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Minnesota Flats

Yes, three top players have collapsed—but there are deeper reasons for the struggling Twins to worry

As May began, the Twins were firmly entrenched as the worst team in baseball. Their 9--17 record and -57 run differential in April were last in the game, and only the PETCO Park--doomed Padres had scored fewer runs than Minnesota's 82. The club closed April on a five-game losing streak to fall nine games behind the AL Central--leading Indians.

Though unexpected, this wasn't completely unforeseeable. The Twins are built around three stars with worrisome health records, all of whom failed to perform in April. Catcher Joe Mauer played in just nine games, hitting .235/.289/.265, before a virus pushed him to the DL with what was termed "bi-lateral leg weakness." He's not due back until the middle of May. First baseman Justin Morneau, who missed the second half of 2010 after suffering a concussion, has been a shell of himself: .224/.289/.303 in April, and he didn't hit his first home run until Sunday. Lefthander Francisco Liriano, who had shoulder soreness in the spring, had a 9.13 ERA through five starts and as many walks (18) as strikeouts.

While no team could overcome a collapse by its three best players, the Twins have been haunted by how poorly the rest of the team has played. Sixteen Twins have come to the plate this season. Only two (outfielders Denard Span and Jason Kubel) have been even average major league hitters. That's how you end up last in the AL in runs, homers, batting, slugging and OPS.

The pitching and defense have also failed. Despite playing in a good pitchers' park, the Twins are last in the AL in ERA. Re-signing Carl Pavano hasn't worked out. Joe Nathan's comeback from Tommy John surgery has been a disaster; hitters have a .929 OPS against him and he lost his closer job to Matt Capps.

The relationship between the team's pitching and defense is a problem in Target Field. The Twins have long built staffs around strike throwers who put the ball in play. They're last in the AL in strikeouts this season, which puts a lot of pressure on the defense to make plays. While Minnesota has an organizational reputation for strong defense, its performance has been increasingly shaky. The Twins were below average the last three seasons in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, which measures how well a team turns balls in play into outs, and are below average in defensive efficiency so far in 2011.

It's not out of the question that this team can turn things around, but the talent on hand, the injury concerns, and the lack of flexibility to add players (the Twins have their highest payroll ever) are roadblocks. Minnesota does have nearly ready prospects in centerfielder Ben Revere and righthander Kyle Gibson. Revere could be a key player, adding a plus defender to the outfield mix alongside Span. Gibson is yet another pound-the-zone arm with three plus pitches and a strong ground-ball rate. While the Twins started 2011 focused on the present, it may be time to take a good long look at the future.

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THE NUMBERS

Rays of Light

Twins fans looking for hope can cast a longing glance to the Southeast. The Rays started the season 1--8, lost Evan Longoria to an oblique strain and saw Manny Ramirez retire. But a blowout win over the Red Sox on April 11 sparked the offense, and Tampa Bay sat at 15--13 through Sunday, 2½ games behind the Yankees in the AL East. The formula is familiar for the Rays, with a league-average offense (120 runs, sixth in the AL) supporting fantastic pitching (3.50 ERA, fourth) and defense (.725 defensive efficiency, second). The remaking of the bullpen has been a success so far, with four imports—Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Adam Russell and Juan Cruz—combining for 45 innings and a 2.20 ERA. With Longoria on his way back, it seems the Rays once again could break up the Yankees--Red Sox AL East party.

PHOTO

ANN HEISENFELT/AP (MORNEAU)

LOSS OF POWER Morneau, an MVP and an MVP runner-up in the last five years, has just one home run since suffering a concussion last July.

PHOTO

TOM DIPACE (LONGORIA)