Twins already looking to future
The Minnesota Twins aren’t calling this a rebuilding season, but there’s no question they’re a team in transition. After winning six division titles in nine years, they’ve lost 99 and 96 games over the past two seasons, disappointing the slowly shrinking crowds at Target Field. Some moves this offseason suggested they were more focused on 2014 than 2013, but general manager Terry Ryan insists that fans could see some immediate improvement. Trading Denard Span and Ben Revere in a span of eight days left a big hole in center field, but those moves netted three starting pitchers for an organization sorely lacking quality arms at all levels. Span went to Washington for Double-A righty Alex Meyer, a hard-throwing first-round pick from the 2011 draft. Revere went to Philadelphia for Vance Worley, who will jump right into Minnesota’s rotation, and Trevor May, another Double-A righthander with No. 3 starter potential. The Twins have a wave of positional talent coming through their farm system, including center field prospect Aaron Hicks, a former first-round pick who probably will start the year at Triple-A. The goal now is to build a bridge toward the future without embarrassing themselves on the field.
The Twins gave this group an overhaul after their starters ranked second-to-last in the majors last year, one spot ahead of Colorado, with a 5.40 ERA. Rookie Scott Diamond had arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone chip from his left elbow in December after going 12–9 with a 3.54 ERA in 27 starts. His availability for Opening Day is in question. Kevin Correia, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal, isn’t flashy, but he’s been consistent over the past four seasons for the Padres and Pirates. Worley finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2011 but went 6–9 with a 4.20 ERA for the Phillies last year before having arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow. The Twins were disappointed they couldn’t re-sign Scott Baker, who missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Baker took a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Cubs. Instead, the Twins signed another pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery, former Met Mike Pelfrey, who hopes to be ready for Opening Day. Beyond Diamond, Correia, Worley and Pelfrey, the Twins have several wild-card rotation candidates including Liam Hendriks, Sam Deduno, Cole De Vries and P.J. Walters.
Twins officials point to their 2012 bullpen as proof things can turn around quickly. Their relievers were a major concern last spring, as they’d posted the worst ERA in baseball in 2011, at 4.51, before losing longtime closer Joe Nathan to free agency. But Ryan revamped the bullpen, turning it into a team strength. Jared Burton (2.18 ERA) handled the eighth inning, and Glen Perkins (2.56) handled the ninth. With dependable late-inning relief, the Twins had no problem letting former closer Matt Capps leave as a free agent. Burton and Casey Fien (2.06 ERA) were both minor league free-agent signings, proving there are gems in the scrap heap. They’ll both be back, along with lefthanders Brian Duensing and Tyler Robertson. The Twins believe this group can be even better if their starters can pitch deeper into games.
The Twins have candidates for both middle infield spots, but no sure things. Brian Dozier looked like he had real potential at shortstop at this time last year, but he disappointed both offensively and defensively in an 84-game stint. Now, there’s hope that he’ll settle in at second base, with Pedro Florimon taking over shortstop. Florimon has a strong arm and good range, but he’ll have to improve on the .272 on-base percentage he posted in six weeks last year. If either player falters, the Twins can turn to veteran utility man Jamey Carroll, who has shown he can start at second, third or shortstop.
First baseman Justin Morneau is entering the final year of his six-year, $80 million contract, and it’ll be interesting to see if he eventually gets traded for more pitching help. His past concussion issues and surgically repaired left wrist make him a continued injury risk, but after playing just 150 games combined the previous two years, he played 134 last year, making 99 starts at first base. The Twins could replace Morneau at first base with Chris Parmelee, but there’s room for both of them, as Parmelee also plays right field. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe hit 18 home runs in a staggering 39-game stretch last summer, but he managed just six homers over his other 80 games, and his defense was shaky throughout. A thumb injury helped contribute to his second-half fade, and the Twins hope he settles into another groove.
After the Twins traded Span, it looked like Revere would replace him as their center fielder and leadoff hitter, but then they traded Revere, too. It said something about how much confidence they have in 2008 first-round draft pick Aaron Hicks, a switch-hitting center fielder who made big strides last year in Double-A. Hicks will challenge for the starting center field job this spring, but the Twins likely will go with Darin Mastroianni, allowing Hicks to gain polish at Triple-A. Josh Willingham is back in left, coming off a career season that saw him rack up 35 home runs and 110 RBIs. The question now is, can he approach that same success at age 34? Parmelee is getting his first chance as a big-league regular in right field. He batted .355 with a 1.035 OPS for the Twins in September 2011 but struggled in the majors last year.
The Twins will use the same formula they used last year to keep Joe Mauer’s bat in the lineup as much as possible. In 2011, injuries limited him to 82 games, which was especially tough in the first year of his eight-year, $184 million contract. Last year, he rebounded to play a career-high 147 games. After signing Ryan Doumit, the Twins finally had a backup catcher with a good bat, which put less pressure on Mauer to stay behind the plate. Mauer played 74 games at catcher, 42 at DH and 30 at first base, and led the American League with a .416 on-base percentage. Doumit batted .275 with a career-high 18 home runs and 75 RBIs. The Twins were so impressed, they gave him a two-year contract extension.
After trading Jim Thome in 2011, the Twins often used the DH spot last year to keep Mauer and Morneau in the lineup. The team’s constant mound troubles led to it carrying at least 12 pitchers all season, leaving just four spots on the bench. They also kept three catchers, with Drew Butera serving as a defensive specialist to go with Mauer and Doumit (who will see time as the DH). This limits what the Twins can do with their other bench spots, but they gain some versatility with infielders who play multiple positions. Non-roster players Ray Olmedo, an infielder, and outfielder Wilkin Ramirez are making strong showings in spring training.
Ron Gardenhire was named AL Manager of the Year in 2010, but the past two seasons have taken a toll. The Twins made just one change to his coaching staff over his first 11 years as manager, replacing Al Newman with Joe Vavra after the 2005 season. But after finishing with the AL’s worst record the past two years, management demanded changes. Three longtime coaches lost their jobs — Rick Stelmaszek, Steve Liddle and Jerry White — getting replaced by Bobby Cuellar, Tom Brunansky and Terry Steinbach. Gardenhire knows he could be next to go.
Expectations haven’t been this low for the Twins since 2008, the season after they lost Torii Hunter to free agency and traded Johan Santana to the Mets. That year, the Twins wound up playing a Game 163 division tiebreaker, losing to the White Sox. But the Twins were stocked with pitching back then, both starting and relief. With their new makeshift staff, it’s difficult to imagine this team giving its fans much to cheer about in September. It’ll be interesting to see what midseason deals Ryan can make and whether Gardenhire survives to manage again in 2014.
CF Darin Mastroianni (R)
In 77 games as a rookie, he posted a .328 on-base percentage and was 21-for-24 in stolen base attempts.
2B Brian Dozier (R)
A career .298 hitter in the minors, he batted just .234 in 84 games as a rookie last season.
C Joe Mauer (L)
Led the majors with a .416 OBP and a played a career-high 147 games, including 74 at catcher.
LF Josh Willingham (R)
At age 33, he posted career highs in games played (145), home runs (35) and RBIs (110).
1B Justin Morneau (L)
Stayed healthy enough to play 134 games, but his .773 OPS was 78 points below his career average. After a terrific run in July and August (.314), he slipped in September (.236).
DH Ryan Doumit (S)
At age 31, he had career highs for games played (134), home runs (18) and RBIs (75).
RF Chris Parmelee (L)
Batted .338 with a 1.102 OPS for Class AAA Rochester last year but just .229 with a .671 OPS for the Twins.
3B Trevor Plouffe (R)
Twins love his power potential, but he was inconsistent and made 17 errors in 95 games at third base.
SS Pedro Florimon (S)
The switch-hitter needs to improve offensively, especially from the left side of the plate.
INF Eduardo Escobar (S)
Acquired from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade; posted a .271 OBP in 14 games.
C Drew Butera (R)
The defensive specialist’s .198 batting average actually was a 31-point improvement from 2011.
INF Jamey Carroll (R)
After a slow start last year, he batted .295 with a .365 OBP over his final 86 games.
OF Wilkin Ramirez
A .270 hitter in just 37 at-bats in 2009 and ’11.
RH Vance Worley
Acquired from the Phillies for Ben Revere after going 6–9 with a 4.20 ERA last year.
RH Kevin Correia
Despite low strikeout rate, he’s averaged 11.5 wins over the past four years, the past two with Pittsburgh.
RH Mike Pelfrey
The ground-ball specialist had Tommy John surgery May 1 before leaving the Mets as a free agent.
LH Scott Diamond
Went 12–9 in 27 starts and ranked third among all qualifying MLB rookies in ERA (3.54). After elbow surgery in December, Diamond may not be ready to start the season. Righthander Liam Hendricks will fill the gap until the presumed ace is healthy.
RH Cole De Vries
Was 3–0 with a 1.02 ERA in his final three starts before suffering a cracked rib on Sept. 8.
LH Glen Perkins (Closer)
Had 78 strikeouts in 70.1 innings and converted 12-of-13 save chances to close the season.
RH Jared Burton
Posted a 2.18 ERA in 62 innings pitched, holding batters to a .186 batting average.
RH Casey Fien
Another minor league free-agent signee, he posted a 2.06 ERA in 35 innings pitched.
LH Brian Duensing
Posted a 3.47 ERA in 44 relief appearances but went 2–8 with a 6.92 ERA in 11 starts.
RH Alex Burnett
Led the Twins with 71.2 innings of relief, and his 3.52 ERA was down nearly two full runs from 2011.
LH Tyler Robertson
In his final 31 appearances, he held opponents to a .186 batting average, including .167 vs. lefties.
RH Ryan Pressly
Rule 5 draftee posted a 2.93 ERA in Double-A for the Red Sox last year.