"The Twins window for a championship is now. They lack a dominant ace pitcher (could Liriano be that guy?), but this team has enough talent all the way through to make a run. Starters 1 through 3 are consistent, the bullpen is improving, the lineup will definitely score runs and the management seems to have the latitude to shore up the holes when the time comes."
Those were my words back before the season started and, for the most part, I feel the exact same way now as I did then. Liriano has emerged to be a dominant pitcher once again and the front-office did indeed step up to patch a hole or two here and there as the season wore on. The offensive has proven stout for most of the season and since the All-Star break, the pitching staff and bullpen have been mostly excellent. I thought I would go out an provide a few ideas for in-house awards for the Twins:
(AK) Most-Improved Player Award: Delmon Young
Ok, I know, nobody wants the "most improved" award because that usually means you sucked before...but Young fits the bill perfectly. Young's best full season prior to this one was his 1st season as a Twin when he hit .290/.336/.405 with 80Rs and 69RBIs. Everyone knows how underwhelming Young's career has been so far but this year he has truly broken through and was especially valuable in the middle of the season when he was hitting the cover off the ball. His current .810 OPS is by far the best of his major career and his 102 RBIs, 18HRs and 40 doubles (and counting) are all career bests. Most encouraging has been a drop in his strikeout rate which suggests that the former #1 pick and 25-year-old may have finally turned the corner.
(DD) Comeback Player of the Year: Jesse Crain
After an absolutely atrocious start to the year, Jesse Crain has turned into arguably the best reliever on the staff, prompting apologies from a number of Twins bloggers who had written him off (among plenty of other fans, this guy included, who had given up hope for Crain at some point in the recent past, even if we didn’t write about it). One of the most satisfying moments of the entire season for me was in the first game in the last series against the White Sox - after Guerrier worked into a bases-loaded jam with only one out, Crain came in and blew away Konerko on some 97mph heat and made Manny look absolutely ridiculous on a filthy slider. He’s posted excellent numbers this year, the shiniest being a 2.39 ERA, but his FIP is also great at 3.29. xFIP doesn’t like his .259 BABIP and 5.3% HR rate, but he’s striking out more batters than he ever has and keeping the walks at least somewhat under control with a solid WHIP of 1.12. He’s always appeared to have the raw stuff to get it done at this level, but in the past has alternated between showing flashes of brilliance and being downright terrible. This season, though, he’s been extremely consistent since his rough start and now is perhaps the go-to “fireman” of the rotation, giving Gardy someone he can rely on in high-leverage situations whenever they arise. Regardless of what you think of the mental side of the closer role, I think there is something to it, and Crain has expressed not being comfortable being that guy. But if his outing against the Sox was any indication, he’s got what it takes to perform in the most pressure situations. Let’s hope that success continues.
(AK) Rookie Of The Year: Danny Valencia
I don't think there will be any argument here, Danny Valencia has been truly special this year with several clutch hits, solid fielding at 3rd (.979 fielding %) and what appears to be some staying power. What's been truly amazing about Valencia this season has been his hitting prowess at home. His home batting line this season is a staggering .436/.466/.636 in 110ABs. His BABIP is .371 this season so regression is bound to happen at some point, but he's been fun to watch so far and I couldn't be happier that he basically put Nick Punto out of a job.
(AK) Clutch Player of the Year: Delmon Young
When the Twins have needed a big hit, Young is the one you've wanted at the plate to get the big hit. Time and time again this season, Young has hit a go-ahead HR or smacked a run-scoring double in a crucial spot for the Twins. His average with RISP for the season is .361 and his OPS in the same situations is .933, a higher OPS than he has in any other hitting situation. According to FanGraphs, he has the 6th highest 'Clutch' value in all of baseball. He has fallen off the last couple months, but was a big reason that the Twins were able to retake 1st from the White Sox in July. In July alone he had 30 RBIs while hitting to the tune of .434/.455/.736. More of his hits, homeruns and RBIs have come against the White Sox than other team this season which has been especially valuable these past couple months. I'm a little nervous about his recent decline, hopefully he can pull it together for the playoffs.
(AK) Best Off-Season Pickup Award: Jim Thome
Without a shred of doubt, Bill Smith's best move last winter was signing Jim Thome. For $1.5M and some incentives, Jim has provided a .276/.408/.619 hitting line from the left side with 24HRs and 58RBIs in 268ABs. That is a frickin' STEAL, especially when you consider Thome's impact on the clubhouse, being able to mentor the likes of Danny Valencia and other Twins youngsters. Oh, and he gave us THIS, which was probably worth about $500,000 of his salary.
(DD) Most Awkward Outfield Defensive Play: Delmon Young
Ok, so we just threw this one in there for laughs, and if you’ve watched enough games this season, you’d know that there are no shortage of nominees for this award. Span, Kubel and Cuddyer have all had their share of gaffes (although it seems that Kubes somehow turns in a highlight-reel snag once every few weeks). Perhaps the worst though is also the most improved and most clutch player on the team, and despite all the promise he’s shown this year with his bat, we can all agree that Delmon is no Gold-Glover. There were a few plays to choose from here to select Delmon’s worst, but as I mentioned in my previous article, the play against Oakland where he awkwardly jumped over the warning track and into the wall, losing his glove in the process, has to take the cake. I don’t think I need to say anything more than that, but enjoy the highlight.
(AK) Most-Valuable Player: Francisco Liriano (3rd highest WAR among MLB starters)
This one is certainly up for debate, in fact, I've started a poll on the side bar for you to cast your vote, but I'm going to elect Francisco Liriano as the Twins most-valuable player this season. Coming into the season there had been reports that Liriano was "back" or at least resembled his former greatness and then in Spring Training we all got to see it for ourselves. All that being said, he was still the #5 guy coming out of Spring Training. He pretty quickly reasserted himself as the Ace highlighted by 4 April starts in which he gave up only 3 runs in 29 innings, striking out 27. Liriano's true value has been in the 2nd half where he held hitters to a .235 average with 8 wins, 1 loss, a 2.84 ERA, and 74Ks in 76 innings. Liriano ranks 2nd in the Majors in both FIP and xFIP and yes, he's had his clunkers, but more often than not, having Liriano on the mound has given the Twins a good shot at winning. I think most Twins fan expect to see him on the mound for Game 1 of the ALDS.