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Twins Daily: Twins week in review: Smoother sailing

What's going on with Jose Berrios. This might provide some answers.
Luis Arraez

In their third full week of action, the Minnesota Twins went 4-2, with four of their six games decided by a final score of ... 4-2.

While the offense is still waiting to click, several key hitters are finding their rhythms, and pitching continues to shine, with one starter building his case for Rookie of the Year and maybe even the Cy Young.

  • Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 8/10 through Sun, 8/16
  • Record Last Week: 4-2 (Overall: 14-8)
  • Run Differential Last Week: +12 (Overall: +35)
  • Standing: 1st Place in AL Central (1.0 GA)
  • Bomba Counter: 35 (Pace: 95)

Following a week of tough injury news, the Twins had smoother sailing over the past week. Cody Stashak went on the Injured List due to lower back inflammation, but his departure was offset by the return of Zack Littell, who tossed a scoreless inning in his return to action on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Rich Hill had a successful throwing session at the St. Paul site on Friday, and there's optimism he'll be able to step back into the rotation in the coming week. Homer Bailey's timeline is less concrete, but he's at least back to playing catch. As for Josh Donaldson ... no return in sight.

Last week's Trending Storyline in this column pertained to the search for added infield depth, with Donaldon's absence looking to be an extended one. We floated names of some prospects at the alternate training site, but the problem with that route was always going to be bringing in a completely green rookie who's never faced MLB pitching, and hasn't even been able to play competitive games in the minors this season.

So the Twins took a different route. They traded cash considerations to Arizona for Ildemaro Vargas, a versatile defender with considerable big-league experience who has – importantly – been facing MLB pitching already this year (albeit with a .340 OPS in 21 plate appearances).

Righty reliever Cory Gearrin was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for Vargas, who made his debut as a pinch-runner and third baseman on Sunday.

A winning week preserves Minnesota's spot atop the AL Central standings (though Cleveland is nipping at their heels), and their plus-35 run differential is tied with the Yankees for tops in the American League. Here's a look back at bright spots and areas of concern from the past week.

HIGHLIGHTS

As several key hitters stumbled out of the gates, the reassuring mantra went like this: It's early, pitchers are always ahead of hitters in spring training, and no one got a full ramp-up to this abbreviated season. That line of thinking has been supported by the noticeable drop-off in offensive output across the board in the early weeks.

Now, with one-third of the season in the books, it looks like two of Minnesota's most critical lineup fixtures are catching up.

Byron Buxton had begun to simmer the previous week, when he homered in three straight games, and his hot bat carried forward as he notched a pair of three-hit games in Milwaukee, including a two-homer outburst on Wednesday. Even with an 0-for-9 showing against Kansas City over the weekend, Buxton sports a .790 OPS, and is slugging .703 in his past 10 games.

After perpetually getting under the ball in the early going, Buxton is connecting now with much more authority and regularity. Even his outs over the past week tended to be well-struck deep drives tracked down by outfielders (karma?). It would be nice to see a little more discipline – he still has only one walk in 59 plate appearances – but aggressiveness is paying off for Buxton, and the raw power is emerging.

Then, we have Miguel Sanó. In contrast to Buxton, it is the improving plate approach that stands out here more than the production. Sanó had only three hits in the last week (including one absolute mammoth home run at Miller Park, see below) but the massive strides in plate discipline are enormously encouraging.

In his 47 plate appearances prior to last Monday, Sanó had drawn one non-intentional walk, compared to 23 strikeouts. In six games since, he's drawn six non-intentional walks compared to eight strikeouts in 18 plate appearances. That's just a night-and-day difference and one that bodes extremely well, even if the first baseman is still having a helluva time making consistent contact.

He continues to strike out in nearly half his plate appearances, but here's the caveat worth zeroing in on: When Sanó makes contact, he's barreling up at a higher percentage than any other player in baseball. He ranks fourth in average exit velocity.

I feel confident in saying his career-high 18.9% whiff rate is going to come down. The fact that he's suddenly drawing tons of walks indicates he's laying off more bad pitches, which is a key step in that direction. As he starts making more contact, Sanó is going to do immense damage.

That'll be appreciated by a pitching staff that continues to carry the load without a ton of support. Randy Dobnak keeps on making do; the team is averaging just 4 R/G when he starts, and yet he has managed to pick up wins in four straight. He rattled off two more victories last week, allowing three runs over 10 1/3 innings.

Opponents are batting .178 against Minnesota's unlikely ace through five starts, and his 1.46 ERA ranks as the fifth-best in baseball. He's gotta be viewed as the clear front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year at this point, and a leading candidate for the Cy Young alongside the likes of Lance Lynn (3-0, 1.11) and Shane Bieber (4-0, 1.30). What a story.

He and the rest of the Twins' stand-out staff, which allowed just three runs per game on average over the past week, are getting plenty of help from a defense that's been stunningly effective so far. Buxton has been fantastic as usual in center field, and made a number of nice plays over the past week, but he wasn't alone. Check out this sampling of stellar efforts from Eddie Rosario, Marwin González, and the double-play duo of Jorge Polanco and Luis Arráez:

LOWLIGHTS

The weakest link in this steady rotation is ... not exactly the one we expected.

Last year, through five starts, José Berríos was 3-1 with a 2.97 ERA, and holding opponents to a .666 OPS. This year has been quite a different tale. Another rough outing against the the Royals on Saturday (4 IP, 4 ER) dropped Berríos to 1-3 record with a 5.92 ERA through his first five starts of 2020. Opponents are rocking an .854 OPS.

In a nightcap loss against Kansas City, the right-hander's issues were all too familiar. His velocity and pitch movement were certainly there, indicating no physical limitations, but his command wavered as he seemed to alternate between missing the zone entirely and leaving hittable pitchers out over the plate.

His previously infallible ability to limit hard contact has gone amiss here in 2020:

Screen Shot 2020-08-17 at 10.47.31 AM

Berríos' margin for error has unfortunately been pretty thin. The Twins have dropped three of his last four starts, scoring two or fewer runs in each of the losses. It'll be hard to feel great about this team's postseason outlook if Berríos can't start to turn things around, but then, it'll be hard to feel confident in their chances with anyone on the mound if the offense can't find some consistent juice.

The 12-run explosion against Milwaukee on Wednesday was nice to see, but this remains a feast-or-famine unit, which scored four or fewer in all five other games, and has pushed across more than six in a contest only twice since the opening series.

The absence of Donaldson hurts, but the bigger problem is that this lineup rarely seems to have multiple players locked in simultaneously, or for a sustained period. Buxton couldn't buy a hit over the weekend after his big series in Milwaukee. Sanó, despite his positive signs, still hasn't become a difference-maker for the offense yet. Max Kepler was 1-for-16 on the week before his crucial two-run homer on Sunday. Mitch Garver has driven in one run since Opening Day.

We keep waiting for this vaunted offense to awaken and start punishing opponents in accordance with their statement from the opening weekend, but it's still not happening.

The Twins don't have another scheduled day off until September 3rd – more than two weeks from now. Factor in Saturday's double-header, and that's a stretch of 20 games in 19 days. It'll be interesting to see how Rocco Baldelli handled his regulars during this gauntlet, which includes potentially key series against Cleveland and Chicago. More rest? Less? Reinforcements called in to aid the cause? (Willians Astudillo?)

Even more so, I'm curious to see how the pitching staff is managed. It'd be unsurprising to see the "revolving door" strategy from last year implemented for the last spot or two in the bullpen, with relievers being swapped out for a fresh arm immediately after taxing appearances. Which players from the alternate training site could we see enter the fold? Sean Poppen, who was 29th man for Saturday's double-header, is a good bet. Could we see debuts from exciting prospects like Jhoan Duran, Dakota Chalmers, or even Edwar Colina (who'd need to be added to the 40-man roster)? It sure seems plausible.

LOOKING AHEAD

The slate for this coming week looks very familiar, as the Twins run out a string of 17 straight games against the Brewers and Royals. First, Minnesota wraps its four-game home series against Kansas City, then welcomes Milwaukee to Target Field before heading back to Kauffman for the last time.

If you're tired of seeing this pesky Royals club, which has gone 4-2 against the Twins through six contests, the good news is that we'll be finished with them after this week.

Keep an eye on that "TBD" for the Twins on Wednesday, when Hill could very well jump back into the rotation.

MONDAY, 8/17: ROYALS @ TWINS – LHP Kris Bubic v. RHP Matt Wisler
TUESDAY, 8/18: BREWERS @ TWINS – RHP Corbin Burnes v. RHP Kenta Maeda
WEDNESDAY, 8/19: BREWERS @ TWINS – LHP Brett Anderson v. TBD
THURSDAY, 8/20: BREWERS @ TWINS – RHP Brandon Woodruff v. RHP Jake Odorizzi
FRIDAY, 8/21: TWINS @ ROYALS – RHP Jose Berrios v. LHP Danny Duffy
SATURDAY, 8/22: TWINS @ ROYALS – RHP Randy Dobnak v. RHP Brady Singer
SUNDAY, 8/23: TWINS @ ROYALS – RHP Kenta Maeda v. LHP Kris Bubic

Catch Up On Twins Daily Game Recaps

Game 17 | MIN 4, MIL 2: The Randy and Rosie Show
Game 18 | MIL 6, MIN 4: Another Loss for Rogers, Additional Missed Opportunities for Offense
Game 19 | MIN 12, MIL 2: Byron Buxton Blasts 2 More Home Runs in Blowout of Brewers
Game 20 | MIN 4, KCR 2
Game 21 | KCR 4, MIN 2
Game 22 | MIN 4, KCR 2: Pitching, Defense and Overall Execution Shine in Twins Victory

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