Jim Souhan
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After two close losses to finish their homestand, the Twins are 41-34 as they near the midpoint of their season.

They have survived myriad injuries to set themselves up to compete for the division title. In their current state, they are good enough to make the playoffs, but far from being the proverbial "team nobody wants to play" in October.

As the trade deadline nears, there is likely to be widespread local consternation that the team's owners are unlikely to sanction expensive additions, even in the wake of the team's rare playoff victory last year.

Let's keep our eye on the true, key variables that will determine whether the 2024 Twins will be more than a streaky oddity: The performances of two of their three big-money players.

The Twins have three players signed to lucrative, long-term contracts that keep them under control until late in the decade: Carlos Correa, Byron Buxton and Pablo López.

Correa is performing like a star. Buxton is failing to produce the kind of power that would make him an impact player. López has been the biggest disappointment of the Twins' season.

Buxton is a physical contradiction in cleats. He is running as well as ever, yet his ever-problematic right knee seems to be restricting his swing. The result: a slugging percentage of .383.

The players on the Twins roster with slugging percentages closest to him — Alex Kirilloff (.384), Austin Martin (.372) and Eddie Julien (.367) — have all earned demotions this season, although Martin has bounced back in his third stint in the majors.

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López entered the season as not only the Twins' acknowledged ace, but as one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. Given that the Twins' perceived primary flaw entering the season was starting pitching quality and depth, it is remarkable that this team has been able to contend while López has built the highest ERA (5.63) among their current starters.

Royce Lewis' astounding performance over the past two weeks has mitigated Buxton's lack of production. There is no way for the Twins to reach their potential without López pitching like an ace.

He's supposed to lead the staff. He is supposed to get this team into the playoffs. He is supposed to pitch Game 1 of the playoffs. If he can't right himself, this team's midseason strategy will be praying that Lewis can hit enough home runs with Correa on base to overcome spotty starting pitching.

No one should be surprised that Correa has righted himself. He played despite plantar fasciitis last year, and now that he's healthy, his obsessive conditioning and studying are paying off with optimal numbers.

We shouldn't be surprised that Buxton is struggling. He's a supreme athlete, one capable of generating elite bat speed and hitting long home runs, but his knee has restricted his swing for the past two seasons even when he's been able to play.

López is the surprise of this highly paid group. The Twins love his personality, approach, coachability, work ethic and intelligence. In terms of intangibles, he's a five-tool player.

This year, his primary contribution to the team has been draping celebratory vests onto the shoulders of hitters who have returned to the dugout after hitting a home run.

López is not being paid $73.5 million over four years to be a party planner. The Twins need him to lead their rotation.

There remains time for him to do so. Last year, his monthly ERAs went like this: 4.00, 4.25, 4.46, 3.71, 2.00, 3.68, 0.71. That last number was his ERA over two postseason starts.

López, Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober would give the Twins a strong playoff rotation if López is pitching well. If he's not pitching well, the Twins might not even make the playoffs.

If López isn't concealing a performance-altering injury, he can improve immediately by simply ceasing to throw the ball over the heart of the plate.

Sounds easy. And for someone of López's capabilities, it should be.