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Exploring half-season storylines for the Twins

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What are the key storylines now that the Twins are halfway through the season?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals
Wait, you WEREN’T expecting to see Randy Dobnak as part of an article about Twins first-half storylines?
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Yep, you read that right. The Minnesota Twins are exactly 50 percent of the way through their regular season schedule.

Rocco Baldelli’s crew is 20-10 and owns a 2.5 game lead over both Cleveland and Chicago. Their .667 winning percentage is tied with Oakland for tops in the American League and only behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the majors. The Twins’ +41 run differential is the best in the A.L. by nine runs and second in the bigs, also behind only L.A.

Not too shabby.

But the vaunted Twins’ offense has only been slightly above league-average throughout the first half of the season. And if you consider Randy Dobnak the sixth starter (not even counting the yet-to-return Michael Pineda), only 60 percent of the Twins’ games have been started by members of the original, intended starting lineup. Jose Berrios (with a 4.75 ERA), Kenta Maeda, Jake Odorizzi, Rich Hill, and Homer Bailey have combined for just 18 starts.

Yet somehow, the Twins are where they are, with a 99.5 percent chance of making the postseason.

Sitting here at the halfway mark, if we had to boil the season down to three storylines, what would they be? Glad you asked.

1. Creative Pitching Staff Management

Hill has only started twice. Odorizzi started the season on the injured list and after making three starts, is back on the IL. Bailey has made one start.

To make matters worse, Jose Berrios gave up at least four earned runs in three of his first five starts and needed six shutout innings against Milwaukee last week just to get his ERA under 5.00. Kenta Maeda and Randy Dobnak, on the other hand, have been spectacular.

Dobnak is clearly a rotation-worthy MLB starter, but the Twins have managed his spots incredibly well. He’s only pitched into the sixth inning twice and completed more than 5 13 innings one time this year.

The Twins have used Tyler Clippard and Matt Wisler twice each as openers, and Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe have each made spot starts.

All of this has somehow added up to a staff ERA of 3.48, baseball’s fourth-best mark. The strikeout rate is still below league-average, but the strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.02 is also fourth in the league.

The ideal scenario, of course, is for Pineda to rejoin the rotation and Odorizzi to get healthy. Hill should straighten things out, and Bailey is the insurance play as the team gets deeper into September. If those things don’t all happen, then the Twins will enter postseason play in a similar spot as last season — plus Maeda, that is.

2. Depth Matters

The Twins have an extremely deep roster, and that has allowed them to more than stay afloat as the number of injuries have only increased.

While Josh Donaldson has been out for more than three weeks, Mitch Garver and Byron Buxton both just went on the injured list last week. While it’s fair to point out that the Twins have really only played three games since getting bit even harder by the injury bug, this team is built to weather the storm for a period of time.

New regular catcher and prospect Ryan Jeffers, who had only played in 24 games above A-ball prior to this weekend in Kansas City, doesn’t appear to be in over his head. Jake Cave has been a better-than-league-average outfielder in spot duty over the past year-plus.

Marwin Gonzalez was practically a luxury signing prior to the 2019 season with no everyday spot for him. But he’s been massive early in the season, filling in at first base for a struggling Miguel Sano at times early in the season, helping spell a hobbled Luis Arraez at second base, and effectively being the Twins’ regular third baseman since Donaldson’s calf injury on July 31.

The cash acquisition of Ildemaro Vargas appeared to have been a savvy move as well, as the Twins may have found their next Ehire Adrianza. The pitching staff is deep, too, which we touched on with the last point; the Twins haven’t even dipped into their rising prospects such as Jhoan Duran to round out their rotation.

Kudos to Falvine and the front office for building the depth in this 60-man player pool, and kudos to Rocco Baldelli and his staff for their management of it to this point.

3. Finally, we’re done with Twins vs. Royals

First of all, is this really a storyline? The answer is yes, because nearly one-third of the Twins’ games — that’s right, 10 of the Twins’ first 31 contests — came against KC.

Secondly, isn’t it weird to be so happy to be done with the Royals? This answer is also a ‘yes’, but after dominating the Royals in the win-loss column last year, the Twins came out of the matchup with a 5-5 record this year. The run differential over the 10 games was even, too, showing that this wasn’t extremely fluky, either.

In non-Royals matchups, the Twins are 15-5 and have won every single series, save for a two-game split in Pittsburgh.

So, on the one hand, perhaps the Twins are really a .750 winning percentage team and the Royals are their kryptonite. Or, maybe the Twins aren’t as good as their record. Then again, maybe it’s just a weird quirk, which is probably most likely.

But regardless, the Twins have a heavy dose of Cleveland, Detroit, and the White Sox with a pinch of Cardinals, Cubs, and Reds in the back half of the season. We’ll have a better sense where this team stands in roughly 30 days.

That said, the Twins’ creative pitching staff management and overall depth have been huge when it comes to their 20-10 start to the 2020 season.