Instead of looking back on up-to-date performances up and down the lineup, I would like to try and project which hitters we should expect to take a step forward and which will take a step back over the final two-plus months of the season. Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are not going to make either list because frankly I expect them both to be fairly consistent the rest of the year. Let's start with three hitters who should improve in the second-half:
1. Jason Kubel
It's not that Kubel had a bad or really disappointing first half. A .262/.331/.462 line is nothing to scoff at (especially given that his isolating slugging percentage leads the team), and neither are 13 home runs or 44 RBI, but Kubel has the skills to improve on the overall line. In looking at his stats, you'd notice that he has had two terrible months and one amazing month. In April he batted .229/.250/.365 and he really didn't improve on that too much with a .247/.309/.397 line in May. However, his .312/.409/.636 June line was phenomenal, with improvements across the board, most importantly with a 12/14 K/BB ratio.
Kubel is probably not going to keep that up the whole rest of the way, but he certainly can have a second half similar to last year's and I expect that he'll post another one or two months with an average above .300 and good power. He's already one of the Twins' best hitters, so any improvement will be a big boost.
2. Delmon Young
I know, I know. Delmon is a very frustrating player. He makes too many mistakes to count in the field, swings at the first pitch in nearly every important situation, and has not shown the skills we thought he possessed when the Twins traded for him during the offseason. However, like Kubel, he has shown improvement each month after a terrible first month. In April, Delmon did everything wrong, hitting .255/.298/.306 with only his five stolen bases standing out as any kind of real offensive contribution.
In May, he started taking a few walks and posted a better, but still poor, .264/.339/.358 line. In June, he finally broke out, losing the patience, but increasing the power and the average with a .321/.341/.476 and his first two home runs of the year. He has largely kept that up in his 47 July at-bats, so far hitting .319/.340/.447. Young's improvement will probably not be as high as people would like and he probably will not take that many more walks, but I suspect he'll hit just over .300 the rest of the year with improved power, as he is finally pulling the ball with success.
3. Carlos Gomez
I'd like to put someone else in this slot, but Gomez can really go nowhere but up from where he is at right now. The first step, of course, would be to either drop him in the batting order or to send him down in the minors. Given the Twins recent rhetoric, it seems the best we can hope for is that Ron Gardenhire eventually drops Gomez in the order, given that all indications suggest his slump isn't going to end. I'm not sure at this point what is more cringe-worthy: the .253/.287/.351 overall line, the 3-for-39 slump, or the 96-14 K/BB ratio.
Essentially, Gomez has all the room in the world to improve. He needs to cut his strikeouts, increase his contact rate, start taking more pitches and walks, stop swinging for the fences when he does not possess the swing or power for it, and learn the craft of the stolen base. Even if Gomez just does a few of this better in the second-half, it would be both significant and marked improvement to me. Even one month remotely like his May (.299/.348/.449) would give many fans hope for Gomez's future.
Three likely to disappoint:
1. Nick Punto
Perhaps this one is a little too easy. After all, it doesn't take much to see that Punto is playing over his head so far this season, with a .324/.383/.471 line in 102 at-bats. This is against a .250/.318/.331 career line and of course is the product a small sample size. Punto had a Punto-esque April, going 10-for-39 to produce a .256/.326/.256 line. With only 12 at-bats in June and 14 in May, Punto's production has more or less come from a 16-for-37 run so far in July that produced a .432/.476/.676 line.
While Punto isn't bound to reach the depths of awfulness he did last year, I suspect that he'll regress to the mean and end up with a line at the end of the year close to his career year in 2006, when he hit .290/.352/.373.
2. Denard Span
While I am pushing for him to enter the lead-off spot, I'm just as likely to accept Alexi Casilla in that spot. Span has certainly improved his skill set this year, especially his plate discipline, and he is finally hitting for some average. However, you really cannot take too much from only 71 at-bats. Yes, he sports an impressive .324/.429/.423 line, but he only has three doubles and two triples, which means that his power has still not increased much. Also, being 3-for-6 in stolen base attempts is not particularly good for a speedster.
What does this all mean? Span certainly can hit for decent average and he's always shown some decent discipline in the minors, so the jump in plate discipline is not all that surprising, especially given his offseason eye surgery. However, it would be unrealistic for fans to expect Span's hot streak to continue through the rest of the year. That doesn't mean he wouldn't be good for the lead-off spot, though, as long as he can sport around a .280 to .300 average from here on out with good plate discipline while learning the dynamics of base-stealing.
3. Brian Buscher
I considered putting Alexi Casilla here, but considering his age and minor-league track record against Casilla's age and skill set, it was hard to say that Casilla is going to disappoint more. Keep in mind that in six minor-league seasons, Buscher has put up a mediocre .280/.349/.404 line, so expecting much more out of him in the majors is unrealistic.
While the .313 current average might look good, it is likely unsustainable and hides what hasn't been that great of a season. Once again, like Punto, Buscher really hasn't had that many at-bats, at only 82. Also, he has a .313/.337/.410 line, good for only a .747 OPS. This is because he has walked a grand total of four times and has only six extra-base hits so far. Given the lack of patience and power coupled with his age and track record, its likely that the only thing keeping Buscher's offensive production acceptable (the batting average) is set to go down steadily.
All-Star Game Note:
* I couldn't stay up to finish the game, but the Twins' players all did well. Joe Mauer showed off his good eye and bat, going 1-for-1 with a walk (as well as appearing in a Boys and Girls Club commercial on National TV), while Justin Morneau hit a hard double off of the Reds' prized hurler, Edinson Volquez. Joe Nathan only threw 8 pitches in his one inning, but he retired the NL hitters 1-2-3 and did manage a strikeout. All in all, I'd say that the three Twins did a pretty good job representing the team in the game.