Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's our look at the hot topics shaping the week ahead.
1. Minnesota tWINS
The Twins lost Sunday. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when such a thing did not qualify as news. But this was news. The Twins, after all, have won nine of their last 11 to leap to the fifth-best record in the American League.
Yeah, that's right. If the season ended today, two 92-game losers from 2014 -- the Twins and Astros -- would be in the playoffs.
How rare would it be for two 90-plus game losers one year to reach the playoffs the next? Well, it hasn't happened since way, way, way back in 2013 (Red Sox and Indians), when people were still using the iPhone 5C.
If I had to guess, I'd guess the Astros have more staying power, if only because their division appears less demanding. They've got big power, a true ace in Dallas Keuchel, a strong bullpen. But no matter how long this ride lasts for the Twins, you already have to give them credit for rebounding from the gut-punch of the Ervin Santana suspension and a 1-6 start in which their offense was flaccid and their starting pitching was every bit as abysmal as it had been the last two years.
"The Santana thing might have broken our spirits a bit," veteran Torii Hunter said. "We had to figure out how to get over that. I have to commend [manager Paul] Molitor. After that home opener, the seventh game, he sat us down and talked to us and said, 'This is not Twins baseball.' … He just gave us a motivational speech -- spiritual, inspirational, whatever you want to call it. It soaked in."
Remember: This team finished seventh in the Majors in runs last year. The problem was a rotation ERA of 5.06 (which was actually an improvement on '13) and a shoddy defense. The defense isn't great, but it's better. The rotation isn't great (Phil Hughes has a 5.11 ERA, and there's no return on investment from Ricky Nolasco), but it's better. The offense hasn't truly hit its stride (the 39-year-old Hunter has the highest adjusted OPS of the bunch, thanks to a torrid May), but it's been adequate.
"We don't have a Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera, but we do have guys who can play the game," Hunter said. "We do what we have to do with the cards that we're dealt. We're grinding out at-bats, playing fundamentally sound defense, the pitchers are making pitches and we're playing the game the old-fashioned way."
Now comes a true litmus test: The Twins head to Detroit for a three-game series beginning Tuesday night.
2. Not so Super?
When the Patriots and Seahawks met in the Super Bowl that will probably forever known for its Deflategate sideshow, it seemed only natural to look at the Red Sox and Mariners -- both of whom were quite active adding bats in the Hot Stove season -- and take a guess as to which had the best chance to reach the World Series.
The early answer?
Now that's deflating.
So maybe our Series of the Week isn't up to Super Bowl standards, but the four-game set between the Red Sox and Mariners that begins Thursday at Safeco Field could be an opportunity for one of these clubs to develop some major momentum. The M's and Red Sox both sit at 14-17 and 5 1/2 back in their respective divisions. Both have fielded suspect rotations (the Mariners surprisingly so), and neither offense has been quite as dynamic as envisioned.
Prior to Sunday's much-needed win over Toronto, the Red Sox had completed a 1-for-8 stretch in which they scored a total of 16 runs. They were fortunate that left fielder Hanley Ramirez, who tied a franchise record with 10 April home runs, avoided the DL after jamming his surgically repaired left shoulder against the Green Monster last Monday. Their rotation hasn't been quite as bad as advertised, if you believe in the merits of Fielding Independent Pitching, but that didn't stop Boston from firing pitching coach Juan Nieves. Consistency has not been the strong suit of Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly in the early going.
The Mariners might finally be finding their stride after sweeping the A's over the weekend, or maybe they just took advantage of an Oakland team in a big funk. Whatever the case, the series included the M's first win this season by more than three runs. Getting quality pitching from guys not named Felix Hernandez and quality production from guys not named Nelson Cruz has been an uphill battle, but Logan Morrison, prior to Sunday's 0-for-4, had a 1.187 OPS over the last two weeks, and J.A. Happ, save for one clunker against Houston, has been a big asset to the rotation.
3. Sweet relief
As pointed out in this MLB.com piece last week, the correlation between relief success and team success in this young season could not be more direct. Entering Sunday's play, the top six teams in relief ERA-- the Royals (1.51), Cardinals (1.57), Dodgers (1.92), Astros (2.16), Yankees (2.21) and Mets (2.61) -- doubled as division leaders.
(This isn't a perfect science, of course, because seventh on that list were the lowly Phillies, and the Tigers have had the AL Central lead quite a bit this season despite the annual agita caused by their 'pen. But you get the idea.)
While the Dodgers might not be a surprising division leader, their place near the top of the relief ERA leaderboard is catching some people off guard. This club's moves to address last year's toxic 'pen were largely under the radar, closer Kenley Jansen was lost to left foot surgery early in Spring Training and backup closer Joel Peralta hit the DL with shoulder soreness.
Jansen, who has made four rehab appearances at Class A Rancho Cucamonga, could rejoin the better-than-advertised Dodger bullpen later this week. But while it's always nice to have your closer, this 'pen' has actually benefited from the flexibility that comes when the roles aren't fixed. And with injuries impacting the rotation, the Dodgers have benefited from the solid relief work their eight-man 'pen has provided.
Don Mattingly has a strange but special group at his disposal. There's a former catcher (Chris Hatcher), a converted third baseman (Pedro Baez), a failed starter (Juan Nicasio) and an unheralded rookie right-hander (Yimi Garcia) whose strikeout rate has actually risen in the big leagues, despite pedestrian velocity. Left-handers Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell have been terrific. And the lack of ego means Mattingly can play the matchups as he sees fit -- a manager's dream.
While Jansen's pending return isn't quite on the "rich get richer" level of the Royals getting both Greg Holland and Luke Hochevar back last week, it could still be a strength added to strength.
4. You Ha-rang?
The Phillies rotation member getting the most traction in early trade talks?
Forget Cole Hamels. It's Aaron Michael Harang, whose next start comes Thursday against the Pirates.
Obviously, with Harang, who is only under contract for one year and $5 million, the value equation is a lot less difficult to decipher than it is with the pricey Hamels. And just as obviously, a contending team would be looking to acquire Harang as a back-end innings eater, not a front-line ace.
But the 37-year-old Harang is off to a terrific start -- a 2.38 ERA with a 1.015 WHIP and 31 strikeouts against just nine walks in 45 1/3 innings. Despite pitching his home games in the Citizens Bank Park launch pad, he's allowing just 0.4 homers per nine.
Harang's had a heck of a career, really. This is his 14th Major League season. He's logged an adjusted ERA+ just a tick below league average and compiled 2,195 innings pitched. There's nothing earth-shattering here, but there is distinct value in durability and average output in this sport.
5. Quick hits
- A reminder: Presumptive early Rookie of the Year favorites Joc Pederson (Dodgers) and Devon Travis (Blue Jays) are both older than Bryce Harper, who went on a wonderful weekend home-run binge.
- The Tigers dodged a bullet when David Price's hamstring injury -- suffered when he stepped on a bat while covering home plate -- turned out to be minor. His scheduled start has been pushed back two days, from Thursday to Saturday. No word on how the bat is doing.
- After a quick adjustment from the back doctor, Stephen Strasburg is, well, back. He left his last start due to discomfort under his shoulder blade, but will return to the Nats' rotation Tuesday against the D-backs.
- Matt Carpenter is expected back in the Cardinals' lineup Tuesday in Cleveland after a bout with "extreme fatigue," looking to build on an impressive .333/.403/.620 slash line in the early going. Once Carp returns, the only "extreme fatigue" associated with the Cards will be what fans of other National League teams feel when St. Louis reaches the NLCS every year.
- Amazing that just 19 months ago, Allen Craig's return to action was one of the major plot points of the World Series. Now he's in Triple-A Pawtucket.
- Are the Rays -- who are likely to lose both Drew Smyly and Alex Cobb to season-ending surgeries within a week of each other -- the new Rangers? That's a terrible run of injury luck for a team that looked like a frisky AL East contender.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.