Be careful what you wish for, I guess.
Twins fans, the one writing this piece included, had been clamoring for months to see either Trevor May or Alex Meyer get a crack at Minnesota's starting rotation. After enduring bad ideas personified Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia, Sam Deduno, Kris Johnson, Logan Darnell, Yohan Pino, we finally got our chance on Saturday, when May made his major league debut in Oakland.
Maybe it's fitting, then, that in a season filled with disappointments and setbacks for players the club was counting on, May was terrible. He retired just five of the fifteen batters he faced, walking a total of seven (including five of six batters at one point). May's seven walks were the most in any Twin's major league debut since the club moved from Washington. In fact, the only pitcher in baseball history to walk more batters in his debut, while lasting two innings or less was Steve Adkins, who walked eight in just 1.1 innings for the 1990 Yankees. He lasted just four more starts, finished with 29 walks in 24 innings, and never made it back to the major leagues.
That said, I count the fact that May even made his debut as progress. Very quickly now, the club is beginning to resemble the team that we'll likely see to start 2015. Provided May's yips aren't a chronic problem, he will doubtlessly be in the mix for one of the rotation spots out of spring training next year. Kevin Correia's departure allows the thoroughly competent Tommy Milone to join the club. Ricky Nolasco is on his way back as well. Even Joe Mauer should be activated from the disabled list at some point today. For the next seven weeks, we are essentially going to get a preview of next year.
Here are the most important questions that need answering in that time:
1) Who is Joe Mauer now?
Mauer's move off of catcher was supposed to help him stay healthier and remain fresher. That, obviously, didn't happen and Twins fans gradually grew more frustrated with him. Even as one of Mauer's defenders (his low RBI total being a ridiculous thing to get worked up about, in my mind), it's impossible to see his .271/.342/.353 line and 64 strikeouts in 76 games as anything but a disaster. During the twelve-game hitting streak he enjoyed before hitting the DL, however, Joe hit .362/.400/.489. As one of the best hitting catchers in baseball history, Mauer has earned the benefit of the doubt before he gets written off entirely, and what he does while healthy with the rest of the season will say a lot about whether he can hold down first base for the rest of his contract.
2) Is Ricky Nolasco all better?
Nolasco has a 5.90 ERA to show for his decision to pitch through elbow soreness this year. Let that be a lesson to you, kids. Pay attention to your barking elbows. The Twins diagnosed him with flexor pronator stiffness, and are expecting him back to start against the Royals later this week. Assuming Dr. Nick Riviera didn't provide that initial diagnosis, hopefully Nolasco will spend the rest of 2014 justifying the $49 million contract he signed last offseason. Given the Twins' history of misdiagnosing problems and their unimpressive streak of asking pitchers to rest and rehab their elbows instead of opting for surgery, I'm not hopeful.
3) Can Kennys Vargas hit enough to have a job?
Look, I love Kennys Vargas's meat-eating ways as much as you do, and watching him hit a baseball is a lot of fun. But Kennys Vargas's only skill is hitting the baseball. He's not going to cut it as a first baseman. Meanwhile, Kurt Suzuki's extension makes it apparent that the Twins view him as the starting catcher for at least one more year. So what do you do with 25 year old Josmil Pinto, who is hitting .278/.395/.492 at Rochester, and who has started at catcher only 15 times since coming off of the minor league disabled list a month ago? Vargas has power and squares up well. But he has nothing resembling strike zone control, as his two walks and 13 strikeouts in 41 plate appearances attest. To stay in the lineup, Vargas has to outhit Pinto, and I have serious doubts about his ability to do that going forward.
4) Do the Twins intend to ever give Aaron Hicks a shot again?
For the second consecutive year, the Twins broke camp with Aaron Hicks in center field, and for the second consecutive year he fell flat on his face. After getting demoted all the way down to New Britain and excelling, Hicks just got bumped up to Rochester last week. If he can sustain his strong play this month, there's every reason to believe the Twins would give Hicks one last chance to stick in September before they finally give up for good. With Danny Santana continuing his excellent play in the majors, and Byron Buxton eventually slated to take over, Hicks has lost his chance to settle in center field. But I can see worse outcomes than having a good defensive left or right fielder behind Minnesota's fly ball oriented staff. I mean, Hicks in left, Santana in center, and Escobar at shortstop should play just fine until Buxton's ready to shake things up.
5) Is Ron Gardenhire equipped to lead this club going forward?
We've talked before about how the Twins have utterly collapsed down the stretch over the last three years, bottoming out in the second half and playing some of the most listless, mistake-prone, and uninspired baseball anyone in Minnesota has ever seen. In August and September, from 2011-2013, the Twins have combined to go just 56-115 to close out their seasons. That's a .327 winning percentage, only two wins better than the Astros did last year. Tom Kelly's clubs of the late 1990s at least had some spunk in them, even if they were uniformly awful. The Twins we've seen close out the last three years have played without pride and talent. Now, with veterans Correia, Morales, and Fuld gone, and Willingham hopefully soon to follow, Gardenhire needs to demonstrate that he can keep this team focused through the finish line, even when the games don't matter.