Score another one for the Mystery Team, as the Minnesota Twins came from nowhere this weekend to ink designated hitter Kendrys Morales to a one-year contract worth $12 million. The Twins may be in last place, but they are just 5.5 games behind Detroit and two games behind second-place Cleveland. With Morales, the Twins can take a swing at a playoff run without giving up prospects or committing any money to 2015 and beyond. There's reason to believe a Minnesota club with Morales has the bats to make it interesting.
This season's Twins have already been much improved offensively. Last year's club ranked third-to-last in the American League, in front of only historically poor Houston and Chicago clubs. The club's 614 runs scored was its worst mark in a 162-game season since 1968, a season in which nearly every club set franchise scoring lows. In 2014, the Twins are scoring 4.35 runs per game, slightly above the AL average.
That improvement is a testament to the talent of players like Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe, as well as the hot starts of Eduardo Escobar and Kurt Suzuki. The Twins have been succeeding despite a number of holes. Jason Kubel has hit just .224/.313/.295 in 176 plate appearances as a left fielder and designated hitter. Aaron Hicks is hitting .198/.338/.262 while changing from a switch-hitter to a pure right-hander, with little effect thus far. Chris Colabello hit .232/.280/.377 in 161 plate appearances before his Cinderella story ended. Pedro Florimon hit .108/.194/.154 in 74 plate appearances before effectively giving up the full-time shortstop job to Escobar. Then there's the most prominent of the Twins' struggling hitters, first baseman Joe Mauer, who has just 11 extra-base hits on the year with a brutal .264/.341/.336 line.
Aside from Mauer, these struggling players are either done with the Twins or headed for a severely reduced role. Kubel, who had five extra-base hits in his first five starts but managed a putrid .490 OPS in his next 35, was released late Sunday to open a roster spot for Morales. Kubel's former home in left field belongs once again to Josh Willingham, who returned from injury in late May and has a 1.011 OPS in 79 plate appearances. Hicks largely will be limited to facing right-handed pitchers, as he has been passed on the depth chart by Danny Santana. Colabello has been sent back to the minor leagues, his starts in right field to be replaced by Oswaldo Arcia, who also returned from an injury in late May. Florimon has been replaced by former Yankee Eduardo Nunez on the bench.
Enter Morales. The switch-hitter owns a .275/.329/.457 batting line over 1,179 plate appearances since returning from a horrific broken leg two years ago. He represents a marked improvement over Josmil Pinto's .221/.325/.412 line this year. The Twins could send the 25-year-old Pinto back to Triple A so he could continue his development as an everyday catcher, or they could keep him around to bolster what has been one of the league's worst benches so far.
Perhaps the best solution would be to create a four-man rotation between catcher, first base and designated hitter, with Suzuki, Mauer, Pinto and Morales. With the exception of Pinto, this is a veteran group with a long injury history, and the wear and tear of the season should ensure a fair share of at-bats for all four. Mauer has been horrible against left-handed pitching and possibly could use the extra rest days. Whoever is left out of the lineup ends up as a weapon off the bench that day, something the Twins haven't had all year. Twins batters are a horrific 4-for-35 when pinch hitting this season, ahead of only Houston's 2-for-30 showing. It may require a little creativity from Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, but one would imagine he's willing to try.
The Twins have been an average team at the plate this year even with a number of black holes in the lineup and a dead bench. Now they're healthy, and with Kendrys Morales, the Twins should be able to field a lineup that is solid 1-through-9 on a daily basis. They'll have to hit if they want to make a run; their 4.40 ERA ranks 14th in the American League, and it isn't getting better without a trade. But with their newly healthy lineup, they at least have a chance to outhit the opposition on a daily basis.
All five AL Central teams are bunched within 5.5 games. Only Detroit has a positive run differential, and even they are only plus-11 on the year. The Twins find themselves just 3.5 games behind the wild card-leading Mariners, with a slew of average teams between them and a playoff spot. In Morales, The Twins saw a shot at meaningful baseball this season without any commitment beyond 2014. It's hard to blame them for taking it.