When I boarded a plane in Providence, R.I., on Sunday after attending the wedding of a very good friend there this weekend, the Twins were still a second-place team.
By the time I landed in Seattle nearly 10 hours later -- which included one longer than expected layover -- there was a new leader in the American League Central. The Twins had jumped ahead of the White Sox to take over the top spot in the division for the first time since May 13.
There certainly weren't many people who would have predicted the Twins to be sitting in first place on Aug. 4. But this year, much like 2006, has been about defying expectations. And the hope for the Twins now is that, like that season, Francisco Liriano will provide the spark that helps carry the club to yet another division title.
Liriano might not be the exact same dominant pitcher he was during his rookie season, but the talented southpaw could once again be a difference maker in this division race. From the way that he pitched on Sunday, Liriano seemed to show everyone that he indeed is ready to help make this already good Twins rotation even better.
One thing that's certain is the AL Central race should be quite interesting over the final two months of the season. But before everyone shifts their focus to what's on tap in the weeks ahead, let's delve into this week's edition of the mailbag to see what's on the minds of Twins fans.
Why did the Twins simply release Livan Hernandez and Craig Monroe rather than try to get something for them in a trade? -- Bridget M., Bemidji, Minn.
The Twins haven't technically released the two players just yet. Both were designated for assignment on Friday, which means the Twins have 10 days from that date to trade, release or waive the two players. Twins general manager Bill Smith tried to shop both Hernandez and Monroe prior to the Trade Deadline to see if any teams were interested in the two veteran players. Unfortunately, the club could not find any takers at the time.
Since a trade could not be completed previously, it seems unlikely that the Twins will end up getting anything in return for the two. However, the Denver Post reported this weekend that the Rockies have interest in Hernandez in a search for a fifth starter. With a week remaining for the Twins to trade the right-hander, perhaps the two clubs could finagle a deal. But barring a trade of either player, the Twins will be required to pay the remainder of the two contracts. The club would still owe Monroe about $1.25 million of his $3.82 million contract, and owe Hernandez $1.65 million of his $5 million contract. That means about $2.9 million in salary that the club will eat if no deals can be completed.
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With Denard Span playing so well in the field as well as at the plate, is there a chance we will see him in left field after Michael Cuddyer comes back? They could move Delmon Young, who has been less than spectacular in the field, to DH and to get another right-handed bat in the lineup. Or, do you think he might take over center for a struggling Carlos Gomez? -- Brady G., Alden, Minn.
Span's spectacular play since he was recalled on June 30 has turned him into a player that the Twins can't afford to send back down to Triple-A Rochester. With Cuddyer's left finger injury taking longer to heal than expected, Span used the time to prove himself too valuable to take out of the lineup and won't be the player demoted when Cuddyer comes off the DL -- a move that could happen by the start of next week.
That being said, I don't think that Span will be used as the Twins' primary left fielder. Moving Young to the DH spot would force Jason Kubel out of the lineup and that doesn't seem like a scenario that the Twins like very much. Span could end up splitting time with Gomez in center field -- and depending on how Gomez is hitting, we might see Span get the majority of the time there. But that's all speculation. Exactly what Span's role will be has not yet been determined. Previously, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire had talked about using Span in a fourth-outfielder-type role. The plan was to split time in left between Span and Young while also using Span in spot starts in center. That still could be a possibility, but I would imagine that the Twins will try to keep Span in the lineup as much as possible. I don't think that Cuddyer's playing time will be reduced when he first comes back, so we'll see some interesting maneuvering by Gardenhire to give everyone plenty of playing time.
How is Pat Neshek doing with his rehab program? Could we see him in the later part of the season? -- Tanner D., Detroit Lakes, Minn.
Neshek just headed to Fort Myers, Fla., to continue his rehab program on Sunday. It's a positive sign because it means that Neshek is starting to get to a point where he can start playing catch. But Neshek said that he plans to take it slow with his rehab. That pretty much eliminates any possibility of the right-hander returning for any part of this season. His absence has certainly been a loss for the Twins. The club has still been trying to find a replacement for Neshek in the setup role leading to Joe Nathan in the ninth. It's a search that will seemingly have to continue, with different arms filling in the spot for the rest of the season without the unique look of Neshek's delivery.
What is Matt Tolbert's medical status? Will we see him playing for the Twins again this season? -- Robert M., Hosmer, S.D.
Tolbert has been down in Fort Myers rehabbing his surgically repaired right thumb. Although an early target date for Tolbert had been Aug. 1, the rehab has included some bumps in the road. Tolbert has had some tiny setbacks and even stopped hitting for a bit of time after experiencing some soreness and swelling in his hand. Tolbert recently began taking soft swings off a tee again and the hope is still that he will return before the end of the season.
I am a longtime Twins fan and I'm curious why so much talk has surrounded the Twins about possibly acquiring a third baseman. The Twins, in my opinion, have a very capable player in the Minors right now and he represented the Twins in the All-Star Futures game. Luke Hughes is hitting well over .300, slugging over .500 and has 15 homers -- still at the prime age of 24. Why hasn't he been moved up to Triple-A at least? He could be a September callup with his talent. -- Brian L., Chicago, Ill.
Hughes was actually promoted to Triple-A Rochester this past week after batting .319 with 15 homers and 40 RBIs at Double-A New Britain. Hughes likely would have been called up earlier had it not been for the influx of injuries he's endured this season, which included hamstring and groin pulls. But while Hughes will play third for the Red Wings and see some time at second base, the Twins still have yet to necessarily find a long-term position for the infielder. While Hughes' offense has him appearing ready for the Majors, there are still some questions regarding his defense. This stint at Rochester will be a good test for the hot-hitting Hughes, and depending on the infield situation in September, he could possibly be an option for a call up when rosters expand.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.