September in the Twins Abyss: What to Watch For

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September is always an exciting month for Major League Baseball.  Pennant races are decided and the extra Wild Card  now brings more teams into the hunt for postseason play than ever before.  Even for teams that have seen their dreams of October glory fade in the warm summer sun, the final month of the regular season brings with it expanded rosters so teams’ fans can see many of their top prospects brought up for many of their first taste of the major leagues.  It’s a chance for fans to get excited about the future of their squads and get to know names and faces. For the teams, it’s a chance for coaching staffs to get a closer look at what each prospect brings to the table.

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That is, of course,  you’re a fan of the Minnesota Twins, in which case neither September scenario applies to you.

Postseason?  Thanks, I needed a good laugh.  The Minnesota Twins currently sit at 61-80, 18 games behind division leading Kansas City and 16 1/2  games behind Wild Card leaders Detroit and Oakland.  Needless to say, there are no playoff tickets being printed at Target Field this year.

Prospects?  This isn’t so funny.  An unprecedented rash of injuries struck down almost every single top prospect in the Twins organization this summer.  Season ending injuries wiped out any chance for fans to see Miguel Sano handling the hot corner, Byron Buxton roaming the outfield, or Alex Meyer blowing away batters with a 98 mph fastball. Instead, fans will be treated to September call-ups including mostly rehashed players such as Chris Hermann and Josmin Pinto and low-rated prospects such as Logan Darnell and Michael Tonkin.

Well on its way to a fourth consecutive 90+ loss season, the Twins need to switch gears with the focus shifting away from winning ballgames to evaluation of the roster talent this final month. What does this mean for the few diehard fans left for the Minnesota Twins?   For the roughly 3 weeks left in the dirge that was the 2014 major league season, here are 5 things to watch for:

  1. Aaron Hicks:  All day, every day.  Aaron Hicks, remember him?  The 2013 rookie was going to be a staple in the Twins’ outfield for years to come.  Somewhere along the way, his career took a severe left turn.  After a dismal 2013 and an atrocious start to the 2014 season, Hicks was sent down and has languished in the minors all summer.  Having rediscovered a bit of his mojo, he is back up with the Twins for this last month. Head coach Ron Gardenhire should have Hicks in the lineup every single day at any one of the three outfield positions and give him as many at bats as he can get against major league pitching.  His defense has never been in question, but it’s time to see if he can be anything but a liability at the plate. It’s time to give Hicks a full audition for the 2015 season.  With Hicks in the outfield fulltime, that means we can move onto….
  2. Danny Santana at Shortstop. You really have to admire rookie shortstop Danny Santana this season.  He has proven time and time again that he will play just about anywhere to get on the field.  He has played four different positions this season, including both left and center field.  Santana has flashed some talent at the plate this season, batting .316, 7 HR, and 37 RBI in 81 games this year. With no offense to Eduardo Escobar, who has been solid defensively at shortstop, it’s time to stop using Santana as a stop-gap to fill roster voids in the outfield and play him at his natural position to groom him for his starting role there next summer.
  3. Finding a home for Josmil Pinto. Pinto had a scintillating September in 2013, leading many fans to believe the Twins had found a long-term replacement for Joe Mauer at catcher.  My how much changes in a year. Unable to trust the young Pinto with the full-time catching duties, the Twins signed veteran Kurt Suzuki during the off-season to a one year contract. Suzuki went on to have a superb summer, batting .291 and catching 115 games to date and earning his first All-Star Game appearance.  He was rewarded by the Twins with a two year contract extension worth over 12 million dollars.  While bully for Suzuki, this has left Pinto as the odd man out, having spent much of the season at AAA Rochester.  Now that he has been called up, the Twins need to find a place on their roster for the young power hitter, whether it be as a full-time DH or on the bench as the backup to Suzuki.
  4. Kennys Vargas at 1B.  Maybe the brightest highlight of the 2014 season, Vargas has burst onto the scene after being called up from AA affiliate New Britain on August 1st.  In only 32 games, he has hit 6 HR, knocked in 31 RBI, and batted .319.  Again…IN 32 GAMES.  Just for context, Vargas’s statistics for his first 30 games are discussed in the company of Albert Pujols and Joe DiMaggio…yes, THAT Joe DiMaggio.  While all of this has many fans excited for the future, there is one thing left to be seen this season by the young slugger. Much of his production has come from the Designated Hitter slot.  Vargas had played first base extensively in his minor league career so there is known ability there.  Since his call-up, he has worked with former manager Tom Kelly in regards to his defense as well.  With starting first baseman Joe Mauer’s excessive stints on the disabled list the past 4 years, it’s imperative that the Twins develop a solid alternative to when, not if, Mauer goes down with injury again. Getting Vargas playing defense at first base should be a priority.
  5. Gardy’s Last Stand? Many eyebrows, including my own, were raised when the Twins signed manager Gardenhire to a two year extension in 2013 after his third consecutive losing season.  Even more eyebrows were raised when the Star Tribune reported on August 21st that General Manager Terry Ryan declared that he had decided that he would bring Gardenhire back for 2015, despite being well on his way to his fourth consecutive losing season. I understand Ryan’s loyalty to Gardenhire, and many of the things that have gone wrong the past 4 years were simply out of the long-time manager’s control, but the simple fact is that season tickets were already going to be a hard sell for the Twins’ box office this off-season, and bringing the back the same staff will only made that task more difficult. A season ending month of disinterested baseball might be enough to spell Gardenhire’s doom.

As far as the pitching problems go….well my good readers, some things take A LOT longer than 3 weeks to fix.  That’s another column unto itself.

Also, just a reminder…if you’re running to the concession stand, I’ll take a bag of peanuts and a Diet Coke.

Until next time…

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