If you predicted that the Minnesota Twins would be lurking near the top of the American League Central approaching the All-Star Game, congratulations. It's time to collect your Harmon Killebrew autographed bat and flash a smile in anticipation of your "Circle Me Bert'' moment during the team's next TV broadcast.
The Twins appeared to be bailing on a 2008 postseason run when they allowed Torii Hunter to leave through free agency, traded Johan Santana to the Mets and poured their resources into multiyear deals for first baseman Justin Morneau, right fielder Michael Cuddyer and closer Joe Nathan in the spring. Yet here they are, 2½ games behind the White Sox and acting as if they're enjoying the view.
Despite losing back-to-back, Manny Ramirez-inflicted crushers to Boston this week, Minnesota has won 18 of its past 23 games. True, the Twins cleaned up in interleague play, but they also encountered Randy Johnson, Brandon Webb, Jake Peavy, Greg Maddux, Ben Sheets and Cliff Lee during a recent stretch and won all six games.
Are they for real? Lots of people in Minnesota are thinking about 2006, when the group that Ozzie Guillen called the "Little Piranhas'' caught fire in early June and went 71-33 the rest of the way to win the American League Central.
Still, skeptics abound. One front-office executive whose team recently faced Minnesota was impressed by the Twins' fundamentally sound play and team chemistry. But he expressed doubts that the Twins will have staying power unless they make an impact addition or two on offense. Minnesota's production has been fueled largely by a .317 team batting average with runners in scoring position, and there's no way that can continue.
"I'd be very surprised to see the Twins hang in there for a playoff run,'' the official said. "They basically have two very good position players, a great closer, and a bunch of complementary role players. There is no way they can continue to hit even close to [.317] with runners in scoring position, which will make it hard for them to score runs. And without scoring runs, it's hard to win with a staff of No. 4 and 5 starters.''
The Twins and their fans might take offense to that characterization. In this week's installment of "Starting 9,'' we look at baseball's pre-eminent scrappers and address nine questions that should help determine if this is a repeat of 2006, or if Minnesota is just a midsummer tease.
Can they remain offensive?
The Minnesota organization takes pride in hitters' sacrificing for the common good, moving runners along and finding ways to score without the long ball. Keep in mind that the Twins went 19 years without a 30-homer man between Kent Hrbek and Morneau. The organization basically sat out the go-go '90s.
This year the Twins rank 29th in the majors in homers, 18th in slugging and 14th in on-base percentage, but they're sixth in runs. They've found a way to outscore the White Sox, Tigers, Yankees, Brewers and several other more-heralded lineups.
The Twins' .317 average with runners in scoring position is 33 points better than the Cubs, who rank second in the majors in that category. Just why the Minnesota hitters transform themselves from Al Newman to Kirby Puckett with ducks on the pond is hard to determine. But something has to give eventually.
Minnesota's speed does put pressure on opponents -- particularly now that Denard Span is up from the minors and batting ninth in front of Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla. The Twins are one of the most aggressive teams in baseball in going from first to third, and they lead the majors in triples.
But Gomez is still raw as a leadoff man and is learning how to use his speed as a weapon. He has a .298 OBP, and he's been thrown out on nine of 30 steal attempts.
Can they strike the right balance?
The Twins rank 11th in the majors with a .762 OPS against right-handed pitching, and 28th with a .680 OPS against lefties. That's no surprise given that the team's three most productive hitters -- Mauer, Morneau and Jason Kubel -- all bat from the left side.
If this team is going to make an impact, it needs more consistent production from the righty hitters. Cuddyer, out with a finger injury, is expected to return after the All-Star break, but it remains to be seen whether he'll be able to grip and rip with authority. Delmon Young, slow out of the gate upon arrival from Tampa Bay, hit .321 in June and finally began turning on inside pitches and pulling them rather than trying to inside-out everything to right field.
Craig Monroe, replacing Rondell White as the designated, reasonably priced right-handed bat, has delivered some big hits. But he looks more like the guy who washed out with Detroit and the Cubs last year than the 28-homer, postseason force from 2006. Monroe is hitting .138 (9 for 66) against left-handers.
"I've talked to him about it,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We really need him to do some things. We need him to drive the ball for us and drive in some runs and pick up the slack.''
The pep talk didn't take, apparently. Monroe came to the plate in big late-inning situations against Boston the past two nights and popped up and struck out to help kill Minnesota threats.
Is the rotation up to the task?
Take Livan Hernandez out of the equation, and Minnesota's four starters -- Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and rookies Glen Perkins and Nick Blackburn -- have a combined 44-37 record in the big leagues. They're not exactly battle-hardened.
The Twins have assembled a staff of mini Brad Radkes -- composed and focused kids who pound the strike zone and pitch to contact. They were schooled in the importance of working from ahead in the count by roving pitching coach Rick Knapp as they progressed through the organizational chain.
Gardenhire doesn't think the kids will get rattled in a pennant race, but he is concerned about their workloads. Since Minnesota's young starters all work economically, they tend to avoid big pitch counts. But the length of the season remains a concern. Blackburn, who threw 160 innings last year, is already at 111.
"We think that's very important,'' Gardenhire said. "I know there's a lot of talk about how we baby pitchers from some of the old fellas who used to throw 300 innings. They give us a little grief. But it's my watch, and we're going to do it the way my pitching coach and I like to do it to protect these young pitchers.''
Hernandez, the lone veteran, is a statistical nightmare, but he's taken some of the load off the bullpen by pitching at least six innings in 15 of his 19 starts. Hernandez's numbers are scary, in part, because of that 10.50 ERA in his five losses. When he's bad, he's horrible, but more often than not he's able to finesse his way through opposing lineups three times and put the Twins in position to win.
As ESPN.com researcher Mark Simon points out, the Twins have posted victories of 11-1, 13-1, and 12-3 with Hernandez on the mound, and suffered losses of 10-0, 11-2, and 12-2. Livan doesn't lack for entertainment value.
What about Francisco Liriano?
When the Twins were debating whether to trade Santana last winter, the "con'' argument was based on the team's potential embarrassment of pitching riches. You had to figure a rotation with Santana and a surgically-repaired Liriano at the top would make Minnesota a serious postseason dark horse.
Of course, it didn't work out that way. The Twins shipped Santana to the Mets for four players in January, and Liriano pitched with the big club briefly in April (posting an 11.32 ERA in three appearances) before the Twins shipped him to Triple-A Rochester to build arm strength and self-confidence.
"He wasn't ready, but bringing him here in April was the best thing we could have done,'' said general manager Bill Smith. "It let everybody -- the manager, the pitching coach, the player, the front office -- know that he had work to do.''
Don't look now, but Liriano is pitching more like the young phenom who wowed them as a rookie two years ago. His velocity is back in the area of 92 mph, and he just pitched 13 shutout innings with 16 strikeouts in back-to-back starts to win the International League Pitcher of the Week award.
After Liriano shut down Cleveland's Triple-A affiliate in his last start, opposing manager Torey Lovullo told the Buffalo News that his fastball and slider made for a "lethal mix.''
"He's about ready,'' Smith said.
Can the bullpen hold up?
Young starters aren't inclined to go as deep in games, so that's forced Gardenhire to make liberal use of his bullpen. Minnesota's relievers have logged the fifth-heaviest workload in the American League, and the strain has been compounded by the loss of Pat Neshek to a season-ending elbow injury.
One of the biggest concerns is the absence of a lockdown eighth-inning guy to get the ball to Nathan. Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson are getting a lot of mileage out of Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Dennys Reyes and Craig Breslow, but the Twins lack the dominant setup man they had with Juan Rincon two years ago and Neshek last season. An agonizing 6-5 loss to Boston on Tuesday helped amplify that point.
Will their youth work against them?
And the Twins think there's a reason their prospects seem to slide in seamlessly when they arrive from the minors. The organization is so big on continuity -- teaching everything the same way at every level -- that there's less of an adjustment when players reach the highest rung.
Smith credits Gardenhire and his coaches for creating an environment that allows young players to thrive. But the players are also quick to buy into the program and understand the value of certain organizational precepts.
"When Justin Morneau came up, Doug Mientkiewicz helped him even though he knew Morneau would probably replace him one day,'' Smith said. "Kirby Puckett helped Torii Hunter, Torii Hunter helped Denard Span, and now Span is helping Ben Revere and some of our kids in the minor leagues.
"The players come up through the system knowing each other, and there's always some camaraderie. Everybody pulls for each other, and by the time they get here, their wives and girlfriends all know each other. I think that's a huge plus.''
Will the Twins make a move before the trade deadline?
"You're always looking to make your team better,'' said Smith, in classic general manager-speak. "But right now, everybody is doing their job pretty well. We have a lot of confidence in the group that we have.''
Translation: Don't expect anything too momentous.
The Twins could use a right-handed hitting third baseman, but they just passed on Morgan Ensberg after he was released by the Yankees. They already have two nonproductive former Astros on the left side in shortstop Adam Everett, who was hitting .189 when he went down with a shoulder injury, and third baseman Mike Lamb, who has been benched in favor of rookie Brian Buscher.
For the record, the list of potentially available third basemen includes Cleveland's Andy Marte, San Diego's Kevin Kouzmanoff, Baltimore's Melvin Mora, Colorado's Garrett Atkins and San Francisco's Jose Castillo. Rather than look outside the system, the Twins will tinker with several in-house options -- Brendan Harris, Matt Macri and Matt Tolbert, who is working his way back from the disabled list.
Outside of Liriano, the Twins are keeping an eye on Rochester's Brian Duensing as a starter who could fill a void if necessary. Don't expect an immediate contribution from the Mets pitchers who came over in the Santana trade. Phil Humber has a 6.21 ERA with Rochester, and Kevin Mulvey is 3-7 with a 3.94 ERA for the Red Wings.
What's up with the competition?
The Indians, who were expected to finish above Minnesota in the Central, threw up the white flag by trading CC Sabathia to Milwaukee. The Tigers climbed back above .500 Tuesday, but they seem to have trouble gaining much traction. Minnesota and Detroit will play a big four-game series at Comerica Park this weekend.
The White Sox have the second-best run differential in baseball, two All-Stars in Carlos Quentin and Joe Crede, three All-Star snubs in Jermaine Dye, A.J. Pierzynski and Gavin Floyd, and Paul Konerko back from a stint on the disabled list, but they're not without their concerns. Closer Bobby Jenks, who has a 1.50 ERA in his past 17 appearances, just went on the disabled list with a sore back.
How does the schedule shape up?
If the Twins do, indeed, make a second-half push, the locals will have to enjoy much of it via Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven on the tube. On Aug. 21, Minnesota begins a 15-day, 14-game trip that includes stops in Anaheim, Seattle, Oakland and Toronto. After a brief homestand, the Twins are back on the road to Baltimore, Cleveland and Tampa.
That's one long, grinding month in hotels, thanks to the Republican National Convention.
When asked what the travel odyssey will mean for his young club, Gardenhire didn't seem too fazed. "It's a heck of a lot of meal money. That's the way we look at it,'' he said.
On a positive note, the Twins are home for the final six games of the season -- three against Chicago and three with Kansas City. Minnesota is 32-18 at the Metrodome and 18-22 on the road.