Wait 'til next year: Minnesota Twins
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait Till Next year series.
Current record: 62-88 (.413, tied for 4th in the AL Central)
Mathematically eliminated: September 15
What worked in 2012: Joe Mauer (.324/.419/.457) and Justin Morneau (.274/.338/.458) returned to health and productivity after their injury-plagued 2011 seasons; the duo, who combined for 611 plate appearances and just seven homers last season, has hit 29 dingers in 1,118 plate appearances through Wednesday. Denard Span (.290/.350/.401) has also been back to his old self now that he's healthy. Josh Willingham (.262/.369/.532 with 35 homers) has put up one of the great power-hitting seasons in franchise history while turning out to be one of the offseason's best free agent bargains, and Ryan Doumit (.281/.326/.463, 16 homers) has been a good buy as well. Trevor Plouffe has emerged as a surprising power threat, bopping 22 homers to go with a wobbly-but-workable .235/.303/.456 line while displacing Danny Valencia as the team's regular third basemen. Thanks to all of those players, the Twins' offense has improved by 0.60 runs per game over 2011 to rank eighth in the league in scoring. Meanwhile, Scott Diamond has emerged as a credible starting pitcher (3.69 ERA in 24 starts) thanks to pinpoint control (1.6 BB/9) in spite of his inability to miss bats (4.7 SO/9), and Glen Perkins has shown that his 2011 bullpen breakout was no fluke, again striking out more than a batter per inning, boosting his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 4.38 and emerging as a legitimate closer, with 13 saves in 14 opportunities. With 13 games remaining coming into Thursday, the team is just one win away from matching last year's total.
What didn't work in 2012: Make no mistake, the 2012 Twins are still a bad ballclub. Despite their offensive successes, the team has gotten absolutely nothing from their middle infielders; their second basemen (mainly Jamey Carroll and Alexi Casilla) have combined to hit .234/.286/.296, while their shortstops (Carroll, Brian Dozier and Pedro Florimon) have combined to hit .229/.280/.306. Such numbers might be excused if the team's defense was respectable, but instead the Twins rank 11th in the league with a .688 Defensive Efficiency, eight points below league average. When coupled with their anemic strikeout rate — last in the league for the second year in a row, and at 5.9 per nine, 0.9 behind the 13th place team — that's a significant problem getting outs. Small wonder that the Twins' 5.20 runs allowed per game is just 0.01 ahead of the league-worst Indians.
The rotation has been particularly abysmal, as its 5.50 ERA, 5.4 innings per start, 38 percent quality start rate and 5.6 strikeouts per nine all rank as the worst in the league. Granted, the loss of Scott Baker to Tommy John surgery and the limiting of Carl Pavano to 11 starts due to a shoulder capsule injury haven't helped, but control-challenged Francisco Liriano put up a 5.31 ERA in 100 innings before being exiled to the bullpen and then traded to the White Sox — where at least he has continued to confound interested parties with another 5-plus ERA. Jason Marquis (8.47 ERA) and Nick Blackburn (7.39 ERA) were bombed out of the rotation, and fill-ins P.J. Walters (6.39 ERA) and Liam Hendricks (5.88 ERA) have proven inadequate. Of the 12 pitchers they have used as starters, only Diamond and Sam Deduno have managed ERAs under 4.00, with Deduno and Liriano the only pitchers to strike out more than 6.0 per nine; alas, both have walked at least 5.0 per nine as well, offsetting that advantage. Outlook: The Twins are far removed from the team that won six division titles in a nine-year span from 2002-10, then increased payroll by nearly 50 percent as they moved into their new ballpark. Mediocre drafts and a continued adherence to a pitch-to-contact philosophy — "strikeouts are fine for coastal city slickers, but they're too flashy for Midwestern types," as one wag wrote in last year's Baseball Prospectus annual — have left the organization with little in the way of high-upside pitching, and their top prospect, third baseman Miguel Sano, is at least a couple of years away, having spent this season in Low-A. It doesn't sound as though general manager Terry Ryan or manager Ron Gardenhire (on the job since 2001) are in danger of losing their jobs, but perhaps they ought to be. It will be years before this team competes for another AL Central crown.