Pitching required to resuscitate 2012 Twins

BY foxsports • July 12, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — The characters may be different, but the script looks similar.

A year ago, the Minnesota Twins entered the All-Star break seven games under .500 and in fourth place in the American League Central, 6 ½ games out of first place. One year later, Minnesota is in an even deeper hole at the break — last in the division at 36-49, 11 games behind first-place Chicago.

There was no Hollywood ending for the injury-plagued Twins in 2011, as they finished fifth in the Central for the first time since 2000. Can Minnesota flip the script in the second half of 2012, which begins Friday against the Athletics, and avoid another last-place finish?

If the Twins are to get on track after the break, it will begin with solidifying the starting pitching. At the break, Minnesota's starters had combined for the worst ERA in the American League (5.68) and second-worst in all of baseball behind Colorado's rotation (6.11).

The lone bright spot in the rotation during the first half was left-hander Scott Diamond, who emerged after being called up from Triple-A Rochester at the beginning of May. Can Diamond continue to put up similar numbers to the ones he registered before the break (7-3, 2.62 ERA in 12 starts)?

Even if he does, Diamond will need help. Left-hander Francisco Liriano has pitched well since his demotion to the bullpen and subsequent promotion back to the rotation. But Liriano could be trade bait in the second half of the season, especially if he continues to take steps in the right direction. He'll open the second half by starting Friday's game against Oakland at Target Field. There's a good chance several scouts could be on hand to see if the 28-year-old left-hander can sustain the success he had right before the break — he was 2-0 with a 2.84 ERA in his last three starts.

Offense has not been a problem for Minnesota through the first half of the year. The Twins are in the middle of the pack in runs scored (18th with 354) and batting average (.258, good for 16th in baseball). Their on-base percentage of .325 ranks 10th in baseball. By comparison, the Twins rank 29th in team ERA (4.86), 28th in quality starts (30) and 28th in WHIP (1.41).

It's a long shot that the Twins can make a playoff push given the hole they're in. With that in mind, the second half of the season can still provide several noteworthy story lines for fans.

Can catcher Joe Mauer claim his fourth batting title?

At the break, the Twins catcher and 2012 All-Star was batting .326, fourth in the American League. Angels rookie sensation Mike Trout leads all AL batters with a .341 average, while Austin Jackson (.332) and Paul Konerko (.329) are still ahead of Mauer at the break. Mauer won batting titles in 2006, 2008 and in his MVP season in 2009. If he can stay healthy — which he has in 2012, unlike a season ago — he should be in the hunt for another batting title at season's end.

Can either Trevor Plouffe or Josh Willingham reach the 40-home run mark?

The Twins haven't had a 40-homer player since Harmon Killebrew hit 41 in 1970. Both Willingham and Plouffe have 19 homers at the break. Willingham hit a career-high 29 homers last year with Oakland and looks to be well on his way to surpassing that. Plouffe went on a tear last month, hitting homers in four consecutive games and seven homers in a stretch of seven games — 11 total in June.

Can Justin Morneau continue to make strides in the right direction?

Other than one brief stint on the disabled list, Morneau has stayed relatively healthy this season, one year after he dealt with numerous injuries that limited him to just 69 games in 2011. He's nearly surpassed that total at the break, having played in 65 games in the first half of the season. Morneau's offensive numbers still aren't where they once were, though. He's batting just .246 with 38 RBI, 11 homers and 53 strikeouts. The second half of the year will be important for Morneau to show he can play an entire season — he hasn't finished a season healthy since 2008.

If the Twins aren't contenders in 2012, it's perhaps time to turn an eye to 2013. Minnesota needs to find out what its roster may look like next spring, and the final 77 games will serve as an audition of sorts for several young players.

The next few weeks could also be an audition for players the Twins might deal before the July 31 trade deadline. Among the names rumored as possible trade candidates are been Liriano, center fielder Denard Span and closer Matt Capps. Which, if any, may actually be traded remains to be seen.

It's likely that the Twins will be sellers by the end of the month. Then again, baseball can be a crazy sport. The 2009 Twins were seven games out of first place in September and rallied to win the division. Minnesota is now 11 games back — and 13 games under .500 — but the AL Central appears to be the weakest division in the majors.

Crazier things have happened in baseball. Buckle up for the second half of 2012.

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.

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