a guy home from second will be a sign of rot; every missed cutoff man and dropped third strike a frayed wire ready to burn down the house. They’ll all be the reason the Twins won’t win in the playoffs.
But this team seems different. Yet to lose more than two games in a row, they appear immune to disappointment. Built on primarily flowering, homegrown players such as Jose Berrios, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, they also have young position players Alex Kirilloff and Royce Lewis close behind.
The chassis is built to last; in this case, tinkering might be enough.