Technically, the actual halfway point in Minnesota's season came and went back in the first week of July, when the Twins played their 81st game at home against the Yankees. Yet, with the All-Star Game and its requisite four-day break falling in mid-July, it's tidier to simply use the Midsummer Classic as a milestone bisecting the MLB season.
So, now that we've passed both the official and unofficial halfway points in what is clearly going to be a losing campaign, where do we go from here? The playoffs might be out of the picture, but that doesn't mean there aren't positive things to be accomplished. Here in the final 70 games, winning takes a back seat to the following five priorities:
1) Limit Joe Mauer's innings behind the plate.
Two years ago, Mauer's future as a catcher was very much in doubt as he battled mysterious leg problems and exhibited diminished skill defensively. He has authoritatively erased any such concerns since then, setting a career high in plate appearances last year and ramping up his workload behind the dish this year while once again remaining remarkably healthy.
Mauer is one of the best hitters in the league, and his production is vastly more valuable when he's catching. To give you some idea of how much his offense (.320/.402/.473, 30 doubles, eight homers) stands out at the position, consider that Kansas City's Salvador Perez, with a .711 OPS and four homers in the first half, was one of the American League's two All Star reserves at catcher.
At some point Mauer will need to transition away from catching duties, but it's in the Twins' best interest to delay that eventuality as long as possible. Therefore, I would recommend drastically reducing his reps behind the plate in the second half. Catching is very hard on the body, and while Mauer's ability to avoid the disabled list while crouching for 500-plus innings this year has been admirable, there's no reason to expose him to much additional wear and tear in the second half of a lost season.
The best approach: Play Mauer at catcher often enough to keep sharp, and no more. Give him a heavy uptick in playing time at first base and DH, while letting an alternative option (even Drew Butera) handle the punishment of catching. Hopefully, this will improve Mauer's chances of serving as a regular catcher in future years where it might matter more.
2) Load up on future assets.
The Twins are in sell mode, and Terry Ryan has made no secret of it. The chief objective for the next couple weeks, and beyond, will be adding as much minor-league talent to the system as possible in exchange for expendable parts. Justin Morneau, Jamey Carroll and other candidates are likely to fetch modest returns, but anything that Ryan is able to acquire would be a bonus when giving up expiring contracts.
Of course, the only way the Twins are going to be able to add any impact prospects is by trading Glen Perkins, who figures to be one of the hottest names on the trade market. While the general manager is understandably reluctant to part with his elite closer, it's known that he is open to the idea should an offer sufficiently wow him. As should be the case
3) Straighten out struggling youngsters.
Aaron Hicks is hitting .197. Kyle Gibson has a 6.45 ERA. Oswaldo Arcia was recently demoted to the minors amidst a brutal slump.
No, things haven't gone swimmingly for the group of promising rookies that have been ushered into the major-league fold this year, but that's not particularly surprising nor worrisome. The key in these final months will be doing whatever is necessary to set these individuals up for future success, because the Twins need them to be crucial components in a turnaround going forward. If that means more time in the minors (as in the case of Arcia), so be it. If it means working through it in the big leagues (as in the case of Hicks), all the better. We'll have to trust that the Twins know what's best for the development of these young talents. Hopefully each can finish the year in a good place.
4) Evaluate borderline talents.
While the Arcia demotion is justifiable, I have a harder time understanding the decision to send Chris Parmelee to the minors. He has nothing left to prove in the International League, which he completely dominated last year, and the Twins are reaching a point where they need to make a decision on the 25-year-old. They don't want to enter next season in the same position they entered this one -- with Parmelee being an unknown quantity who has crushed Triple-A pitching but struggled in limited time against major-leaguers -- yet that is exactly the situation they're headed toward.
Fortunately, outcomes have been better for fellow uncertainties Trevor Plouffe and Brian Dozier. Each has shown signs of becoming a solid long-term fixture, albeit with considerably more stability than Parmelee has enjoyed. I'd like to see plenty of all three, as well as Pedro Florimon, in the second half, so as to help inform offseason decisions regarding the positions they play.
5) Don't be afraid to lose.
I'm certainly not advocating that the Twins try to lose. That's not how professional sports teams operate, nor should they. But all decisions should be aimed at the betterment of individual young players, not giving the team a better chance to win. At the end of the day, the only real difference between losing 85 games and 95 games is draft position. The Twins have had picks in the top four in each of the past two seasons, and with those picks they have added Byron Buxton -- now viewed as the consensus top prospect in baseball -- and Kohl Stewart -- ranked this week by Keith Law
as the game's No. 30 prospect despite being drafted out of high school about a month ago.
Circling back to the Parmelee example, if the Twins think he was struggling because he was overwhelmed and needed to get things figured out in a lower-pressure environment, fair enough. But if they felt his struggles were affecting the team's ability to win... at this point, who cares?