The Minnesota Twins have a legitimate shot at winning the American League Central this season. Going into play on Saturday they sit just two-and-a-half games behind the division leading Detroit Tigers and one-half game behind the Chicago White Sox.
The division is still wide-open and very winnable. If the Twins can’t pull it off, the following will be the five biggest reasons why.
Win or Go Home
Unlike the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in the AL East, the Twins do not have the luxury of playing for the safety-net that is the Wild Card. If the Twins are going to make the postseason, they need to climb over both Chicago and Detroit to do so.
The Twins have 19 head-to-head match-ups left with the Tigers and White Sox, including a four-game set in Detroit during the final week of the season.
If the Twins want a shot at the postseason they have to make the most of these head-to-head match-ups, because there is no fallback plan for second-place in the Central.
Best in the West
The Twins—prior to play on Saturday—have sixteen games remaining against the top two teams in the AL West, the Los Angeles Angels and the Texas Rangers. Ten of those games are on the road, including a four game stop in Texas during the late August dog days of summer.
The Twins have a winning record against the West thus far, but no one wants to run headlong into two teams fighting for playoff spots; especially not late in the season and in the opposition’s backyard to boot.
The Twins have a few glaring needs heading into the stretch run. The team could use another bat to sure up the middle infield, and another proven arm in the bullpen would be a huge relief.
Instead of making a move on the open market, the front office has called up Alexi Casilla to man the keystone corner and Kevin Mulvey to round out the bullpen.
One would hope these are just stopgaps until the Twins can make a bigger move, but come on, these are the Twins. It would be hard to fathom the front office making any sort of splash, as is often the case, the Twins will have to win with the pieces that are already in place.
Morneau’s Second-Half Malaise
Justin Morneau hit .323 with a .391 on-base percentage and 14 home runs prior to the 2008 All-Star break. In the second half, he slumped and hit just .267 with a .350 OBP and nine homers.
For his career, Morneau's first-half average and OBP are each about 30 points higher than his second-half results. The only time in his career that he didn’t suffer a second-half meltdown was in 2006, when his unusually strong second-half helped earn him the American League MVP award.
If Morneau suffers another second-half malaise, the Twins cannot make the playoffs. It is as simple as that. Justin Morneau has to hit and hit well, or the Twins will not be taking part in the postseason festivities for a third straight year.
Joe Mauer has put up incredible numbers thus far in 2008 despite missing the entire first month of the season. All of the numbers and work, however, have taken a major toll on Mauer. In the past 10 games his batting average has dropped from .390 to .371 and he has looked worn out.
The All-Star catcher went 1-12 in the final series before the All-Star break and didn’t get much of a rest as he participated in both the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game. His numbers generally take a dip in the second-half as it is, and thus far Mauer has seen action in nearly every game the team has played since he came off the disabled list in May.
The Twins need to give him more regular days off or they can expect his production to decrease further. The Twins don’t need Mauer to hit .400 to make the playoffs, but they do need him to be healthy and productive.