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Upcoming homestand will be key for Twins

The two weeks between the All-Star Game and the July 31 trade deadline will go a long way toward deciding whether the Minnesota Twins will be a buyer or a seller at the end of the month.

The Twins (44-50) improved significantly after three consecutive 90-loss campaigns and are 4 1/2 games better at the break this season than they were last year (39-53). At 10 1/2 games out of first place in the American League Central race, Minnesota appears on the surface as if it should be a seller. However, the Twins begin the second half with a season-long, 10-game homestand.

“This week was a big week for us,” Twins second baseman Brian Dozier said. “Coming back from the All-Star break with 10 games at home, everything plays in our favor. We’ve just got to go out and win.”

With the Tampa Bay Rays (44-53), Chicago White Sox (45-51) and Cleveland Indians (47-47) the opponents coming in during the stretch at home, the Twins could make up some ground between now and July 31.

“I know how the business side of it is, but it’s our job to make those decisions hard,” Dozier said. “I want to contend. I believe we can. We’ve got the people to do it. I’m not saying we may not need a couple extra pieces to do it, but we’re going to be just fine.”

The past month was disappointing for the Twins, who sat only three games under .500 on June 8 when they surprised the baseball world by signing veteran slugger Kendrys Morales to a one-year, prorated $12 million contract. At the time, the Twins were only five games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central and 3 1/2 out of a wild-card spot.

“Why not the Twins?” Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan asked rhetorically after signing Morales.

By June 13, the Twins were just 3 1/2 games back in the division race and 2 1/2 out in the wild-card chase. However, a five-game losing streak that began June 24 in Anaheim set the Twins back, and by the end of it, Minnesota was nine games behind surging Detroit.

Another three-game losing streak in early July added another 1 1/2 games onto the Twins’ hole, but a 5-2 road trip to Seattle and Colorado to end the first half provided a glimmer of hope.

First-half MVP

2B Brian Dozier followed up his breakout 2013 campaign with a stellar first half. He leads the American League with 69 runs and tops all second basemen with 18 home runs. He also leads the Twins with 45 RBIs, most of which came from the leadoff spot, and 16 stolen bases, and he also is playing sparkling defense. A glut of talent at second base in the American League is the main reason he won’t also represent the Twins in his first All-Star Game, but Dozier is one of the premier players at the position in all of baseball.

First-half grade

B-minus — With one of the best farm systems in all of baseball, the Twins possess a bright future. Even so, following three 90-loss campaigns, expectations were low in Minnesota. And while the Twins have a long road ahead of them to reach the postseason in 2014, the front office hit offseason home runs in the signings of both C Kurt Suzuki and RHP Phil Hughes. After an abysmal start to the season, Minnesota’s starting pitching was better of late, and offensively, the Twins are 13th in the majors in runs scored one season after finishing 25th in the same category. Manager Ron Gardenhire entered the year on the hot seat, but he proved once again why he is one of the most respected skippers in all of baseball.

Pivotal player

1B Joe Mauer needs to be better. Not only are his first-half numbers among the worst by a regular first baseman in the American League, they are far and away the worst numbers of his career. Currently on the disabled list with an oblique strain, Mauer is hitting .271 — nearly 50 points below his career average. He has only two homers and 28 RBIs, and his on-base percentage and slugging percentage are well below his career averages. Mauer never was much of a power hitter (the exception being his 28-homer MVP season of 2009), but the Twins desperately need him to at least get on base at a typical Mauer-like clip if they hope to contend.

Buy or sell

A 10-game homestand to start the second half will play a major role in helping the Twins decide whether to play for 2014 or if they should continue to add prospects to an already impressive pool of talent. If the Twins choose to buy, they certainly have the young pieces other teams would want in return for a rental player. If the Twins decide to sell, they have pieces that could be valuable. DH Kendrys Morales is a switch hitter with a proven track record playing on a one-year deal. OF Josh Willingham struggled with injuries and inconsistency during the first half, but he is a right-handed bat with some power — a commodity always in demand. He also is playing in the final year of a three-year contract. Manager Ron Gardenhire and the Twins love Kurt Suzuki, but the catcher is only signed through the end of the season. Could a suddenly catcher-needy team like St. Louis or Baltimore make an offer for the All-Star that the Twins can’t refuse?

Injury status

OF Josh Willingham, 1B Joe Mauer, 3B Trevor Plouffe and RF Oswaldo Arcia all missed substantial time over the season’s first half, yet the Twins’ playoff hopes weren’t completely dashed. Willingham, Plouffe and Arcia returned but are enduring sub-standard years, while Mauer shouldn’t be too far away from coming off the disabled list. INF Danny Santana, a first-half revelation at the top of the lineup, also should be back soon after injuring his left knee in June. Other than that, the Twins are relatively healthy bunch.

Top prospect

CF Byron Buxton injured left wrist in spring training, then came back for five minor league games in April before re-injuring it. He missed nearly three months while rehabbing, only recently returning to Class A Fort Myers. He is 4-for-30 (.133) with one homer and two RBIs through nine games. If Buxton, the consensus top-ranked prospect in all of baseball entering the year, can stay healthy and make an impact at the minor league level, he could be bound for Target Field as soon as sometime next season. Another top Twins prospect, 3B Miguel Sano, is out for the year after having Tommy John surgery.