Young, athletic Twins surprise in 1st half

Minnesota bounces back from tough 2016, is within striking distance in AL Central at break

Young, athletic Twins surprise in 1st half

MINNEAPOLIS -- After finishing last season with the worst record in the Majors, the Twins weren't expected to compete this year. Yet they've been one of the biggest surprises in baseball, and they are within striking distance of the first-place Indians at the All-Star break.

Minnesota finished the first half at 45-43 while sending three players to the All-Star Game presented by Mastercard for the first time since 2009. Right-hander Ervin Santana, third baseman Miguel Sano and closer Brandon Kintzler played pivotal roles in helping the Twins finish the first half above .500.

It's been a youth movement for Minnesota, as its core remains young, including right-hander Jose Berrios, left-hander Adalberto Mejia, reliever Taylor Rogers, center fielder Byron Buxton, left fielder Eddie Rosario, right fielder Max Kepler and shortstop Jorge Polanco. The youthful, athletic team has been one of the best defensive clubs in baseball. It ranks in the middle of the pack in runs scored, while pitching remains its concern, with a team ERA of 4.89 that ranks as the fourth worst in the Majors.

What went right
Santana has undoubtedly been the club's ace, but Berrios has provided a major lift to the rotation, bouncing back from his rough rookie season to post a 3.53 ERA in 11 starts. Offensively, Sano has performed at an All-Star level, showcasing his power in the middle of the lineup. Sano has also held his own defensively at third -- which was a question mark coming into the season -- while Polanco has also been solid at short despite struggling offensively. Buxton was arguably the best defensive player in the game in the first half, and Rosario entered the break strong with a .287 batting average. Veterans Robbie Grossman and Joe Mauer posted impressive on-base percentages of .379 and .360, respectively, with Mauer also playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at first. Jason Castro lived up to his reputation as one of the best defensive catchers in the big leagues, and he has helped with the young pitching staff. Kintzler has 24 saves, second in the American League.

Kintzler earns the save

What went wrong
Outside of Santana and Berrios, the Twins haven't received much consistency from their starters. Collectively, Minnesota starters have a 4.95 ERA that ranks fourth worst in the Majors. The bullpen has also been inconsistent, as top setup relievers Matt Belisle and Ryan Pressly posted ERAs of 5.82 and 7.33, respectively. Right-hander Phil Hughes struggled, and he missed a month with right arm soreness before returning to the bullpen. Left-hander Hector Santiago faded after a strong start to the year, and he is on the disabled list with a back strain.

What we learned
With their young nucleus of talent, the Twins appear well-stocked for the future, and they are essentially ahead of schedule by competing this year, when they were expected to finish last in the division. Pitching depth remains a concern, both in the short term and the long term, but it's clear Minnesota has an impressive core of young, athletic position players who have contributed offensively and defensively. Even if the Twins don't make the postseason this year, they should be competitive in the years to come.

First half top everyday player
Sano is in the midst of a breakout season, hitting .276/.368/.538 with 21 homers and 62 RBIs in 82 games. He was named an All-Star for the first time in his career, and he also participated in the Home Run Derby. Sano been the key cog to the offense -- he's an aggressive hitter, but he also displays patience at the plate. He simply hits the ball harder than just about anyone else, ranking second in the Majors in average exit velocity behind the Yankees' Aaron Judge.

Sano's solo homer

First half top pitcher
Santana is undoubtedly Minnesota's anchor, going 10-6 with a 2.99 ERA in 18 starts. He allowed one or fewer runs in 11 of those starts, which is the best such mark in the AL. He also has four complete games, which is more than any other team and twice as many as any player. Three of those four complete games were shutouts.

Santana shuts out Giants

First half top rookie
Mejia has mostly held his own during his rookie year, going 4-4 with 4.43 ERA in 13 starts. After a rough start to the year that saw him get sent down to Triple-A Rochester, he settled in and pitched much better leading into the break. Mejia posted a 2.79 ERA over his past five starts.

Rhett Bollinger has covered the Twins for MLB.com since 2011. 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.