MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - It's July 11, and the Minnesota Twins are the fourth-best team in Major League Baseball when it comes to win percentage.
Twins fans need to let that fact sink in for a second. At 56-33, they have the third-best record in the American League behind the Houston Astros (57-33) and the New York Yankees (57-31). Last year, the Twins struggled to even get close to .500, and finished with 78 wins.
Paul Molitor was let go, and Rocco Baldelli is here. After one of the best first halves in team history, the Twins have a 5.5 game lead over the Indians with 73 games to play. The second half starts with a huge series at Cleveland Friday night. It's a chance to get a firm grip on the AL Central, a chance to make a statement.
Can the Twins hold off the Indians?
Here is the reality: Nothing really hinges on this weekend's three-game series at Cleveland. Even if the Twins get swept at Progressive Field, they'll still have a 2.5 game lead in the division. The problem is the Indians got hot in June and before the All-Star break, cutting an 11.5 game down to 5.5. The Twins can do themselves a lot of favors by putting some distance between themselves and the Indians, and that starts Friday night as Kyle Gibson takes the mound.
The Twins entered the All-Star break 4-6 over their final 10 games. The Indians went 7-3, and have won six straight to cut into Minnesota's lead. The two teams have 13 more games against each other, and after this weekend's series, the Twins have seven straight against the Indians at Target Field (Aug. 8-11, Sept. 6-8). The Twins need to play well over the final 73 games, but the path is there.
Will the Twins make trades for pitching?
It's the $64,000 question facing the Twins and their fans. Will Derek Falvey and Thad Levine make moves to improve the Twins' pitching staff before the July 31 trade deadline? The answer is undoubtedly yes, they have no other choice. There is no waiver period this season, so the Twins need to be willing to part ways with prospects if their goal is to make a playoff run.
The Twins have been linked to names like Madison Baumgarner and Will Smith with the San Francisco Giants. They've been brought up as a team to land Marcus Stroman and or Ken Giles of the Blue Jays. They need at least one arm to add to the bullpen, and a starter at the caliber of Jose Berrios would be a big help to the Twins. Any prospect not named Royce Lewis and Alex Kiriloff can't be left off the table.
Can Miguel Sano continue hitting?
Twins slugger Miguel Sano started the season on the injured list with a laceration on his heel that needed time to heal. In his first game back, he hit two doubles and scored a run at Seattle in an 11-6 victory. But with Sano, as with many power hitters, you take strikeouts with the extra base hits. He's got 148 at-bats in 40 games, and has 64 strikeouts. He has at least three strikeouts in 10 of his 40 games, including striking out five times in the 17-inning win on June 19 over the Red Sox.
The strikeout rate is a bit alarming, even for Sano. But he made an adjustment in his swing before the All-Star break, and the hits started coming. He's hit four home runs since June 28, including three in a series at the Chicago White Sox. Sano is hitting .236 with 13 homers and 24 RBI, and he's slugging .574. They'll need his bat to pull away in the AL Central. It should be noted Sano enters the second half on a nine-game hitting streak, and is hitting .343 over that stretch.
Don't forget that the Twins lead all of MLB with 166 homers, more than they hit all of last year, with half the season left.
Can the Twins stay healthy?
Every MLB team goes through injuries, it's the nature of the beast in a 162-game season. The Twins have had eight players on the injured list at some point this season. At one point before the All-Star break, they were without Eddie Rosario, C.J. Cron, Max Kepler, Byron Buxton, Ehire Adrianza, Marwin Gonzalez and Jake Odorizzi.
Buxton, Kepler, Gonzalez and Adrianza are back. Rosario should return at Cleveland this weekend and Odorizzi will pitch Saturday against the Indians. Only Cron is still out with a thumb injury, affecting his swing. He's third on the Twins with 17 home runs. As with any contending team, the Twins need to stay healthy down the stretch. If a player needs a day off, give it to him.
To quote former Vikings' coach Mike Tice, enjoy the season. The Twins' lead Cleveland by 5.5 games with 73 left, and it feels uncomfortable given that it 11.5 games a month ago. The Twins last won a division title in 2010. There's a lot of season left, but we're at least guaranteed they'll be relevant through September.