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The Monday 9: Why the Twins are dangerously close to dropping out of the playoff hunt

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Welcome to The Monday 9, our weekly lineup of Things You Need to Know in baseball. The MLB season is a marathon, so get caught up each Monday morning right here at Yahoo Sports.

(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)

Leading off: Twins approach the point of no return

The Minnesota Twins are, somehow, the worst team in baseball. Sitting at 13-25, the two-time defending AL Central champs are rapidly running out of time to right the ship. Of course the Twins aren’t actually the worst team in baseball. They just have the worst record, and at a certain point the difference ceases to matter. We’re getting close to that.

Based on its run differential, Minnesota could expect to have a 17-21 record — still not good, but within striking distance. As with most outlier team records, the Twins can trace at least part of the difference between talent and reality to the bullpen. They have gotten their relief corps into 13 save situations so far, and blown seven of them — with six of those turning into losses. They are 0-7 in extra-innings contests.

Would-be closer Alex Colome has had the most nightmarish start, but they are also suffering through a supremely disappointing season from Kenta Maeda, who can’t stop giving up home runs, and from a spate of injuries that has claimed Byron Buxton.

Starting Monday night, they face the Chicago White Sox, chief beneficiaries of the unexpected badness. Coming into the season, the Twins were co-favorites with the hyped but less predictable South Siders. Things couldn’t have diverged much more starkly: Despite some notable injuries and Tony La Russa managerial adventures, the White Sox have the best record in baseball. In combination that means the Twins have seen the steepest decline in playoff odds at BetMGM since opening day while the White Sox have earned the greatest gains.

Heading into the series, the Twins are down to a 9.6 percent of playing even a single game in October, per FanGraphs.

If Minnesota hopes to take advantage of a softer schedule in the coming weeks, the stabilization has to start now. — Zach Crizer

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 09: Nolan Arenado #28 of the St. Louis Cardinals rounds third base after hitting a home run against the Colorado Rockies in the second inning at Busch Stadium on May 9, 2021 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Nolan Arenado rounds third after smashing another home run in his new Cardinals uniform. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

No. 2: Nolan is being Nolan

While there was no reasonable way to defend the Nolan Arenado trade from the Colorado Rockies’ perspective, there was at least one pesky question: What was up with the superstar third baseman’s subpar 2020? Was he banged up? Disgruntled? Suffering from general pandemic malaise? Or was something more permanently amiss?

After 41 games in his new St. Louis Cardinals threads, it would appear everything is hunky dory with Arenado. Even coming off a sweep at the hands of the Padres, he has the Cardinals in first place, has homered in three straight games and remains one of the most difficult batters in the league to strike out. 

It’s not surprising he would snap back to form, but the symmetry of just how completely he has rebounded — amid questions of aging or decline or the mythical Coors Field effect — is striking.

His line from 2015 to 2019, the peak of his powers in Colorado: .300/.362/.575

His line in 2021 so far: .300/.353/.563.

So yeah, it was a very good trade for St. Louis. — Zach Crizer

No. 3: What shade of goggles are you wearing?

The NBA’s playoffs are starting this week with a newly conceived play-in tournament that is being hailed as a perfect idea.

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It is not getting that sort of approval from LeBron James, whose Lakers got ensnared in the high-stakes entryway to the playoffs, but that drama is only heightening the format’s intrigue and the buzz around the games.

Contrast that outlook with, well, almost any rule change MLB has attempted in recent memory. Where the NBA can make changes that inject enthusiasm, MLB seems to eternally propagate the narrative that it is trying to save a dying sport.

As The Athletic’s Steve Berman pointed out this weekend, though, the chasm between the two leagues is less about raw popularity or even trajectory than it is about connotation. The World Series beat the oddly timed NBA Finals in TV ratings in 2020, and has generally kept pace in recent years. Local ratings, meanwhile, strongly favor baseball.

But baseball conversations skew doom and gloom while, as Berman writes, “segments of the NBA media and hoops fans have taken ownership of that league and evangelized for it in ways we don’t see nearly as often with those who cover or follow MLB. The games for each league look significantly different from just five years ago, but that phenomenon just isn’t perceived with nearly the degree of negativity by those who favor the NBA. We never hear the NBA is ‘dying’ because of an aging fan base, and it’s true the median age of NBA fans is lower than that of MLB. But not much ink is spilled on the NBA’s obscene ticket costs, which price out most families and younger adults.”

The momentum of that perception will be hard to change for baseball, but there is more to work with than we tend to give the sport credit for. — Zach Crizer

No. 4: The players vs. MLB

Of course, the sport's labor relations may make mere perceptions a comparatively small problem.

Last week, the players union filed a grievance against Major League Baseball over the length of the 2020 season that could throw a wrench into already contentious labor negotiations. The closer we get to the December expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, the more dramatic the sport’s schism becomes.

Even a lighter moment captured the roiling hostility, as Reds star Nicholas Castellanos — perhaps still seething from a suspension in April — turned over his postgame interview to a fan who had given him some helpful advice before a home run.

“I told Nick he should imagine Rob Manfred’s face on the baseball.” — Zach Crizer

No. 5: What do you know about Adolis Garcia?

Yahoo Fantasy is taking a weekly look at who's hot and who's not — and whether you should believe in the streak. Here’s a sample from this week’s edition:

Waiver-wire heroes emerge every season — it's nothing new in fantasy sports. What is cool, however, is when that waiver-wire hero seemingly comes out of nowhere not only just in fantasy, but in reality too.

Adolis Garcia has splashed onto the scene with the new-look Rangers and has been one of the hottest hitters in fantasy the past two weeks. Garcia is 19-for-his-last-49 (included in there is a nine-game win streak with four home runs), giving him a season slash line of .297/.339/.585 and an OPS of .923.

Beast.

And yes, as stated above, while it might seem like Garcia has come out of nowhere, he's actually been in the game. He was a star playing professionally in his native Cuba, and after a stop in Japan, he defected and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was then moved to the Rangers, and after some uneventful big-league at-bats, an injury to Ronald Guzman this season has thrust Garcia into the Rangers spotlight — and he's taken full advantage of the opportunity.

It's a great story, but unfortunately, a lot of underlying numbers show that this could just be a hot streak for the 28-year-old, as opposed to a small preview of his rest-of-season outlook.

For one, Garcia is striking out at a heavy clip, and he's not offsetting that with walks (he's taking a free pass just 5.5% of the time). So, where's this .297 average and .585 slugging coming from? A .352 BABIP certainly helps, as does a 16% barrel percentage. Luck has certainly been influencing things the moment the ball has met his bat.

It's not all bad, however. Garcia has shown real power before when he was in the Cardinals system. He will, however, be expected to be a drain on OBP; his career mark is just .305.

All that said, even when regression hits Garcia, do not be so quick to say, "OK, it was fun while it lasted." Remember, before this season, Garcia had just 24 total major-league plate appearances to his name.

While prognostications err on the less-impressive side of things, there's still a chance the Garcia could defy expectations. — Mo Castillo

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 11: Robbie Ray #38 of the Toronto Blue Jays during the Tuesday night MLB game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Atlanta Braves on May 11, 2021 at Truist Park in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Robbie Ray has found a better groove with the Blue Jays, cutting his prodigious walk rate. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

No. 6: Blue Jays find strike-throwing magic

When free agency opened over the winter, one of the fastest names off the board was Robbie Ray. The 29-year-old lefty had been traded at the 2020 deadline from Arizona to the Toronto Blue Jays, and almost instantaneously re-upped with Toronto. Up to this point, he’s been known for his extreme levels of strikeouts and walks, and the inconsistency that breeds.

Since he entered the league in 2014, Ray has the eighth-best strikeout rate among pitchers who have thrown 500 innings … and the third-worst walk rate. That lack of control also manifests in a bevy of home runs — if you miss a lot, you also sometimes miss inside the zone. The shortened 2020 season was the nadir of the wildness, but its now doubly apparent Ray bought into the Blue Jays’ plan for him.

What was the plan? Just throw it over the middle and focus on eliminating the free passes. After walking an absurd 17.9 percent of the batters he faced in 2020, he’s running a downright normal 6.6 percent rate in 2021 — the biggest improvement in the majors. Yes, he has slashed his walk rate by even more than Corbin Burnes, who just set a major-league record for strikeouts before issuing a walk.

As this interesting thread from analyst Max Bay indicates, Ray’s improvements seem directly tied to coaching and a fairly simple change in decision-making.

He’s prioritizing putting the ball in the zone — often sticking to his 95 mph fastball and daring hitters to do damage. And sometimes they do that! Ray is still allowing a terrifying 2.45 homers per nine innings, but the calculation is working out. His ERA is sitting at 3.79, a solid 12 percent better than average when park-adjusted, and he’s allowing the fewest baserunners per inning of his career.

And don’t look now, but the Blue Jays also have base on balls extraordinaire Tyler Chatwood firing out of the bullpen to a 0.61 ERA so far (in just 14 2/3 innings) and the lowest walk rate of his career. Maybe they have a type. — Zach Crizer

No. 7: What did Shohei Ohtani do this week?

He shut down the Astros offense and then played the outfield in the same game. He also hit a go-ahead homer in the ninth inning on Sunday to beat the Red Sox. And as our new weekly feature tracks his myriad exploits, his MVP odds are no longer just a curiosity. Here's a bit from this week's tracker.

Yes, Mike Trout seems like a shoo-in to win AL MVP every season, but Ohtani will be hard to ignore in that conversation if he stays healthy and keeps this kind of two-way play up — especially at +625 odds at BetMGM (but the odds will begin to shrink, so better get in now). — Mo Castillo

No. 8: ‘We will get through this’

The Mets have lost several players to injury, but are in first place and have gone 7-3 in their last 10 games. Mets owner Steve Cohen, though, is amusingly riding the wave right along with the most up-and-down diehard fans.

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Understandable.

Less understandable is how he has failed to notice that the rest of the world does not use spaces before punctuation. — Zach Crizer

No. 9: No-hitter threat assessment

Shohei Ohtani faces Cleveland on Wednesday — a team that has been no-hit twice already in 2021.

The Mariners offense is hoping it gets a jolt from newly promoted top prospect Jarred Kelenic, but Seattle is still hitting .192 in May, and faces the Padres over the weekend. Yu Darvish lines up to pitch on Sunday.

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