Second-half lookahead: As top prospects trickle in, Twins remain in contention

The Twins are 4 1/2 games behind the division-leading Kansas City Royals, but they're four games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays, the closest to the second wild card spot.

Brad Rempel/Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — After stumbling through the last four seasons, the Minnesota Twins have summoned several of their best minor leaguers this summer, some straight from Double-A.

These prized prospects have provided further reinforcement of the assumption the franchise is headed for brighter days. The funny thing about this rebuilding phase? The Twins have become contenders again.

Like, now.

"We’ve gotten to a point now where it’s like, ‘OK, this is something that we can do not only for a month or two months, but for a season,’" manager Paul Molitor said. "Let’s make it fun. I haven’t tried to look too far out, as far as talking to these guys about the playoffs and those kinds of things, but I hear them. I feel them. They’re believing."

The Twins, at 49-40, have the second-best record in the American League.

In mid-July.

"We’re getting better, and part of that is the influx of young talent we’ve been able to insert into our lineup from time to time," Molitor said.

Molitor has helped instill a sense of self-assurance in a team comprised largely of players influenced by his past teaching as a roving minor league instructor in the organization. His Hall of Fame status, attention to detail and fresh perspective have commanded him built-in respect in the clubhouse despite a mere 89 games as manager.

He’s not the only rookie who’s made an impact on this team, either.

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Miguel Sano has immediately become an imposing presence in the middle of the lineup, though the sample size is a mere 11 games. Eddie Rosario has quietly become a reliable everyday player. Byron Buxton was overmatched at the plate during the 11 games he played before hurting his thumb, but his speed brought instant energy and an elite caliber center fielder.

Two other members of the 25-and-under club, Aaron Hicks and Trevor May, have contributed. Kyle Gibson, the rotation’s youngest, has been the best starting pitcher.

"We’ve taken that word ‘regression’ and thrown it out the window," said Gibson, who has a 2.85 ERA in 18 starts.

Gibson even looked up the meaning of the word regression recently. One version: the progressive decline of a manifestation of disease.

"I kind of like that definition a whole lot better," Gibson said.

The state of the Twins from 2011-14 was indeed rather sickly, with a combined record better than only the Houston Astros. They carried little promise into this year.

Signing right fielder Torii Hunter for leadership, durability and home runs was an upgrade. Some of the still-under-30 players like Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe figured to make progress. The major free agent addition, though, was unavailable for the first 80 games, the consequence of Ervin Santana’s performance-enhancing drug suspension. There were big holes in the bullpen and center field and a lack of clarity at shortstop. At best, this figured to be a bridge season, with a gradual return to competitiveness.

Confidence and chemistry can go a long way, though.

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"I don’t think it’s beyond our expectations. We thought this was the team we could be," Plouffe said.

At 31-16, the Twins have the AL’s best home record.

"Just the energy in the stands and everything is completely different this year," Dozier said.

The Twins are 11th out of 15 in the league in on-base-plus-slugging percentage, the truest measure of a team’s offense. They’re eighth in steals, with a propensity for running into outs on the base paths. They’re sixth in fielding percentage. They’re eighth in ERA. None of these numbers scream "postseason bound," if assessed in a vacuum.

They’re clearly among the leaders in resiliency, though. Don’t forget that the Twins started 1-6 while being outscored 45-16.

"We could’ve folded there and allowed the first seven games to affect the next 14, and we just didn’t," Gibson said.

The Twins are 4 1/2 games behind the division-leading Kansas City Royals, but they’re four games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays, the closest to the second wild card spot.

Acquiring an experienced, accomplished reliever or two might be necessary. All-Stars Dozier and closer Glen Perkins will have to keep up their production. Sano must avoid the big slump. But this team isn’t daunted.

"We know that we can play with just about anybody," Gibson said, "and we proved that over the last three months."