Twins' faithful anxious for young stars to arrive
During their first 50 seasons in Minnesota, the Twins had a total of two seasons with 95-plus losses: 1982 and ’99. After averaging 97 losses the past three seasons, fans were demanding change, but it didn’t come in the form of a managerial firing. That hasn’t happened for this franchise since Ray Miller gave way to Tom Kelly with 23 games left in the 1986 season. Ron Gardenhire returns for a 13th season at the helm, and this time his trusted pitching coach, Rick Anderson, will have some talent in the rotation. Whether it leads to a quick turnaround remains to be seen, but the days of “Pitch to Contact” appear over. Meanwhile, for all their starting pitching woes, the Twins’ offense posted the third-most strikeouts in history and finished with just 614 runs in 2013. That was the lowest run total in any full season for the Twins since 1968, the year before the pitcher’s mound was lowered.
The Twins, who rank last in the majors in rotation ERA over the last three seasons, threw some money at the problem. First, they signed workhorse righthander Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million deal that ranks as the richest the Twins have ever given in free agency. Of the 31 active pitchers with more than 1,000 innings since the start of 2008, Nolasco ranks third in fewest walks per nine innings (2.0). Next, they reeled in former Yankees mega-prospect Phil Hughes for $24 million over three years. Hughes had fallen on hard times in New York, but if his troublesome back holds up, he is primed for a return to prominence. As much as the fans wanted them to clean house, the Twins couldn’t bring themselves to cut righthander Mike Pelfrey loose after his stabilization year post-Tommy John surgery. They handed him a two-year, $11 million deal that could grow to $14.5 million if he hits all his incentive targets. Add it up, and the Twins guaranteed $84 million to three righthanders in hopes of climbing back to respectability sooner than expected. Workaday righthander Kevin Correia returns as well, but the fifth slot in the rotation is up for grabs. Ideally at some point in 2014, top pitching prospect Alex Meyer will be recalled from Triple-A Rochester and thrust into the rotation for years to come. For now, however, it will be a battle among lefties Scott Diamond and Kris Johnson and righties Kyle Gibson, Samuel Deduno and Vance Worley.
As bad as the Twins’ rotation was in 2013, the bullpen was pretty solid. First-time All-Star Glen Perkins, the closer, continued to nail down 90 percent of his save chances. He’s signed through 2015 with a club option for 2016, so if the Twins can just get him the ball with a few more leads, the victory total should climb. Veteran setup man Jared Burton struggled at times with command issues, but journeyman Casey Fien stepped in to help carry the burden of the eighth inning. Former independent leaguer Caleb Thielbar roared past Brian Duensing to claim top situational lefty honors. Failed starter Anthony Swarzak settled nicely into his long relief role and led all major-league pitchers in relief innings. Rule 5 pickup Ryan Pressly came flying out of the gates but scuffled at times over the final three months. He could face a challenge from towering righty Michael Tonkin.
Failed 2012 shortstop Brian Dozier overcame a slow first half and blossomed into a power-hitting second baseman over the final three months. Dozier needs to improve his on-base abilities if he wants to stay near the top of the lineup, but he throws his body around on defense and seems to be one of the club’s few unquestioned positional building blocks. He also works well with shortstop Pedro Florimon, the deceptively strong defender who ranked behind only Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons in defensive runs saved at the position in 2013. The switch-hitting Florimon still needs work with the bat, but he’s wiry strong and still has enough upside at age 27 for the Twins to stick with him for at least another year.
The timing couldn’t have been more convenient. Just as the Twins were getting set to trade former American League Most Valuable Player Justin Morneau to Pittsburgh, Joe Mauer was suffering the serious concussion that ultimately caused him to give up catching for good in November. Mauer, 30, has made 54 starts at first base over the past three seasons and should have no trouble making the transition. Less wear and tear also could boost his offensive production, not that he needs too much work in that area anyway. Versatile Trevor Plouffe returns at third base, but most believe it’s only a matter of time before he’s on the move again, this time to make way for 20-year-old slugger Miguel Sano. Issues in his throwing elbow have slowed Sano’s progress a bit, but he could start knocking on the door with a strong first half in the minors.
Defense could again be a concern unless former first-rounder Aaron Hicks can re-assert himself and win a spring battle with Alex Presley. The Twins are lumbering at the corners with Josh Willingham in left and bat-first slugger Oswaldo Arcia in right. Presley is slightly above average as a defender, but he needs to prove he can get on base against major-league pitching and use his speed more productively as a base-stealer. Willingham is coming off a frustrating season interrupted by cleanup surgery on his left knee. This is the final year of a three-year, $21 million deal that had been the largest the Twins ever granted to an outside free agent. The streaky Arcia struggles to hit lefties, but his upside and potential importance are obvious, especially for a power-challenged lineup.
Rookie Josmil Pinto is the first option after a breakout season in 2013, including a highly productive September audition in the majors. However, his defensive limitations and nagging issues in his throwing shoulder caused the Twins to dump Ryan “No Mitt” Doumit on Atlanta and use the savings to sign veteran Kurt Suzuki as insurance. Now it appears the club is cashing in on the insurance and committed to going with Suzuki as the regular. Suzuki’s power and throwing numbers have dropped off, but he can still handle a pitching staff and blocks balls with the best of them. The most likely scenario is that Pinto will be sent back to Triple-A for more seasoning, but the hard-working Venezuelan should return by midseason. Either journeyman Eric Fryer or versatile Chris Herrmann will serve as Suzuki’s backup until then.
Former Twins standout Jason Kubel was brought back on a minor-league deal that could pay him up to $3 million if he reclaims his former hitting prowess. Kubel’s brother-in-law is Tonkin, the hard-throwing relief prospect for the Twins. With Mauer’s move to first, former first-rounder Chris Parmelee and indy-league survivor Chris Colabello must battle for playing time. Eduardo Escobar is an energy guy with a better glove than you think at shortstop. Another ex-Twin, Jason Bartlett, was brought back on a minor-league deal as well after missing the past season-and-a-half with knee issues.
Twins president Dave St. Peter proudly calls Terry Ryan “the most disciplined general manager in the game,” a title that remains even after the targeted spending of this offseason. Organizational stability is of vital importance to the Pohlad family, a belief shown once more by the decision to give Gardenhire a two-year extension coming off 291 combined losses the past three seasons. Ryan, 60, essentially has a lifetime contract after building the clubs that reeled off six American League Central titles in nine seasons from 2002-10. The highly respected GM has brought back trusted scouting associates such as Wayne Krivsky and Larry Corrigan since returning to the role in November 2011.
After bolstering their rotation, the Twins are closer to competing again in the American League Central but recognize that their true return to prominence won’t come until top-shelf prospects such as Byron Buxton, Sano and Meyer begin to arrive. A frustrated fan base has filled more seats than you might expect at well-regarded Target Field, but they will need to see another winning product before too long. What’s more, Mauer’s prime years are being wasted.
CF Alex Presley (L)
Has a career .377 OBP in 1,242 Class AAA plate appearances, but just a .304 OBP in the majors.
2B Brian Dozier (R)
His 18 homers broke Tim Teufel’s 29-year-old franchise mark for most homers by a Twins second baseman.
1B Joe Mauer (L)
His career .323 average leads all active players by nearly two full points. Albert Pujols is second.
LF Josh Willingham (R)
Combined on-base/slugging percentage of .709 was lowest of his career when playing 13 or more games.
DH Jason Kubel (L)
Before falling off in 2013, he had posted adjusted OPS between 105 and 137 for six straight seasons.
3B Trevor Plouffe (R)
His WAR (per Baseball Reference) nearly doubled (to 1.9) despite seeing homer total drop from 24 to 14.
RF Oswaldo Arcia (L)
Streaky slugger torched Oakland and the White Sox for combined eight (four apiece) of his 14 rookie homers.
C Kurt Suzuki (R)
Hit 11 homers combined past two seasons after averaging 14 from 2009-11 with Oakland.
SS Pedro Florimon (S)
Trailed only Braves Gold Glover Andrelton Simmons for Defensive Runs Saved (12) among shortstops.
UT Eduardo Escobar (S)
Showed league-average range at shortstop last season but was poorly rated defensively at third.
OF Darin Mastroianni (L)
Surgery on his left ankle limited him to 30 games in 2013, but he can handle all three outfield spots.
INF Jason Bartlett (R)
Hasn’t played since May 2012 but says his knee is fully recovered.
C Josmil Pinto (R)
Posted an adjusted OPS of 165 in dazzling 21-game September audition.
RH Ricky Nolasco
Has thrown more than 1,151 innings over the past six seasons, 24th in MLB.
RH Phil Hughes
Has gone 34–21 over past two even-numbered seasons, 9–19 in past two odd years.
RH Kevin Correia
ERA and adjusted ERA have dropped three straight years even as innings have climbed.
RH Mike Pelfrey
Fielding Independent stats were more encouraging than his 5.79 home ERA.
LH Scott Diamond
His 3.57 K/9 rate ranked fourth-worst out of 496 pitchers with at least 20 innings.
LH Glen Perkins (Closer)
First-time All-Star had only four save chances over the final 25 games.
RH Jared Burton
WHIP spiked by 37 percent to 1.258 after career year in 2012.
RH Casey Fien
Had a 1.016 WHIP with 73 strikeouts in 62.0 innings pitched last season.
LH Caleb Thielbar
Held left-handed hitters to .482 OPS, among the best for any situational lefty.
LH Brian Duensing
Lefties hit 40 points higher (.303) against him than right-handed hitters in similar number of chances.
RH Anthony Swarzak
Long reliever’s WAR (1.7) per Baseball Reference trailed only Perkins on the Twins.
RH Ryan Pressly
Rule 5 pick stuck all year but struggled to 5.59 ERA after mid-June (28 outings).
2013 Top Draft Pick
Kohl Stewart, RHP
A star quarterback from Houston, Stewart passed up a chance to follow Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. The Twins took Stewart fourth overall and signed him for a $4,544,400 bonus. A Type 1 diabetic, Stewart missed close to three weeks in the Gulf Coast League after cutting his foot on a seashell. He was shut down for the final two weeks of the Appalachian League season due to shoulder soreness and was kept off the mound at instructional league, but he should be fine for spring training. Stewart’s fastball touches 96 mph with above-average life and command. He puts hitters away with a mid-80s power slider. His curve and change are improving, meaning he could brandish four above-average big-league pitches.
CF Byron Buxton (20)
Blessed with all five tools, the No. 2 overall pick blew through Class A in his first full pro season and swept Minor League Player of the Year honors.
RHP Kyle Gibson (26)
Taken three spots before Mike Trout, Gibson also had to overcome Tommy John surgery en route to 10 uneven big-league starts (6.53 ERA) last season.
3B Miguel Sano (20)
The Dominican super prospect pounded 35 combined homers last season at Class A and AA.
RHP Alex Meyer (24)
A shoulder strain cost him 10 weeks last season, but he was hitting 100 mph again in the Arizona Fall League.
2B Eddie Rosario (22)
The former fourth-rounder was suspended 50 games after testing positive for a drug of abuse for the second time.
RHP Jose Berrios (19)
The highest-drafted pitcher from Puerto Rico has a fastball that touches 95 mph, but he struggled with his command in the Midwest League.
LHP Lewis Thorpe (18)
Used a 95-mph fastball to dominate Team USA at the 18U World Championships in Taiwan.
Beyond the Box Score
Franchise player Even while missing the final 39 games after suffering a concussion on Aug. 19, Joe Mauer still finished second in the American League with a .324 batting average. His .404 on-base percentage ranked third in the league. The Twins went 49–61 (.445) with Mauer in the starting lineup and 17–35 (.327) without him. Good thing they have him signed through 2018 at $23 million per season ($115 million total).
Escape from New York Phil Hughes, a former 18- and 16-game winner, had little trouble handling the pressures of New York. A bigger issue for the 27-year-old righthander was his former workplace, Yankee Stadium. While going 4–14 in 2013, Hughes posted a 6.32 home ERA that ranked fourth-worst among the 184 pitchers to work at least 40 home innings. On the road, his 3.88 ERA ranked 78th out of 165 pitchers with at least 40 innings. Hughes’ home OPS allowed was .909 compared to .735 on the road. To put it another way, that was the difference between the OPS of National League MVP Andrew McCutchen (.911) and ex-Twins first baseman Justin Morneau (.734).
Short list In bringing back Ron Gardenhire after three straight 90-loss seasons, the Twins hope to repeat history as well as buck it. Of the past eight managers brought back after three straight 90-loss seasons since World War II — according to Jacob Pomrenke of the Society for American Baseball Research — just one has ever managed that team to another winning record: Tom Kelly. Gardenhire’s predecessor and mentor followed four straight 90-loss seasons (1997-2000) with an 85–77 record and a second-place finish in 2001 before retiring at age 51.
Back for more Ricky Nolasco’s only previous career start at Target Field came last April 23 in the nightcap of a day-night doubleheader necessitated by a snowout the previous day. Originally scheduled to pitch the afternoon game, Nolasco switched places at the last minute at the insistence of Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who didn’t want rookie phenom Jose Fernandez pitching in extreme cold. It was 42 degrees at first pitch for the second game, which Nolasco won after allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits and a walk over five innings.