10 Reasons the Minnesota Twins Are Already Lined Up for a Bright Future
It's been a dreadful season-and-a-half for Minnesota Twins fans and some may fear that the worst is yet to come when the team faces several American League East teams in August and September.
It's highly unlikely that the Twins will be able to make a push for the playoffs either this year or next year, but there still are signs that could show that the Twins will make it back into contention sooner rather than later.
Here are some things that Twins fans can look at and breathe easier about the team's future.
Joe Mauer Has Returned to His Old Self
While he may never return to his 2009 American League Most Valuable Player form, Joe Mauer has put together a season that Twins fans should find acceptable in 2012.
Mauer leads the American League in on-base percentage (.420 entering Sunday) and is toward the top of the league in batting average (.334). While his power numbers aren't anywhere close to the 29 home runs in 2009, it may be something that Twins fans will have to learn to accept all over again.
Remember, the average Mauer line for a season is a .324 average with 15 home runs and 88 runs batted in. As of right now, Mauer is on pace to come close to most of those numbers.
There are plenty of fans that still bash Mauer at every opportunity they can, but if the Twins were toward the top of the AL Central standings, would anybody be complaining?
Also take into consideration that many people were questioning Mauer's toughness and ability to play through pain coming into the season. He's responded by playing in 86 games in 2012 (although most of those have been away from the catcher position).
The Twins need Joe Mauer to keep this up and maybe, after another full offseason of being healthy, Mauer can get those power numbers up and justify his massive contract.
In any shape or form, a healthy Mauer is a good thing for the Twins.
Upcoming Trades Could Bring in Loads of Talent
When Francisco Liriano returned to the Twins' rotation, a lot of fans were hoping that Liriano could pitch well enough that the team could get a minor leaguer from a team desperate for pitching in exchange for the one-time phenom.
Since his return on May 30, Liriano has went 3-4 with a 2.84 earned run average over 63.1 innings. Even more impressive is that Liriano's strikeout-to-walk ratio has increased to 2.75 from 1.15 in the early stages of the year.
This means that the Twins can now effectively shop Liriano to rebuild their farm system and get some adequate starting pitching.
The other bit of good news is that the Twins can also afford to shop center fielder Denard Span as his replacement, Ben Revere, is having a great season and looks ready to become the team's center fielder of the future.
While it would be tough to send a premier lead-off hitter like Span out the door, the fact the Twins could get some major league talent in return may be enough to entice general manager Terry Ryan to pull the trigger.
If the Twins can hit on both of these moves (which was a staple of the first Terry Ryan Era), they can accelerate their rebuilding process.
Trevor Plouffe Looks Like a Long-Term Solution at Third Base
It has been well documented that the Twins have been desperate for a third baseman since the departure of Corey Koskie in the mid-2000's.
They've tried almost everything and thought they found a solution in Danny Valencia at the beginning of the season. Alas, after Valencia's strong spring he struggled to hit major league pitching and the Twins sent him packing to Triple-A Rochester on May 10.
That's when the Twins decided to give Trevor Plouffe a shot at the starting third base job. The Twins had tried to find the perfect spot for Plouffe since he made his debut in 2010, but the former first-round pick didn't seem to stick anywhere—until now.
Since Valencia's demotion, Plouffe has hit .283 with 18 home runs and 36 runs batted in while playing adequate defense at the hot corner.
It's possible that Plouffe's hot streak could be a mirage, but he seems to have a different vibe as he's continued to crush fast pitches with reckless abandon.
If Plouffe can continue, the Twins may finally have an answer to their woes at third base.
Aaron Hicks Has Figured Things out at Double-A
Ok, so it may be a reach to point out somebody mashing Double-A pitching, but in the case of another former first-round pick, Aaron Hicks, it proves noteworthy.
In this year's entry draft, the Twins selected Byron Buxton with the second overall pick. Normally, it may have been just another pick to add talent to the Twins' farm system. However, it might have served as a wake-up call to Hicks.
Buxton and Hicks are basically clones of each other as they were both raw five-tool prospects coming out of high school. Both prospects also had the ability to pitch as they owned fastballs in the mid-90's.
Basically, if the Twins weren't going to get Hicks to be what they wanted, they were going to get somebody else that could do the same things.
Hicks has responded by hitting .278 with nine home runs and 42 runs batted in with 21 stolen bases in 30 attempts. It's possible that Hicks could get a promotion to Triple-A in the near future and make his major league debut within the next couple seasons.
While many have been down on Hicks so far, he's only 22 years old. The Twins have compared his path in the minors to that of Torii Hunter (who also took a while to make it to the majors). If the Twins can get another Hunter out of Hicks, they'll have another solid outfielder for the future.
Josh Willingham Will Remain a Twin for Two More Seasons
You could call this the "Don't Trade Josh Willingham" slide of the article.
The Twins signed Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract last winter and he's paid huge dividends to replace Michael Cuddyer (who signed a three-year, $31.5 million contract with the Colorado Rockies).
The results have been more than impressive as Willingham has mashed 23 home runs entering Sunday. "The Willinghammer" has been the rare Twin that is not afraid of Target Field and has peppered the left field seats with many of his clutch home runs at the Twins' home ballpark.
With the Twins in a dismal state, some would say that it's best to trade Willingham. However, the Twins still have two more seasons of him and he could contribute if the team contends sooner than expected.
Even if the Twins don't contend before Willingham's contract expires, the team could then flip him for prospects in the last season of his deal and cash in for more youthful talent.
The best option for the Twins is to keep Willingham and see what happens.
The Coaching Staff Will Remain the Same
There are some Twins fans who don't want to hear this, but Ron Gardenhire and company should be around for a long time despite a couple of losing seasons in the team's current state.
Gardenhire lead the team to six American League Central Championships in the 2000's and odds are that he can take this young team and turn them into contenders within a couple of seasons.
This has been because Gardy hasn't had the best talent to work with over the past couple of seasons as the mistakes of the Bill Smith era have finally been felt at the major league level.
If Gardy can get a couple of starting pitchers and some more solid talent, he could rebuild the team to where it was in the past decade.
In an era where teams switch managers and other coaching staff members like a carousel, having Gardenhire around could only mean good things for the Twins.
Miguel Sano Will Be the Best Twins Hitting Prospect Since Joe Mauer
I'm sure you've heard of Miguel Sano, but in case you haven't, I could give you a quick refresher course.
Sano is a prospect that the Twins signed out of the Dominican Republic in July 2009. At that time, Sano was a raw 16-year-old that the Twins discovered at their academy. The Twins gave him a lot of money to sign, and since then all he's done is hit.
After crushing the Gulf Coast League and Rookie Ball, Sano started out with the Low-A Beloit Snappers and has been raking all season long. Sano has hit .246 with 20 home runs and 68 runs batted in for the Snappers, but the Twins want to see more before advancing him to High-A Fort Myers.
It will be several years before Sano puts on a major league uniform, but Twins fans are already excited for the best hitting prospect the team has seen since Joe Mauer rose through the system.
If Sano can improve his average and strikeout rates, the Twins could have a future superstar in the making.
Bobby Cuellar Is Doing a Tremendous Job at Triple-A
When the Twins did a complete overhaul of their minor league system, the addition of Bobby Cuellar didn't seem like a major move. However, with the Twins' pitching staff struggling, the team has benefited from several of his pupils that have brought their lessons to the major league level.
Scott Diamond, P.J. Walters, Samuel Deduno and Cole De Vries have learned enough from Walters to try and keep the Twins afloat as they've decided to run Nick "The Incredible Hulk" Blackburn out every fifth day.
Those pitchers succeeding can only mean Cuellar is doing his job at Triple-A and that means good things for the prospects the Twins have coming through the system.
Perhaps Liam Hendriks and the recovering Kyle Gibson can get some advice and make an impact within the next season to get the Twins back to using pitching as a cornerstone to their franchise.
Whatever happens, if the success continues the Twins might be able to solve their pitching woes from within.
The Twins Bullpen Is Showing Vast Improvement
Terry Ryan has taken a lot of heat for his offseason moves, but the Twins bullpen shouldn't be one of them.
What was a weakness for the team in 2011 has turned into one of its few strengths this offseason. While Matt Capps (who is 14-of-15 in save opportunities) won't be around past this season, the Twins have several arms that have shown enough improvement for the Twins to let him walk and have others take over.
Perhaps the biggest key to the bullpen has been the acquisition of Jared Burton. Burton was left for dead by the Cincinnati Reds before being picked up by the Twins last winter and he's rewarded them by turning into the team's top set-up man for Capps and Glen Perkins.
Another example has been Alex Burnett, who has finally realized his potential at age 24. Burnett (3-3, 3.11 ERA in 46.1 innings) could turn into the team's new version of Jesse Crain who was a pillar in the pen throughout the latter part of the Twins' run of AL Central Championships.
Mix that in with Perkins having a decent season and the Twins bullpen looks like something they could lean on as they try to recover from this rough stretch.
The Twins Play in the Weakest Division in Baseball
In baseball, it's all about who you're playing with and not how good you are.
As long as the AL Central stays in mediocrity, the Twins have a chance to surprise everyone. The only downside is that the only thing it would give Twins fans is a sweep at the hands of the Yankees, but after the last year-and-a-half I'm sure that Twins fans everywhere would accept that.
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