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How the 1st-place Minnesota Twins can stay there

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The Twins have a share of first place. This is unexpected.

Oakland Athletics v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The original headline was going to read “I’m writing about the Twins to check them off my list and feel better when I’m not writing about them in August.” It would have been a cheeky, disrespectful headline. But honest. If the Twins are within three games of first place at the end of August, I will write fan fiction about Joe Mauer’s twins being rivals with Buster Posey’s twins at summer basketball camp, only to realize they have lots in common, which helps them band together against a common enemy, Mr. McGarnle, the mean-spirited counselor from across the lake.

Which is to say, I probably won’t be writing about the Twins much in August. Or twins.

But what if, though? What if? The Twins have a share of first place right now, and it’s rude not to pay attention to them. As such, it’s helpful to look at how the Twins could stay in first place. Dream big, it’s May. We’re all friends, here, and there are no wrong answers. What would a first-place Twins team look like?

Something like this ...

Miguel Sano would be a young Miguel Cabrera

This one is happening. It’s not that Sano is crushing the ball, which he is. It’s not that he’s hitting for a high average, which he is. It’s that he’s terrifying the rest of the league so much that he’s walking every fifth plate appearance, while showing the discipline to crush whatever does float through the zone. He’s leveled up, and he’s just 24.

Not only is he raking, though, but the anecdotal and empirical evidence is suggesting that he might stick at third base after all. The success of the Twins’ season doesn’t have to measured by a postseason berth. If Sano can turn into the kind of franchise player the Twins can plop down at third base for the next decade, it will be one of their best seasons out of the last five, regardless of how many they win.

Byron Buxton would be a young Kevin Pillar

That’s not an idle comparison. The only difference is that when Pillar was 24, he hit .206 with a million strikeouts, and no one was breathlessly complaining about him being a flop, which is what people like to do with the 23-year-old Buxton. Yes, it’s been a rough start to the season, but let me just put on my cherry-picking gloves and ...

... oh, heck yeah, .296/.441/.481 in his last nine games, with a 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Looks like he’s leveled up, too ...

Sure, that’s optimism that’s based in sample-size dust, and it’s probably a little premature, maybe by a year or two or three, and it’s possible that he’ll eventually befriend Joe Borchard on the Island of Misfit Tools. But if the Twins are still in the hunt after the trade deadline, it’s probably because Buxton is hitting just enough to let him transcend the glove-only label. He had a 91 OPS+ last year, so he’s almost there already.

He’ll still strike out more than a third of the time, but there’s a way for Buxton to be better than last year, when he was still valuable. If the Twins want to stick around, they’ll need him.

Someone, anyone, will have to pitch better behind Ervin Santana and Hector Santiago

You don’t need 500 words on why Ervin Santana won’t finish 25-0 with a 0.66 ERA. You know there’s regression coming and that it won’t bring orange slices and Capri Suns. At the same time, it’s probably time to admit that Santana is really good at his job and has been for years. I laughed at the contract, which means he gets to laugh at me now.

Behind Santana is Hector Santiago, who was acquired when the Angels asked themselves, “Is there any way to turn this starting pitcher into someone less reliable, older and more expensive?” which is a classic thought exercise throughout baseball history. He’s been fine this year, just like he’s been for most of his career.

In reality, both pitchers should be traded at the deadline, with Santana bringing back some sweet prospects. But if the Twins are contending in July, these two pitchers will be continuing their strong start.

They’ll need help. Because every other pitcher behind them has been dreadful. Phil Hughes hasn’t been good for over two years now, and Kyle Gibson is looking as lost as he was last season. Adalberto Mejia, the rookie acquired for Eduardo Nuñez, scuffled early and was optioned back to Triple-A.

So if not those pitchers, then who? Jose Berrios is dominating Triple-A, and it’s something of a stunner that he’s not up already. That’s one.

Tyler Duffey is thriving in a relief role, and the Twins might not want to mess with him. Nick Turley was such a good prospect that I didn’t even realize he was in the Giants’ organization in 2015, but he’s doing something weird in Double-A, with 36 strikeouts in 20⅓ innings, so he might have been bitten by Rich Hill under a full moon. Or maybe Mejia figures it out and contributes when he comes back up.

The particular names don’t matter. But if the Twins are going to contend, they’ll need Santana and Santiago to keep on keepin’ on, and they’ll need at least two more reasonable pitchers behind them. Berrios looks like he could be one of them. Finding the other complements in the rotation hasn’t been the Twins’ specialty over the last couple years. No time like the present.

Et cetera

In which the players you’re less familiar with become players you’re more familiar with. Max Kepler wasn’t one of the 1,521 players drafted in 2009, but he came out of nowhere to become a top-100 prospect before the 2016 season, and then he held his head above water in the majors. He’s looking like a modern-day David DeJesus right now, and Only 2000s Kids Will Understand How Exciting That Is. If he keeps it up, and a dozen other things go right, the Twins have a shot.

Robbie Grossman is doing what he did last year, and he’s doing it just a little more convincingly, with more walks than strikeouts.

Eduardo Escobar is floating around, taking over the Nuñez role and doing even better than he did in 2014 and 2015. He’ll need to keep doing that.

I’m not as worried about Brian Dozier, who will at the very least be quietly excellent. At the very most, he’ll be obnoxiously excellent.

Hrm, it seems as if the bullpen is currently scary as all hell, but we’re out of time! And the more and more I look at the Twins, the more I think about Santana and Santiago being quality pitchers with one of the best pitching prospects in baseball behind them, with Sano breaking out and Kepler continuing to progress, with Buxton still having the world’s greatest building blocks for continued baseball success, with players like Dozier, who can be a star, and players Grossman and Escobar, who have each contributed something over the last couple seasons.

We don’t even have to engage in fanboy speculation, like my secret hopes that Mauer will undergo a zimmermanectomy during the season and become an MVP candidate a gain.

So while I won’t start the summer camp YA novel yet, I’ll at least jot down some notes. I think Mr. McGarnle should be a very tall, slender man, don’t you? I originally envisioned him as a short, squat fellow with more hair on his face than the top of his head, but ...