July 14, 2011

18 days, 19 games, and 1 thin line

I'm still not sure what to make of the Twins, exactly. Since their MLB-worst 17-37 start they've gone 24-11, yet sit in fourth place seven games below .500, a half-dozen games behind both the Tigers and Indians, and are nowhere near full strength with Justin Morneau possibly done for the season, Jason Kubel, Denard Span, and Kevin Slowey also on the disabled list, Scott Baker dinged up, and Joe Mauer yet to look like his usual self offensively or defensively.

In many divisions the Twins would be all but dead, but the Tigers, Indians, and White Sox are each flawed teams that don't look capable of winning more than 85-88 games. With even two or three of those aforementioned key players back healthy and productive it wouldn't surprise me one bit if the Twins had the AL Central's best record for the final 45 percent of the season, but is the massive hole they dug in April and May too big to climb out of in just 73 games?

For the Twins to reach 85 wins they'd have to finish 44-29, which is a 98-win pace. To reach 88 wins they'd have to finish 47-26, which is a 104-win pace. While certainly within the realm of possibility for a team that has played at a 111-win pace for the past six weeks and looked like a 90-something win team coming into the season, the Twins are plenty flawed themselves and even playing 100-win ball for the final two-plus months would leave them needing some help.

None of Detroit, Cleveland, or Chicago is particularly fearsome, but trailing two different teams by a half-dozen games with 73 to play is already a huge enough challenge that the Tigers or Indians getting hot, even for a couple weeks, would be extremely difficult to overcome in such a limited time frame. Not only do the Twins need to play 100-win ball, they can't afford to have the Tigers or Indians play like even a run-of-the-mill playoff team during that same time.

Such is life when you're the worst team in baseball for two months and now the Twins play 19 games during the first 18 days of the second half, with a July 18 doubleheader and their next scheduled off day on August 1. And as if a roster that's been wrecked by injuries both big and small all year and simply can't afford to slump playing 19 times in 18 days isn't drama enough, the trade deadline looming on the final day of that brutal stretch adds another wrinkle.

I'm still not sure what to make of the Twins right now, but by July 31 everyone should have a far clearer picture of where they stand one way or another. And that's a good thing. Clawing further into contention by then would leave the Twins with an opportunity to add a key piece or two for the stretch run, but failing to make up any ground during those 18 crucial days could convince them to cash in some impending free agents for help in 2012 and beyond.

Eighteen days to make or break a season and help shape the Twins' future. They need to play consistently well and avoid slip-ups in series against the Royals, Indians, Tigers, Rangers, and A's, all without rest for the weary, and the front office also needs to realistically and smartly evaluate where they stand leading right up to the July 31 deadline. Normally the line between buyer and seller isn't so thin, but then again nothing about this season has been normal.

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