Sunday, May 31, 2015

Astros and Twins Among Early Surprises

Little was expected of the Astros and Twins, and 2015 was thought to be a rebuilding year for them. Houston hasn't had a winning season since 2008, and 2010 was the last winning season for Minnesota. Both teams entered the season with new managers. Both teams had some of the top prospects in baseball, Carlos Correa in Houston, and Brian Buxton and Miguel Sano in Minnesota. None of those players have debuted yet, but these two teams have found other contributors.

The Astros had their worst stretch in team history from 2011 to 2014. They finished a combined 184 games under .500 in that four year stretch. Houston lost over 100 games three seasons in a row during 2011 to 2013. They improved by 19 wins in 2014, going from 51 to 70. Houston also managed to get out of the basement of the division for the first time since 2010. Former Cardinals executive Jeff Luhnow had took over the GM role after the 2011 season, and was now starting to see his hard work pay off. The Astros had one of the game's best farm systems, and a reason for optimism for the future.

Still, no one expected the Astros to be in first place at the end of May. The Astros currently have the best record in the American League, and second best in all of baseball. Luhnow had made several moves in the offseason, acquiring Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena, Luke Gregerson, and Pat Neshek. Most prognosticators predicted only a modest improvement, maybe breaking .500 this year. A.J. Hinch was the fifth manager of Luhnow's tenure as GM, and he has finally found a voice in the dugout that has worked.

One of the big reasons for the Astros resurgence is the improvement of their bullpen and the emergence of Dallas Keuchel as an ace. The left hander sports a 7-1 record, and leads the league with a 1.76 ERA. The Astros may have found a compliment to Keuchel when they called up top pitching prospect Lance McCullers earlier this month. Colin McHugh has also been one of the team's better starters, but has struggled recently. The rest of the rotation is solid, but unspectacular.

There was concern that the Astros had too many power hitting, but high strikeout and low average hitters. It has turned out that they do have a lot of hitters like that, but it hasn't hurt them. They rank fifth in the AL with 219 runs scored, rank second in stolen bases, and first in home runs. They've done that with Jed Lowrie being hurt most of the year, and two sub-.200 hitters in the everyday lineup. They have been led by speedy second baseman Jose Altuve and second year outfielder George Springer, but have had a balanced attack.

Hall of Famer Paul Molitor took over as the Twins manager this year, but little was expected from Minnesota. After all, the Twins had been in the cellar of the division the past four years. The Royals came within a game of winning the World Series last year. The Tigers had won the AL Central the past four seasons. The White Sox made some major moves in the offseason, and the Indians were thought to have strong team. The Twins were a afterthought in this division, and picked by many to finish in last place.

The Twins made few moves this past offseason, other than bringing back 39 year old outfielder Torii Hunter. They also signed pitcher Ervin Santana, who was suspended 80 games for PED's before the season even started. Minnesota also kept Buxton and Sano in the minors, although they may be called up at some point later this year.

On paper, the Twins roster isn't that impressive. Joe Mauer is the most recognizable player, but he has an ordinary .707 OPS this season. Mauer still is a good average hitter, but is no longer the all around hitter he was in the past. Hunter has actually been one of the Twins best hitters this year, in what was thought to be his retirement tour. Past Mauer and Hunter, Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe have been two of the teams better hitters. Minnesota ranks 9th in on base pct. and 11th in slugging percentage, but has tied the Astros with 219 runs scored. They are somehow getting it done.

Pitching had been the Twins Achilles heel during in recent years. This season, it has improved. They still don't have an ace like they did in the Johan Santana era, but their pitching has kept them in games. Phil Hughes has been the veteran innings eater in the Twins rotation since joining the team last year. The Twins have also gotten a good performance out of journeyman Mike Pelfrey this season. Minnesota has also relied on two younger pitchers in Kyle Gibson and Trevor May. Gibson has pitched really well, and May has shown glimpses of his potential. Rounding out the rotation is Ricky Nolasco, another innings eater type. Not a great rotation, but much better than they have had.

The bullpen has been stronger this season for the Twins. Glen Perkins is a two time All Star closer, and is off to an even better start this season. New pitching coach Neil Allen has gotten results out of a patchwork bullpen this year. Journeyman Blaine Boyer, Aaron Thompson, and Casey Fein have pitched well as setup men for Perkins. Minnesota is awaiting the return of Ervin Santana to give them more innings to relieve stress from the bullpen.

Will the Astros and Twins continue their winning ways this year? That remains to be seen. It's a long season, and sometimes surprise teams fade later in the year. That said, these two teams are no longer doormats.

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