CLEVELAND -- After struggling in April the last two seasons, the Twins fared much better this year and enter Friday's series against the Indians with a .500 record. It's been a better start than many predicted -- is it something they can keep up? The answer to that question and more is featured in this week's Inbox.
The Twins are off to a better start than most people expected. Is this something they can keep up, or are they destined for another last-place finish?
-- Pat B., Madison, Wis.
After 24 games, the Twins are .500 at 12-12, and it's quite the improvement over last year, when they started out 6-18 over their first 24 games and never recovered.
The key has been the bullpen. Minnesota has a 3.80 ERA so far after posting a 4.77 ERA last season that ranked as the third worst in the Majors, but it's been the relievers who have been carrying the load -- the bullpen's 2.21 ERA ranks second in the Majors.
The offense, expected to be the strength of the team, has not yet taken flight. The Twins are averaging 4.08 runs per game, 21st in the Majors. Minnesota has been outscored by just three runs so far this season, which means the club hasn't exactly been playing over its heads with a .500 record.
So what is required for the Twins to keep it up? The track records of Ryan Doumit and Justin Morneau make it likely that they'll heat up, and while Trevor Plouffe may not hit for average, he'll certainly deliver more power than he has to date.
So the key will be the starting rotation, which has posted a 4.79 ERA that ranks 24th in baseball. The club needs veterans Vance Worley and Mike Pelfrey, in particular, to turn it around and help stabilize the rotation. Young Pedro Hernandez has been a nice surprise, and Kevin Correia and Scott Diamond are doing their part -- now they need Worley and Pelfrey to do the same. If they don't, Sam Deduno and Cole De Vries, both out with injuries, are close to returning and wait in the wings.
Speaking of which ...
What is Deduno's timetable for return? De Vries? Will they be plugged into the rotation immediately?
-- John P., Wayzata, Minn.
De Vries, who is on the 15-day disabled list with a right forearm strain, is closer to returning than Deduno, as De Vries is set to begin his rehab assignment on Sunday with Class A Advanced Fort Myers. He threw 34 pitches in his last outing in extended spring camp on Tuesday, and he will need to make about two or three rehab starts before he's ready to return.
Deduno, who has been out with a groin strain, also pitched in an extended spring game on Tuesday, and he is getting closer to beginning his rehab assignment.
But keep in mind that De Vries is on the 40-man roster and Deduno is not, so De Vries has a much better chance of rejoining the rotation this month.
Once De Vries is healthy, the question will be who he'll replace in the rotation, as Hernandez has fared well in limited work as the fifth starter while Pelfrey and Worley have struggled.
The Twins' top two prospects, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, are dominating in the Minor Leagues. When can we expect to see them with the Major League club?
-- Matt S., Devils Lake, N.D.
Sano, 19, has been the best hitter in the Florida State League so far, hitting .368/.435/.747 with a Minor League-leading nine homers at Class A Advanced Fort Myers. To put his homer total in perspective in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, Sano has four more homers than any other player, has outhomered the entire Dunedin team and is tied with Jupiter's team.
Sano is also playing much better defense at third base, as he's made only five errors in 25 games after making 42 in 125 games at Class A last year. His promotion to Double-A New Britain seems inevitable at this point, but Twins general manager Terry Ryan said the organization usually likes to see how a player fares when they see teams for a second time. But at this rate, Sano is expected to end the year in New Britain and could make Minnesota debut as early as next year.
Buxton, meanwhile, is doing a little bit of everything at Class A Cedar Rapids, hitting .383/.510/.667 with four homers, three triples, five doubles and 10 stolen bases. The center fielder has also walked four more times than he's struck out and has reached safely in all 23 games he's played. The 19-year-old, who was the No. 2 overall selection in last year's First-Year Player Draft, is a prime candidate for a promotion to Class A Advanced Fort Myers, and he could reach the Majors by 2015.
What's the status of Nick Blackburn, and could we see him make a return?
-- Joe M., Waseca, Minn.
I spoke with Blackburn in a telephone interview in mid-April, and he said he expects to be back on the mound in the Minor Leagues by June. He's throwing again and said everything is feeling good after having wrist surgery in January.
Blackburn said he initially injured his wrist in mid-2011 and saw about six doctors before it was properly diagnosed this offseason by Dr. Richard Berger at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He then underwent a rare wrist surgery that has only been performed on one other big leaguer -- the Nationals' Jayson Werth -- and said he can feel a big difference already.
But Blackburn was also realistic, saying his goal is to return to the Majors by mid-July, but he acknowledged it's not likely considering his recent struggles and the fact he's no longer on the 40-man roster. So he'll be interesting to monitor moving forward.