Are the Twins, A's and Nationals for real?
Recent runs could be signs of things to come or just anomalies
The Marlins' recent struggles, which culminated with the resignation of manager Edwin Rodriguez on Sunday, reminded us of something: success in this game can be very fickle.
It was less than four weeks ago that the Marlins had completed a sweep of the defending-champion Giants, were a game out of first place in the National League East and looked like one of baseball's best underdog stories. Twenty-four games and a mere three wins later, they're desperately seeking answers.
And now, in this season of great parity, three clubs have reversed their fortunes, but in the opposite direction of the Marlins.
The Twins, Athletics and Nationals have toiled at the bottom pretty much all year, and, up until recently, their seasons looked lost. But each of them has turned it around in its own way, suddenly making us wonder if they're actually legit, or if their current state is merely an anomaly.
Here's a look ...
Recently: 20 games below .500; 16 1/2 out of first place after June 1
Now: Winners of seven in a row and 14 of 16; eight games out of first
How it can continue: You had to think the team that won the American League Central six of the past nine years wouldn't go quietly into its 10th summer under Ron Gardenhire. And what makes the Twins' recent surge seem most legit is that their early-season struggles came mostly because they weren't healthy. Minnesota has used the disabled list 15 times for 13 players this season. Six of those players are still on the shelf, but Joe Mauer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka returned this week, Jim Thome and Joe Nathan don't seem too far away, and Denard Span and Jason Kubel may follow. The great thing about the Twins' steak is that the team's biggest boost has come from what seemed like a weakness heading into the year -- starting pitching. Twins starters have an 11-2 record and a 1.86 ERA in their past 16 games.
How it can end: The Twins' biggest problem is the same as last year's -- the health and state of Justin Morneau. Thanks to a big lift from Thome, the Twins were the first team to clinch a playoff spot in 2010, even though their biggest run producer didn't play after July 7 because of a concussion. You can't expect them to overcome another lost year from Morneau, not with how deep the AL Central is now. Morneau's 2011 issue is a left wrist strain. There's no telling when he'll return and -- considering the .225 batting average and four homers he carried through his first 55 games -- how he'll perform when he does.
What they'll need: The Twins could use some help for a bullpen that currently ranks last in the Majors with a 4.86 ERA. The recent return of lefty Glen Perkins, and the upcoming return of Nathan, is a boost. But this is a club that ranked in the top 10 in bullpen ERA in five of the previous six years, and this group is a long way removed from that.
Playoffs? I wouldn't put it past them, even though they play in one of baseball's best divisions. Gardy's clubs usually find a way.
Recently: 12 games below .500; eight games out of first place heading into Wednesday
Now: Winners of five straight; five games out of first
How it can continue: Perhaps Marlins fans searching for hope that a switch at manager can help turn things around need not look any further than the A's. Oakland's season looked lost after it dropped 10 in a row and 13 of 14, but the A's just completed their first sweep since May, and word is there has been a renewed sense of confidence since one Bob (Melvin) replaced another (Geren) at the helm. Now, for a more tangible reason to expect sustained success: The A's have pitching -- lots and lots of it. And even though five starters are on Oakland's disabled list, pitching isn't the problem. Not when the bullpen is as deep as it is, or when Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez are leading a rotation that has received solid contributions from fill-ins Josh Outman and Guillermo Moscoso. Oakland has the second-best starter ERA and ninth-best reliever ERA in baseball. Once Brandon McCarthy, Tyson Ross and (eventually) Brett Anderson get back, they A's will only get better.
How it can end: If they just don't hit enough. The A's offense is just as bad as their pitching is good. Consider: The A's rank 25th in the Majors in runs and batting average; Jose Bautista has just 17 fewer homers than the entire A's team; Sunday's cleanup hitter (Hideki Matsui) has a .646 OPS; their first baseman (Daric Barton) is hitting .213 and hasn't homered in 235 at-bats this season; and their 2010 home run leader (Kevin Kouzmanoff) is toiling in the Minors. We saw the Giants win the World Series last year despite a makeshift offense, but San Fran at least had its Buster Posey. Unless new second baseman Jemile Weeks follows that path, the A's don't have a single go-to guy in their batting order.
What they'll need: The A's need to improve their offense if they want to vault into and stay in the race. Somewhere, anywhere, they need to find an upgrade, particularly for the middle of their order. Carlos Beltran? Ryan Ludwick? Hunter Pence? Carlos Pena? Somebody.
Playoffs? The AL West still looks like a wide-open division, but in case I forgot to mention it before, the A's will need to add a bat, or two, or three.
Recently: Nine games below .500; 11 1/2 games back of first place after May 30
Now: Winners of eight of nine; 13-6 since May 31; 4 1/2 back in the Wild Card race
How it can continue: Here are two very good signs if you're a Nationals fan: Their biggest weakness over the past five years (defense) is now an area of strength, and the franchise player's return is making an impact. The Nationals ranked no better than 24th in fielding percentage from 2006-10, but now -- despite a three-error game on Sunday that helped snap an eight-game winning streak -- they're tied for second in that department. And since third baseman Ryan Zimmerman returned on Tuesday, their offense has averaged 6.8 runs and 10.8 hits per game. The Nationals stayed afloat while their superstar was out, going 27-31 from April 10-June 13, and they'll only be better with Zimmerman back. Their bullpen is as good as anyone's, too.
How it can end: The Nationals have received some nice contributions from Mike Morse and Laynce Nix, but their big offseason signee, Jayson Werth, has yet to really get going. Werth, signed to a $126 million contract in December, has been shuffled through the first four spots of the lineup and carries a .232 batting average through 68 games. The Nats aren't good enough to sustain this kind of winning if Werth isn't producing at the rate he's accustomed to, especially now that Adam LaRoche has been lost for the year. Pitching-wise, their rotation has been solid, but a foursome of Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann and Jason Marquis pales in comparison to that of the teams in front of them -- namely, the Phillies and Braves.
What they'll need: Their biggest acquisition could come in-house via future ace Stephen Strasburg, who could make it back from Tommy John surgery in time to make an impact on 2011. Besides pitching, the Nats need a guy who can consistently get on base and solidify the top of the order. They're tied for 25th in on-base percentage.
Playoffs? Highly doubtful. But a strong 2011 season can go a long way in general manager Mike Rizzo's yearly struggle to add prominent free agents. It's easier to acquire a guy like, say, Prince Fielder if you can sell a ballclub with the ability to win now.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.