Minnesota Twins' Crunch Time: How Two Weeks Could Define the 2008 Season

Ben LayneCorrespondent IJuly 17, 2008

With the first half of the season and a memorable All-Star break behind them, the Minnesota Twins have one more day to rest before starting the second half in earnest Friday night at home against the Texas Rangers.

As we sit exactly two weeks from the non-waiver trade deadline, much will be made of what happens to this team, both in the standings and in terms of possible personnel movement. These next two weeks may well seal the fate of the Twins' 2008 season.

It isn’t just the approach of the trade deadline that makes this so. The Twins open their second half with a three-game set against the Rangers before going on the road for two series against the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians.

The Rangers have a very solid lineup, boasting four All-Stars in Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, Milton Bradley, and Josh Hamilton. On the other hand, the rotation is pathetic. If the Twins continue their hot hitting with runners in scoring position, they should be able to take that series without too much trouble.

As for the Yankees and Indians, both teams are pretty weak this year, and in particular, Cleveland looks like it’s focusing on the future. Picking up a few games there would help the Twins remain as horse No. 2 in a two-horse race.

However, New York could be looking to make moves in this time frame to get back into the hunt. With the Tampa Bay Rays in a slump heading into the break, everyone in the AL within shouting distance of the front-runners should be looking to capitalize, which could make the battle for the wild card slot in the AL particularly brutal.

Look to the series between the Twins and the Yankees as the moment where that battle starts.

After those two series, the Twins return to the Metrodome to host the Chicago White Sox for a four-game set, with the final game landing squarely on the trade deadline. There could be a lot of storylines to watch on July 31 as these two division rivals conclude this series.

One team could be looking to create breathing room over the other in the division, while both teams could be involved in major trade discussions. It should be very interesting to watch.

How these next 10-13 games go for the Twins may very well make Twins' GM Bill Smith’s mind for him. If the Twins continue to stay strong and stay within striking distance of the Chicago White Sox, or perhaps even overtake them, the Twins might be more inclined to make moves to bolster the bullpen, third base, or the starting rotation.

If the opposite occurs, the Twins front office will likely be more inclined to keep the team as is and continue “building toward 2010.” They may stand pat in any case, as is their wont.

Individual performances during this stretch will also dictate what moves, if any, are made. The litany of questions surrounding this team are not befitting of a team battling for a division title, yet they hang over this team like an impending thunderstorm that threatens to bring this soaring team back to earth.

Will Carlos Gomez continue his incredibly undisciplined approach at the plate? Will Denard Span continue to make a serious case as the true leadoff man for this ballclub?

How will Michael Cuddyer fare when he returns from his current finger injury? Will his return be enough to improve this team’s batting against left-handed pitchers? When he does return, who is the odd-man out in a crowded outfield?

Will the production of Brian Buscher be enough to satisfy Twins' management? Will the Twins get anything out of free-agent bust Mike Lamb? If not, will the Twins pursue Mariners' third baseman Adrien Beltre in earnest?

Will the bullpen settle down enough to allow manager Ron Gardenhire to continue using Joe Nathan exclusively in save situations? If not, will the Twins pursue options in trade to acquire a set-up man to better ensure that they will get the ball to Nathan?

Will Livan Hernandez continue his tightrope act and keep winning games despite his horrid ERA? Would this team consider calling Francisco Liriano up from AAA? If so, who gets bumped from the rotation?

Given the weak competition they face in this stretch, the Twins should capitalize regardless of these issues. Other than the White Sox, the teams they face in this stretch have a combined record of 141-144.

If the Twins do what good teams are supposed to—win the games they are supposed to—they should be in good shape with three series-wins heading into a pivotal matchup with the White Sox to end the month.

Perhaps by that time, some new names will be on the back of some of the jerseys in Twins territory. Only time will tell.