Despite sitting in last place in the AL Central, the Minnesota Twins went out and added Kendrys Morales over the weekend and rushed him into the lineup on Monday. It was a signing so out of left field that Jon Heyman didn't even have time to raise the specter of a "mystery team" joining the bidding for the designated hitter.
Morales, a .280/.333/.480 career hitter with 45 homers over the last two years -- most of that coming in pitcher-friendly parks -- immediately makes the team's offense better and allowed them to jettison what was left of Jason Kubelcost only about $8 million, given it's nearly mid-June. It's a move with relatively little downside, except that it will force them to keep playing Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia in the outfield, and further restricts the plate appearances desperately needed by Josmil Pinto if he's going to develop (though, in honesty, Pinto has not been getting adequate playing time for weeks, given Ron Gardenhire's pathological fear that starting catcher Kurt Suzuki will get injured, and the club will lose its DH). The signing does, however, signal that the Twins think they are potentially in a position to make a run at the AL wild cards, if not the AL Central itself. I mean, why else would a club shell out for a veteran hitter on a one-year contract at this point in the season?
Are they nuts? Minnesota has been outscored by 24 runs on the year, and despite revamping their starting rotation and playing in a pitcher's park, have the worst ERA and most runs allowed per game in the American League. A surprisingly good offensive attack in March and April that scored 5.5 runs per game (buoyed by unexpectedly strong starts by the aforementioned Kubel and Chris Colabello) has dropped to just 3.6 runs per game in May and June as those hitters predictably fell back to earth.
With most of the rest of the AL stuck in neutral, however, maybe the Twins can beat the long odds that Baseball Prospectus gives them of making the postseason. Their front office certainly seems to think they can. If the Twins are serious about making a run, they can't stop with adding Morales. The club's new DH is a good hitter who upgrades the lineup, sure, but is hardly a star and is unlikely to add enough offense to improve the club by more than a game or two. Meanwhile, the Twins are a team with some serious replacement-level type holes, but also the means to fill them without burning their precious minor league prospects in trades. If they're going to be in for that penny (or $8 million dollars worth of pennies, as the case may be), they need to be in for the full pound.
Promote the kids
Any in-season turnaround is going to have to start with fixing the starting rotation. Phil Hughes has been shockingly effective, cutting his walk rate by 60 percent and his homer rate almost by half due to the spacious confines of Target Field. Kyle Gibson has also succeeded by keeping the ball on the ground, though his inability to strike batters out signals that some regression is likely. Some of that will likely be cancelled out by a Ricky Nolasco bounce-back. Barring injury, it's hard to imagine any of that trio flaming out this year.
Kevin Correia and Sam Deduno, on the other hand, are both vulnerable and pitching poorly. Deduno started the year in the bullpen and pitched his way into the rotation with a 2.89 ERA in 18 relief innings. Since then, he's walked 17 batters in 36 frames while striking out only 20: This has resulted in the predictable 5.25 ERA. He also hasn't made it past the sixth inning in any of his outings. Correia has simply failed. Despite posting nigh-identical peripherals last year, he mostly escaped being thrashed. He's paying back his good fortune now, having allowed 48 runs in 66 innings and leading the American League in losses. On the final year of his two-year, $10 million contract, Correia is entirely expendable for a club getting serious about winning, and Deduno has long skirted the line between useful and replacement level.
Either or both of them are easily dispensed in favor of 24-year-olds Trevor May (2.80 ERA, 63 Ks, 24 BB in 61 IP) and/or Alex Meyer (3.30, 75/28 in 62 innings), who are currently having their way with hitters in the International League. While they're sure to experience growing pains along the way, Meyer and May might mitigate the Twins' biggest weakness, their defense, with well above-average stuff and strikeout rates. Their promotion could add upwards of three wins going forward with a little help from baseball's old friend, addition by subtraction. If either rookie breaks out, consider that a bonus.
Fix the bullpen
Minnesota is actually pretty deep in relievers at the moment. Glen Perkins is one of the best in the game and Casey Fien has emerged as a quality option in the eighth inning. Lefties Caleb Thielbar and Brian Duensing have held their own as well, and Anthony Swarzak has been okay in a long relief role again. A club with as thin a margin as the Twins are going to have, however, can't afford to support Jared Burton any more.
His velocity is way down and control is gone. He has a 6.20 ERA and has allowed five homers in 24 innings. It's time to admit there's something wrong with him. Matt Guerrier, who inexplicably found himself pitching in the ninth inning of a tie game on Monday, isn't going to get it done over the long-term either. Whether that means Deduno heads back to the bullpen, Michael Tonkin is recalled from exile at Rochester, or even if second-round pick Nick Burdi signs and moves quickly, Ron Gardenhire and the front office need to cut bait and fix what has become an obvious problem.
Upgrade center field
Finally, the Twins need to find a more permanent solution for center field. Danny Santana, 23, is not going to hit .364/.395/.506 forever, not when he batted a combined .274/.318/.393 in seven minor league seasons and is hitting .473 on balls in play. As much as I've advocated a patient approach with Aaron Hicks, he's not likely to hold it down for a contending club either. And, of course, Byron Buxton is not walking through that door any time soon when his wrist hurts too much for him to push it open.
As long as the Twins are in the mood to spend money on freely available Cuban talent, however, outfielder Rusney Castillo has been a free agent since Friday and released a highlight package yesterday:
While every player is different, Cuban players have a strong track record in recent years of translating their performance to the major leagues, and at 26, Castillo seems to be ready to hold down a job. Baseball America's Ben Badler suggests he's not likely to be a superstar, and may actually be no better than a fourth outfielder, but he is incredibly fast, can handle center field ably, and, frankly, even a fourth outfielder is likely to be an upgrade over what the Twins can put out into center field until Byron Buxton is ready. Incidentally, having Morales, a fellow Cuban, on the roster presumably can't hurt as Castillo attempts to adjust to life in Minnesota.
Regardless, the Twins aren't likely to make up enough ground to make the postseason. They're already 4.5 games behind the Mariners with six clubs ahead of them in the Wild Card standings. Of those, the Indians, Orioles, and Yankees are likelier to improve than fall off. Meanwhile, there's no reason to think that the Tigers will slip now that Miguel Cabrera is hitting again. But the Twins have already demonstrated they're willing to spend money to improve, and they have the ability to further upgrade their roster and plug holes right now without giving up any of the talent they're counting on in the long term. Even if they fall short in 2014, at least they can say they tried. After the last three years, that would count as significant progress.