The Twins are a first-place team – but it will take a few moves to stay there

As Twins players and staff hastily packed their belongings Sunday at Target Field ahead of an unprecedented five-day All-Star break, manager Rocco Baldelli cleared the clubhouse whiteboard.

Various notes appear on this board throughout the season. Sometimes it’s a reminder that a certain barber or acupuncturist or physical therapist is available for appointments. Other times it’s a mantra for the match of the day. “Be gangsta” was one of those mottos erased in favor of Baldelli’s new edict.

“Good half. Now follow up with a large half! the board read in blue marker, ending with “Have fun!” underlined twice. Baldelli framed the entire message in red ink as a final accent.

Although the Twins didn’t head into the bye week in particularly inspiring fashion – they are 7-8 in July – they still entered their mini-vacation at 50-44, good for a two-game lead in the AL Central.

The Twins finished in last place in 2021, so winning the division this year would be a dramatic improvement. However, that’s not the peak the Twins have been trying to reach. They haven’t won a playoff competition since 2004. That 18-game losing streak is the longest of the top four North American sports leagues.

Ten teams have better records than the Twins this season, which doesn’t do much to boost fan confidence for the playoffs, which have been expanded to six teams in each league.

And the twins apparently know that.

After losing two of three games at Texas, reliever Tyler Duffey called the Twins “a first-place team that no one seems to be talking about.” Dylan Bundy agreed after he left on Saturday, but said it wasn’t totally a bad thing.

“Don’t talk about us. You can talk about us in October later if you like,” Bundy said. “…I guess we should talk about us more. But we’re first and we have a good team.”

The team’s offense has five players – Luis Arraez, Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa, Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco – with a Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) number of 2.0 or higher; only the Yankees (six) have more.

But the bullpen struggled, giving up 55 home runs and missing 17 save opportunities.

President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine surely have things to ponder with the trade deadline approaching.

In theory, late-season injury returns could bolster the roster this fall. Kenta Maeda, who is recovering from Tommy John’s elbow ligament replacement surgery, could return to step out of the bullpen. Receiver Ryan Jeffers (broken thumb) and outfielder Trevor Larnach (central muscle surgery) could be back in September.

Miguel Sano, who is recovering from knee surgery, is in rehab with class AAA St. Paul and is set to return soon. In his absence, Jose Miranda and Alex Kirilloff have had strong moments.

The trade deadline is August 2 and the next two weeks will be telling. Among the needs: a more experienced receiver to complement the tandem with Gary Sanchez during Jeffers’ recovery; and bullpen arms to protect against late advances, which plagued the Twins in the early part of this season.

There’s also the worst-case scenario surrounding Buxton, who played through tendonitis in his right knee and managed to avoid the injured list thanks to extensive treatment and fairly regular days off. Maintaining that through another 68 games — and an eventual playoff — could be one of the Twins’ biggest wins of 2022.

Correa is another question. The shortstop is on a three-year contract at $35.1 million per season, with an opt-out after each season. The Twins could retain some control over the situation if they trade Correa; a player of his stature would certainly gain value in return. That seems unlikely, however, for a first-place team. Correa has been an incredible addition as a hitter and a defender, but his impact off the court goes beyond the two. He quickly became a leader and brought the team together after the 2021 season fractured it.

The 27-year-old said he enjoyed his time with the Twins, which he marked as a different stage in his career where he focuses more on mentoring young players instead of being one. He said he made an effort to make sure everyone on the team — no matter veteran or rookie, pitcher or position, international or American — got along.

“It’s the secret ingredient to championship-caliber teams,” Correa said. “…If you don’t care about the guy to your right or your left, then you’re not going to the promised land. So we’re trying to feel that here.

“At half time right now, I feel like we’ve accomplished that. And we can still improve.”

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