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A’s at Twins Series Preview: Sonny Gray to Debut in Minnesota

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It is no longer "only April." After spending the first month of the season in a dogfight with their division rivals for early season supremacy, the A's have emerged roughly middle of the pack in the West. While the Astros have looked like a team poised to calmly stroll into the playoffs, all the other teams in the division have stumbled out of the starting blocks and beat each other up into first-month-mediocrity.

The A's have learned a few things about themselves in the early going. The team has learned that, regardless of the sky-high abilities of the starting rotation, its youthfulness assures that there will still be growing pains this year as guys are still refining their craft and working on pitch consistency. They have learned that the offense can pack a surprising punch, as the A's are among the leaders of all the MLB in exit velocity on batted balls, but can still easily go through stretches where the lineup appears overwhelmed by even the most pedestrian of pitchers. The infield defense may have improved, but the outfield defense may have gotten slightly worse. The A's can easily put things together and win five games in a row, but just as easily things can fall apart and the team can lose five games in a row.

All in all, the A's survived the early-season-AL-West-cage-match with an 11-14 record and a tie for third place with the Rangers, with second place (held by the Angels) in sight, just two games ahead. The A's will now set east to get their second taste of the AL Central (after a brief, decisive series win over the hapless Royals in early April) and their first exposure to the MLB East by the time May comes to a close.

The Minnesota Twins have a shiny, brand new front office, but one could probably be forgiven if they assumed that the franchise was following the same, questionable strategies of the old regime. The Twins had a quiet offseason, signing Jason Castro, Matt Belisle, Craig Breslow, and not much else, meaning the Twins are still banking on the youth already on the MLB roster putting it together sooner rather than later to field a competitive ballclub. This is probably the only viable strategy middling Minnesota has, but under the new leadership of general managers Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, at the very least one could argue that the Twins are putting more of an emphasis on aggressively moving players between the majors and minors, and focusing more on matchups and maximizing the talent on the roster rather than letting the young team sink or swim under all circumstances, day in and day out.

So far this strategy has paid major dividends for Minnesota, though after losing 103 games last season there wasn't a high bar to leap over. The Twins, 12-11, currently find themselves in third place in a tight AL Central division, just a half game out of fourth but just a game and a half out of first. The Twins haven't exactly been lighting the world on fire, but signs also point to a team that has held its own while it hasn't been placing its absolute best either. The lineup won't make any pitchers quiver in their cleats on the mound, but Miguel Sano looks like he's finally put it all together after OPS'ing 1.127 in April, and Max Kepler is turning into a very solid all-around hitter. Twins' stars like Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer are both capable of putting up big numbers, though both players have struggled in the early going this year, and will more than likely add depth to the order as they get their swings and rhythm back in line. Byron Buxton still is underwhelming at the plate, but as he is still figuring that out he is plenty capable of strong defense in center field, and the top prospect is due to put things together "any day now."

The quality of pitching in Minnesota has been the main culprit of the franchise's struggles for years now, and this year appeared to be no different as the new front office made no significant changes beyond letting Tommy Milone walk. However, this year, the starting rotation is being buoyed by elite performances from veterans Ervin Santana (0.77 ERA, 0.66 WHIP), Hector Santiago (7 K/9, 1.15 WHIP), and Phil Hughes (4-1 W/L, 1.43 WHIP). These performances are likely to be unsustainable, but nevertheless have been key to the Twins' surprising success in the season's first month. The A's will face the hottest of the top three starters in the rotation, Santana and Santiago, in the first two games of this series.

This series will mark the triumphant return of Sonny Gray for Oakland. The version of Sonny that shows up- the ace, the gascan, or somewhere in between, has yet to be seen, but everyone in Oakland will be rooting for his success. If he pitches like the ace he has been and can be, then the A's have their best pitcher back and can very well hang around on the outskirts of the playoff race this year, or if not in the race, can fetch an appealing haul at the trade deadline. If he's mediocre or worse, well, fans are always complaining that the A's don't keep their home grown stars around for long enough.

The matchups for the three game series are as follows:

Tue, 5/2 @ 5:10: Gray (0-0) vs Santana (4-0)

Wed, 5/3 @ 5:10: Graveman (2-1) vs Santiago (2-1)

Thu, 5/4 @ 10:10: Cotton (2-3) vs Gibson (0-3)

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