As the Minnesota Twins continue to tread water in third place, 5½ games behind the Detroit Tigers after Sunday’s action, dreams of a playoff berth (or at least a repeat of last year’s Game 163 excitement) seem more remote with each passing day. Perhaps Twin Cities baseball fans can take comfort in one thing, though: the middle of the Twins order has become the stuff of nightmares for AL pitchers.

Top Six Batters vs. RHP By OPS (as of August 8th)
Player          Team      AVG/ OBP/ SLG   OPS
Joe Mauer       Twins    .406/.473/.700  1.173
Jason Kubel     Twins    .339/.414/.629  1.044
Justin Morneau  Twins    .291/.396/.575   .971
Kevin Youkilis  Red Sox  .301/.409/.554   .963
Nelson Cruz     Rangers  .290/.352/.609   .961
Kendry Morales  Angels   .304/.363/.597   .960

More than two-thirds of the way through the season, lefties Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel continue to be the three most productive hitters in the league against right-handed pitching. While Kubel has struggled against same-side hurlers this year, the Twins’ slugging trio can also be found high on the leader boards for overall offensive production:

Top Six Batters by OPS+ (as of August 8th)
Player          Team       AVG/ OBP/ SLG   OPS   OPS+
Joe Mauer       Twins     .366/.434/.615  1.050   181
Justin Morneau  Twins     .303/.387/.572   .959   156
Kevin Youkilis  Red Sox   .309/.422/.569   .991   150
Jason Kubel     Twins     .305/.377/.548   .925   147
Ben Zobrist     Rays      .290/.405/.552   .958   146
Mark Teixeira   Yankees   .284/.382/.557   .939   143

Mauer is currently leading the league in all three slash stats, while Morneau paces the circuit in both home runs and RBI-this is what we’ve come to expect from the Wonder Twins. It’s the presence of Kubel finally delivering on the promise he showed before tearing up his knee in the 2004 Arizona Fall League that makes the heart of Minnesota’s lineup truly exceptional. It’s not uncommon for teams to have two sluggers that are truly dominating in a given season-think Papi/Manny-but having a third rank so highly is pretty rare.

The question is, how rare? The last team to have the top two players by OPS+ (which basically scales ballpark-adjusted OPS to a league average of 100), and another in the top six was the 1960 Yankees, with Mickey Mantle (first), Roger Maris, (second) and Bill Skowron (fourth) dominating the AL. You may well wonder about the ’61 Yankees, but Maris was only fourth in OPS+ (and slugging) that season, trailing not only The Mick but Norm Cash and Jim Gentile as well.

Currently this trio of Twins hold three of the top four spots in OPS+, but there’s still more than 50 games to go-some settling of contents may occur. What if we lower the threshold a bit, to see how frequently a team has held three of the top six spots in their league? Here’s the post-war list:

Teams With 3 of Top 6 Batters In League by OPS+           Team
                                                           OPS+  Season
Year Team      Players                                     Rank  Result
2009 Twins     Mauer (1), Morneau (2), Kubel (4)             4   3rd
1995 Indians   Belle (2), Thome (5), Ramirez (6)             1   Lost WS
1990 A's       Henderson (1), Canseco (3), McGwire (6)       1   Lost WS
1971 Orioles   F. Robinson (3), Buford (4), Rettenmund (6)   1   Lost WS
1966 Orioles   F. Robinson (1), Powell (3), Blefary (6)      1   Won WS
1964 Twins     Allison (3), Killebrew (4), Olivo (5)         1   6th
1963 Giants    Mays (2), Cepeda (3), McCovey (4)             1   3rd
1960 Yankees   Mantle (1), Maris (2), Skowron (4)            1   Lost WS
1959 Tigers    Kaline (2), Kuenn (3), Yost (6)               3   4th
1956 Braves    Adcock (2), Aaron (3), Mathews (6)            1   2nd
1953 Dodgers   Snider (3), Campanella (4), Furillo (5)       1   Lost WS
1952 Indians   Doby (1), Rosen (3), Easter (5)               1   2nd
1949 Red Sox   Williams (1), Stephens (3), Doerr (5)         1   2nd
1948 Indians   Boudreau (2), Keltner (5), Gordon (6)         1   Won WS
1947 Yankees   DiMaggio (2), Henrich (3), McQuinn (6)        1   Won WS
1946 Cardinals Musial (1), Korowski (4), Slaughter (6)       2   Won WS

Only three teams have managed this feat since the start of divisional play. The ’95 Indians featured a lineup so deep that Manny Ramirez and his .960 OPS usually batted seventh; the ’90 Oakland “Bash Brothers” were actually driven by Rickey Henderson‘s bat and legs; and how much of a genius was Earl Weaver, coaxing solid production from guys like Don Buford and Merv Rettenmund (or, earlier, Curt Blefary)?

Note that all three teams made it to the World Series. Also notable is the list of teams that didn’t make the list. The Big Red Machine teams never had three of the top six players, though the bicentennial edition featured Joe Morgan, George Foster, Pete Rose, and Ken Griffey Sr. in the top eight. None of the A-Rod/Junior/Edgar teams in Seattle managed it, nor did the late-’70s Yankees or the early-’70s Athletics. What the Twins are doing this year seems to be uncommon of late.

Going further back, prior to expansion, you see such domination a little more frequently, likely because the pool of players you needed to beat is a little smaller, and the reserve clause made it easier to hold onto your stars. The most recent team on the list not to make the World Series was the Twins themselves, who managed a losing record in ’64 despite the herculean efforts of Bob Allison, Harmon Killebrew, and Tony Oliva. The most recent NL team on the list is the ’63 Giants, and you have to go all the way back to the 1946 Cardinals to find an NL squad with the OPS+ leader and three players in the top six. The dominance of New York baseball in the post-war period makes for a lot more second-place finishes for teams on this list, but the ’53 Dodgers deserve a special shout-out for placing five players in the top ten: Duke Snider (3rd), Roy Campanella (4th), Carl Furillo (5th), Gil Hodges (8th), and Jackie Robinson (9th).

The list is peppered with great players, great teams-and the 2009 Twins, who seem to be displaying an innate talent for doing less with more. The vast majority of teams with three players managing such gaudy production also paced their league in Team OPS+, and were thus able to bludgeon their opponents into submission; the Twins are currently fourth. Is there a reason? Well, the tenets of Minnesota Nice would require me to describe the bottom of the Twins batting order as “really trying very hard”:

Batting Order Splits
Order   AVG/ OBP/ SLG   OPS  Player
  1    .278/.363/.381   .744  Denard Span, LF
  2    .259/.312/.400   .712  Orlando Cabrera, SS
  3    .309/.387/.517   .904  Joe Mauer, C
  4    .296/.373/.594   .967  Justin Morneau, 1B
  5    .286/.350/.485   .835  Jason Kubel, DH
  6    .228/.308/.369   .677  Michael Cuddyer, RF
  7    .258/.306/.406   .712  Brendan Harris, 3B
  8    .277/.346/.350   .696  Carlos Gomez, CF
  9    .205/.302/.265   .567  Nick Punto, 2B

Span is fine in the leadoff spot, and management clearly hopes that Orlando Cabrera, PH/PW (professional hitter, proven winner) can bridge the gap to the musketeers at the heart of the order, and Cuddyer makes for a nice d’Artagnan now that he’s been dropped to the sixth slot. But the bottom third of the order qualifies for Superfund assistance. Carlos Gomez (.666 OPS) has done his part to turn center field into a brownfield, while Brendan Harris (.666) also sports the OPS of The Beast while roving the infield. Those two have been downright Ruthian compared to the current squatters at second base, switch-flailers Nick Punto (.559) and Alexi Casilla (.456). Joe Crede (.728) has shown occasional power, but a bum wing won’t let him play either with frequency or consistency, while the less said about the trade for Delmon Young (.625), the happier we’ll all be. The standard deviation for the nine lineup spots is a league-high 124 points of OPS-further highlighting the stars-and-scrubs nature of the Twins’ offense.

The Twins often seem to take Minnesota Nice a step too far, acting as if improving their ballclub would be rude since it might make other teams look worse by comparison. As Christina Kahrl detailed, trading for Cabrera at the deadline was at least something, even if it was pretty small beer compared to the rotation upgrades made by the Tigers and White Sox. But the teams Minnesota is chasing aren’t world-beaters, and small improvements to the Twins could pay big dividends. The rotation has been a huge disappointment, to the point that adding Carl Pavano may help (and yes, I can’t believe I just typed that). Yet a case can be made for expecting the home-grown pitching talent to improve down the stretch. Scott Baker has been much better recently, and Francisco Liriano‘s 4-11 record and 5.63 ERA belie his peripherals-his QERA is 4.51, and his BABIP is .327 (fourth highest in the AL).

But the same can’t be said for the bottom of the order. Punto, Harris, Casilla, Gomez, Young-even Dr. Pangloss would be hard-pressed to see the upside there, at least for the rest of this season. The offensive bar has been set so low that even finding league-average guys would be a huge improvement. Span can play a passable center field, meaning the Twins could have added anyone with a passable bat and an outfielder’s glove to stand in left field between trips to the plate. Marco Scutaro would have been a nice addition to the infield (and perhaps still could be, depending on waiver claims), moving between the keystone and the hot corner depending on Crede’s health, even if the Twins manage to catch lightning in a bottle with Mark Grudzielanek (currently working on his timing in Double-A).

The point is, it would take very little to improve this lineup to leverage the rare and wonderful production currently provided by Mauer, Morneau, and Kubel, and the window to do so may soon close. The elephant in the corner of GM Bill Smith‘s office is Mauer’s contract, set to expire at the end of 2010. Even if the Twins are able to re-sign the St. Paul native at a hometown discount, that contract, along with built-in raises for Morneau, Kubel, and Cuddyer (who has a team option), will mean even less financial flexibility starting in 2011. Minnesota’s home-grown hitters are in their prime, and it will be a shame if such a compelling concentration of hitting talent goes unrewarded. The solution might be to model the Twins lineup on that of Minnesota’s own Lake Wobegon Whippets, where all the bats are strong, all the swings are beautiful, and all the hitters are above average-or at least above replacement level.