What a glorious day, eh?
It's May 4th, and the Twins lead the Central Division by 1.5 games. Even for someone who was optimistic about the Twins chances to be competitive this year - and I was - that's strange to say. But a modest five-game winning streak and series sweeps of the White Sox and Tigers have put them atop the division. And for today and tomorrow and most of Tuesday, a sense of optimism will be surrounding the Twins.
And there should be. I'm just not sure it's for the right reason.
We may have learned some valuable lessons about the Twins chances of making the postseason, but I'm not sure we learned that much about the Twins. They're still a young team, with plenty of pitching, a decent bullpen, an offensive core that is hit-and-miss, with a lot of youth. They'll need to manufacture runs, just like they have for the last decade.
They manufactured plenty this weekend. With Michael Cuddyer back, Delmon Young batting lower in the order, and Joe Mauer red hot, we finally saw what the middle of the lineup is capable of. Cuddyer had two runs and four RBI this series. Justin Morneau had four hits, three RBI and two runs. And Mauer was 7 for 11(!) with four RBI and three runs.
But the optimism shouldn't come from a mistaken belief that this team is becoming an offensive powerhouse. That's not going to happen until Mike Lamb, Young and Carlos Gomez are shaken out of their early season doldrums or just plain reach another level. After all, this team hit .320 this series, but they're still hitting just .266 this season, and are second to last in the American League in runs scored.
The optimism should come from what we're learning about the rest of the Central Division, which was supposed to be one of the best in the majors. It's not. Not only are the Twins the only team in the division above (or even equal to) .500, but the division as a whole is eight games under .500 against the other divisions. That's the worst showing for any division in the American or National League.
This weekend the Tigers looked like a fundamentally flawed team. They seemed old and one-dimensional, only capable of winning when playing station-to-station baseball. That's overly simplistic, but even Jim Leyland is talking about making drastic changes to their lineup to eek out a bit more production. Their ultra-hyped offense has been outscored by the opposition by 16 runs this year.
But, of course, that really points to the Tigers biggest flaw. Their pitching is nowhere near average, and it doesn't look like there's much that can be done to fix that. The Tigers are sporting a 5.01 ERA as a team right now. Dontrelle Willis should return fairly soon, but all that might do is bump their best starting pitcher out of the rotation. They're calling up guys who have pitched all of seven innings in AAA to help out the bullpen. And their best pitching prospect struggled in his last outing - at High-A ball.
But the Tigers aren't alone in their mediocrity. Looking at the rest of the division, it's hard to find a team that looks like a 90 game winner. The Twins lead the division but have been outscored by their opponents this year. The team with the best run differential in the division is the White Sox, but they did that while having the worst team batting average (.235!) in the American League. Plus, their pitching is a still a work in progress.
The Indians are the only other team in the AL Central who has scored more run than their opponents. They were a victim of very poor starts by pitchers CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, but both of them have shown some life lately. However, starting pitcher Jake Westbrook has gone down with an injury and slugger Travis Hafner has been in a slump for, umm, about 14 months now. With all that drama, we probably know the least about the Indians. And strangely enough, that probably makes them the frontrunner to be competitive this year.
Except, of course, for the division-leading Twins. Just a week ago I wrote in GameDay that this team really needed to take two games from the White Sox, so they could buy some more time for their young lineup to develop. So far, so good. I don't know whether some key players will grow enough this year to become an above-average offense. But it seems clear that they'll have they're getting plenty of time to sprout.
And that justifies the optimism we're feeling. Glorious day, eh?