Twins look to take step in right direction in 2nd half

Minnesota struggles to follow last year's success, but still believes in bright future ahead

Twins look to take step in right direction in 2nd half

MINNEAPOLIS -- Roughly an hour before the first pitch of the 2016 season, Twins general manager Terry Ryan reiterated to reporters his belief that Minnesota was a playoff-caliber team.

The Twins were coming off a surprising season in which they posted their first winning record since 2010, and they had a promising Spring Training that saw them open the year with no players on the disabled list. But things went south quickly -- Minnesota lost its first nine games of the season -- and it snowballed from there as the Twins entered the All-Star break with the worst record in the American League at 32-56.

The Twins are sellers leading up to the non-waiver Trade Deadline on Aug. 1, and they will use the second half to see what they have in youngsters such as Max Kepler, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. Minnesota, which played better heading into the All-Star break, still believes there's a bright future ahead with one of the game's top farm systems, but the first half of the 2016 season was a step in the wrong direction after its success last year.

"We have some good things going here, but with our record, no one wants to hear that," Ryan said. "I can't stand here and say everything is great. It's not. But we have things going in a positive direction. Everybody wants to win next year. We're not looking at 2020."

Eduardo Nunez opened the season as a backup infielder, but he established himself as the club's everyday shortstop and was rewarded his first All-Star Game selection. Second baseman Brian Dozier and catcher Kurt Suzuki overcame slow starts offensively, and they have been two of the hottest hitters in baseball since early June. Relievers Fernando Abad and Brandon Kintzler, who were signed as Minor League free agents before the season, have been the club's best two bullpen arms. Right fielder Kepler is in the midst of breakout rookie season, showcasing his combination of power and speed. Outfielder Robbie Grossman, who was selected off waivers from the Indians, has surprisingly been one of the club's best hitters with his patience at the plate.

Grossman's RBI single

The Twins finished the first half with a 4.97 ERA, which is the third-worst mark in the Majors. Closer Glen Perkins and right-hander Phil Hughes both sustained season-ending injuries. Sano missed more than a month with a strained left hamstring, while third baseman Trevor Plouffe has dealt with various injuries, including a fractured rib that will have him out until August. Eddie Rosario opened the year as a club's starting left fielder, but he was demoted in mid-May before returning in early July. Minnesota's No. 1 prospect Jose Berrios got his first taste of the Majors, but he posted a 10.20 ERA in four starts before being sent back to Triple-A Rochester. Designated hitter Byung Ho Park had a hot start to the season, but he fell into a slump and was optioned to Triple-A on July 1. Reliever Kevin Jepsen, who replaced Perkins as closer, struggled throughout the first half and was designated for assignment on July 3. Outfielder Oswaldo Arcia was also designated for assignment and traded to the Rays for a player to be named later or cash considerations on June 24.

The Twins believed they could build on last year's success, but clearly they weren't ready to take another step forward this season. Their early-season struggles caused them to press, and much had been made about the loss of Torii Hunter's leadership. Minnesota was counting on several of its young players to help carry the team, but it proved it's difficult to win and develop players at the same time.

Nunez has been the club's most consistent player as he proved his hot start wasn't a fluke. He hit .321/.347/.489 with 12 homers and a team-leading 22 steals in the first half. Among Major League leaders, he ranks 10th in batting average and tied for fifth in steals. He's also been versatile, seeing time at shortstop, third base and second base, but he is now the club's starting shortstop over Eduardo Escobar.

Nunez swipes second

Right-hander Ervin Santana has been the club's most reliable starter and finished the first half strong. He went 3-7 with a 4.06 ERA in 16 starts, going 2-0 with a 1.63 ERA over his past four starts. He also turned in the best performance of the season when he tossed a two-hit shutout against the A's on July 6.

Santana shuts out the A's

Kepler, 23, has gotten better as the season has gone along, and he entered the break hitting .238/.319/.483 with eight homers, 11 doubles and 33 RBIs in 46 games. He's become the club's everyday right fielder, and he hit .260 with seven homers and 26 RBIs over his past 20 games to close out the first half.

Rhett Bollinger has covered the Twins for since 2011. Read his blog, Bollinger Beat, follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.