Three consecutive seasons with at least 96 losses have left a bitter taste in the mouths of Minnesota Twins fans and the organization.
Despite those hard times since, the news is not all bad for the Twins heading into 2014. They have spent money to upgrade the worst pitching staff in baseball last year. Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes should at least provide innings, if nothing else.
More important than the money spent on free agents this offseason is what's coming through the system. Outfielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano are top-10 prospects in baseball and have an outside shot to debut in 2014.
Buxton and Sano are just the beginning of what's in the pipeline for Minnesota. It's going to take a little more time, with more losses to come, but the Twins are headed in the right direction.
In fact, based on the strength of their farm system, they're poised to take control of the American League Central from the Detroit Tigers in the not-too-distant future.
While Minnesota waits for the sun to rise on the Twins again, here are the stories to follow this spring as the team prepares for the 2014 regular season.
RHP Ricky Nolasco (Free Agent), RHP Phil Hughes (Free Agent), OF Jason Kubel (Free Agent), RHP Matt Guerrier (Free Agent), C Kurt Suzuki (Free Agent), LHP Sean Gilmartin (Traded from Atlanta), LHP Kris Johnson (Traded from Pittsburgh)
3B Jamey Carroll (Free Agent), C Ryan Doumit (Traded to Atlanta), RHP Duke Welker (Traded to Pittsburgh), LHP Andrew Albers (Released)
Seeing a 96-loss team with one of the best farm systems in baseball invest $84 million in three starting pitchers (Nolasco, Hughes, Pelfrey) seems hasty, as a way to speed up the rebuilding process, but it makes sense when you realize how bad the Twins pitching was in 2013.
Their starters had the fewest innings pitched and worst ERA in baseball last year, putting more pressure on the bullpen.
With Nolasco, Hughes and Pelfrey in place, the Twins should be guaranteed 550 innings from that trio if they all stay healthy. They aren't impact arms, but this isn't a franchise that has to be spending top dollar for premier arms right now.
Adding depth at other positions, like catcher (Kurt Suzuki) and outfield (Jason Kubel), was the other priority. The team used low-risk investments to supplement areas of need, just trying to get through 2014 in one piece when the future arrives next year.
Samuel Deduno, RHP
Samuel Deduno, who posted a respectable 3.83 ERA with a modest 67-41 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 108 innings last year, had shoulder surgery on Sept. 20.
Paul Kinzer, Deduno's agent, is quoted in Berardino's report as saying that the procedure was nothing serious but more of a cleaning process.
It went great. He should be 100 percent for spring training. It was nothing major. Just some slight fraying and a slight tear (in the labrum and rotator cuff). The doctor said it was no big deal.
With no reported setbacks in the nearly five months since the procedure, Deduno appears ready for spring training. It will be interesting to see how the Twins use him before the season, if they decide to take things slowly and work him back into the rotation after the regular season starts since they have more options to choose from than last year.
Minnesota Twins 2014 Coaching Staff
|Manager: Ron Gardenhire (13th season)|
|Hitting Coach: Tom Brunansky (2nd season)|
|Pitching Coach: Rick Anderson (13th season)|
|First Base Coach: Scott Ullger (2nd season)|
|Third Base Coach: Joe Vavra (2nd season)|
|Bench Coach: Terry Steinbach (2nd season)|
|Bullpen Coach: Bobby Cuellar (2nd season)|
One thing you can say about the Twins is they love stability. They have had two managers since 1987 (Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire).
There was some thought that Gardenhire would not be brought back after last season, when his contract ran out, because the team is on the verge of heading in a new direction.
Sid Hartman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune talked to Twins owner Jim Pohlad last August about Gardenhire's status with the team and didn't sound committed, though he did admit the decision would be left to general manager Terry Ryan.
“Well, that’s Terry’s decision, but he’ll consult with all of us,” said Pohlad, who added that nothing has been decided.
On Sept. 30, the day after the 2013 season ended, the Twins ended any speculation by signing Gardenhire to a two-year extension through 2015.
At his press conference, Gardenhire sounded like a man who understood the situation the franchise was in and what was going to change (via MLB.com).
The important thing here is there is going to be an effort made. There always has been, but there's going to be an even stronger effort made to get the performance on the field back to where it should be and I want to be a part of that, a big part of that.
It's rare in this era, where one bad season can cost someone his job, to find a franchise that wants to stick with a manager after 12 years, but the Twins clearly value the work Gardenhire and his staff have done and want to see it through to the end.
Minnesota Twins Projected 2014 Lineup
|1. Alex Presley, CF|
|2. Brian Dozier, 2B|
|3. Joe Mauer, 1B|
|4. Josh Willingham, LF|
|5. Oswaldo Arcia, RF|
|6. Trevor Plouffe, 3B|
|7. Jason Kubel, DH|
|8. Kurt Suzuki, C|
|9. Pedro Florimon, SS|
|Chris Herrmann, Catcher|
|Chris Colabello, 1B/OF|
|Eduardo Escobar, IF|
|Darin Mastroianni, OF|
The only positive thing you can say about the Twins lineup heading into 2014 is that the 3-4-5 spots should be worth watching.
Despite no longer being able to catch on a regular basis, Joe Mauer remains one of the best hitters in baseball, ranking in the top five in batting average (.324) and on-base percentage (.404) last year.
This year will be a different experience for Mauer, who will transition to first base full time, and got some advice about the move from former teammate Justin Morneau (via Fox Sports North).
Actually, when I was kind of going through these doctors, (Morneau) was real supportive. He actually told me, "Joe, you need to move. It's just not worth it." That's coming from a guy who experienced a lot of the things that I was going through. He was very supportive in that. He's thinking about me as a friend, not just as a teammate.
Josh Willingham has hit at least 21 homers in seasons he's been able to play at least 130 games, though that's happened only five times in eight years since 2006.
Oswaldo Arcia is the player to watch in the lineup. He's not much of a defensive player, but 14 homers in 97 games is nothing to scoff at. His development this year, particularly taking more pitches to cut down on the 117 strikeouts in 351 at-bats, could give the Twins a true middle-of-the-order bat to put behind Mauer for a long time.
The rest of the lineup is superfluous, just biding time until the farm system starts churning out replacements. Don't expect much of an improvement on the 614 runs the team scored last season.
With the exception of Mauer and Willingham, no player with at least 100 games played in 2013 had an on-base percentage higher than .315 (Justin Morneau, who was traded to Pittsburgh in August).
It's still going to be ugly in Minnesota, but there are still individual pieces worth watching on a daily basis.
Minnesota Twins Projected 2014 Rotation
|No. 1 Ricky Nolasco, RHP|
|No. 2 Kevin Correia, RHP|
|No. 3 Phil Hughes, RHP|
|No. 4 Mike Pelfrey, RHP|
|No. 5 Vance Worley, RHP|
To illustrate just how inept Minnesota's 2013 rotation was, the new duo of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes combined to throw 345 innings last year, or 39.6 percent of the total innings every Twins starter threw.
Nolasco has never been one of the best starters in the National League, with a career 4.37 ERA, but there is something to be said for consistency from year to year. He's made at least 26 starts every year since 2008.
Even Hughes, for all the criticism he took in New York, would have had the second-highest Fangraphs WAR total among Twins starters last year (1.3).
Phil Rogers of MLB.com wrote about the different roles that Nolasco and Hughes fill for the Twins, if both players play up to their potential.
They hope that signing Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes will be a tipping point toward fulfilling that goal, with the belief that the 30-year-old Nolasco can step into the (Brad) Radke role and that Hughes can grow into a 200-inning starter with his oversized New York expectations no longer hanging over him.
Kevin Correia is another solid innings eater who can give the Twins fringe-average production behind Nolasco.
The back of the rotation is going to be a revolving door, with Mike Pelfrey and Vance Worley getting the first chance, but Kyle Gibson, Trevor May and Alex Meyer may get a look later in the year.
Pitching depth was a priority for the Twins this offseason, which they were able to address by dipping into free agency.
Minnesota Twins Projected 2014 Bullpen
|Closer: Glen Perkins, LHP|
|Setup: Jared Burton, RHP|
|Setup: Michael Tonkin, RHP|
|Reliever: Brian Duensing, LHP|
|Reliever: Casey Fien, RHP|
|Reliever: Caleb Thielbar, LHP|
|Reliever: Anthony Swarzak, RHP|
When you consider that Minnesota relievers threw 23.2 more innings than any other bullpen in baseball, their 3.50 ERA (16th in MLB) doesn't look that bad.
Another point of emphasis is the performance of Glen Perkins. Even though he doesn't get a lot of save opportunities pitching for a bad team, the left-hander thrived in his first full season as a closer, racking up 36 saves with a 77-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 62.2 innings.
Casey Fien isn't a traditional power reliever, throwing a fastball that tops out around 92-93 mph, but his ability to cut the pitch makes him dangerous. He struck out 73 in 62 innings last year.
The rest of the crew is filled with low-cost options who are able to get outs in less than dominating fashion. As long as they don't implode, the Twins should be able to get through the season in fine shape.
Byron Buxton, OF
No, this doesn't mean that Byron Buxton will be in Minnesota by the end of the year. He's going to start the regular season in Double-A, as he should, and barring any setbacks could be in line for a bump to Triple-A by the end of the year.
Besides, with the Twins not competing for anything this year, there really is no incentive to call Buxton up in 2014.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't watch the best prospect in baseball, because Buxton is a special talent who could dazzle as a 20-year-old against established big leaguers in spring training.
A true five-tool talent, Buxton is going to hit for more power in 2014 than he did last year (12 homers, .520 slugging) because he's still growing into his frame. It won't be long before we talk about this young center fielder as an MVP candidate hitting in the middle of Minnesota's lineup.
Josmil Pinto, C
The Twins gave Josmil Pinto a 21-game tryout last season. He rewarded them by hitting .342/.398/.566, but could struggle to crack the Opening Day lineup because of his profile.
In order to be a catcher, defense has to be your best attribute. Pinto is still a raw receiver and doesn't block well, making him a liability with the glove. The bat will play in the big leagues, with above-average power and good control of the strike zone, but he may end up as a part-time catcher because of the defensive limitations.
Alex Meyer, RHP
Few pitchers are going to elicit more "oohs" and "ahhs" than Alex Meyer. He's a true power pitcher with an imposing 6'9" frame, though that's also one of his drawbacks. Having long limbs makes it difficult for him to repeat his mechanics, leading to erratic command and a potential career in the bullpen.
When you see Meyer on the right day, you will see a potential No. 2 starter with a fastball that touches 99 with explosive life as it crosses the plate and a plus-plus slider that can remind you of a right-handed Randy Johnson.
Meyer is still working on a changeup that flashes above-average potential with some late fade, though it is firm coming out of his hand.
He pitched 13 games at Double-A last season and will likely start 2014 back there, but with some improved command and slight advances with the changeup, the Twins could give him a look in September.
Miguel Sano, 3B
Do you like power? I don't just mean a player who can hit a home run, but majestic moonshots that travel 425 feet when the hitter doesn't square up the pitch.
If the answer is yes, then Miguel Sano is your new hero. He's got special power that is going to make him a perennial All-Star and superstar when he gets to Minnesota.
There are some flaws to his game. Sano has a huge 6'4", 235-pound frame and does struggle at times with lateral movement to play third base, but has enough arm strength to move to right field and enough bat to profile at first base if the Twins decide he has to move.
On offense, Sano has a very long swing and is still learning to hit off-speed stuff, but is a very patient hitter who draws a lot of walks and posts high on-base percentage totals. He's going to be a high OBP hitter with 35-plus homers in the big leagues.
There has been some concern about an elbow injury Sano suffered that could possibly require Tommy John surgery, but he was reportedly given a "clean bill of health" in December.
As long as the elbow doesn't cause any more problems, Sano should be one of the most-talked-about prospects this spring with a strong chance to play in Minnesota by August or September.
Oswaldo Arcia, OF
It shouldn't come as a surprise to see Oswaldo Arcia here if you read my thoughts on the Twins lineup.
Last year was just a drop in the bucket of what Arcia is capable of. Parker Hageman of TwinsCentric provided a fantastic breakdown of how effective Arcia was as a rookie, and a few areas that need improvement.
Perhaps because he was an unproven player, the Twins outfielder saw a higher than average amount of fastballs when he had the drop on pitchers (70% vs. 62% league average) and he was able to capitalize. Of his 14 home runs, seven came on fastballs when he was ahead in the count. Beyond that, just based on batting average, he was baseball’s best when ahead in the count – his .509 batting average led the game (minimum 50 plate appearances).
Hageman does note that judging Arcia by a sample this small will be picked apart, and deservedly so.
But the hardest thing for young players to develop is power. Arcia already has that part of his game down, with 14 homers in fewer than 100 games and a .430 slugging percentage. When the rest of his offensive game catches up, look out.
Center Field: Alex Presley vs. Aaron Hicks
The Twins surprised everyone by promoting Aaron Hicks two levels last year and making him the Opening Day center fielder. It seemed foolish at the time because he was a notoriously slow starter at every level of the minors, hitting his stride in year two.
Sure enough, Hicks was overmatched in the big leagues with a .192/.259/.338 line in 81 games before being sent down to Triple-A. He didn't fare much better in the minors, with a .222/.317/.333 line in 22 games.
Despite Hicks' struggles, Twins general manager Terry Ryan told MLB.com that there will be an open competition for the center-field job this spring between Hicks and incumbent Alex Presley.
There's no doubt (Hicks) can play up here defensively. Now we just have to get the other half. That's usually the toughest part. He'll be all right. He's got a good work ethic.
Of course, both Hicks and Presley are just placeholders for Byron Buxton in 2015, but if all things are equal, Hicks is the superior player with strong defensive capabilities and, with some offensive adjustments, the ability to hit for some power and get on base.
Unfortunately Hicks just needs a lot more time than the typical player with his skills. Presley posted a respectable .283/.336/.363 line in 28 games for the Twins last year, giving him the inside track on the starting job.
It's safe to say the Twins have probably learned not to be fooled by a strong spring training performance from Hicks again, though he should get another look later in the year.
Prediction: Alex Presley
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