When Phil Hughes signed a three-year, $42 million contract extension just before Christmas, the veteran righthander insisted he could see signs of hope for a Twins franchise that has fallen on hard times.
It’s not just the prospects, highlighted by Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who are on the way as the franchise transitions in the dugout from Ron Gardenhire to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. It’s also the fact that the Twins bumped their 2015 payroll back up over $100 million. “A lot of times you look at clubs and they just kind of sit stagnant and don’t really make the moves that I think are necessary,” Hughes says. “I think as an organization we could just sit back and just kind of wait for the prospect (surge) to happen. To kind of complement that, going out and signing guys like (Ervin) Santana and (Torii) Hunter and providing some leadership and spending a little money to go along with those young guys, I think is the right formula. I think we’re on the right path.”
The Twins bought low on Hughes after 2013, and general manager Terry Ryan was shrewd in locking up the workhorse and pinpoint-control artist through 2019. After going 16–10 and setting career marks for innings and strikeouts in his Twins debut, which included an all-time mark for strikeout/walk rate (11.63), the ex-Yankee appears poised to take off at age 28. Joining him at the top of the revamped rotation is Santana, a 32-year-old righthander signed to a four-year, $55 million deal that was the richest for any free agent in club history. Now on his fourth team in as many seasons, Santana has posted five straight years of 30-plus starts, averaging 207 innings in that span while bringing his usual quirky energy to the mound and the clubhouse. Santana’s deal topped the one Ricky Nolasco signed a year earlier (four years, $49 million) before flopping through a highly disappointing debut. So durable over his previous six seasons, Nolasco unwisely pitched through intermittent elbow pain in the first half and spent six weeks on the disabled list before returning to post a 2.93 ERA in five September starts. Former first-rounder Kyle Gibson, just 16 months younger than Hughes, enjoyed a 13-win breakthrough and started to miss more bats down the stretch with his heavy sinker/slider combination. Finesse lefthander Tommy Milone has a good chance to break up an otherwise all-righty rotation.
Bullpen salaries are skyrocketing around the game, but the Twins have two-time All-Star closer Glen Perkins locked up through 2018 (via club option) at a maximum salary of $6.5 million per season. The native Minnesotan pitched through a forearm strain over the final two months, but the hope is he will return to form after uncharacteristically blowing seven saves in 2014. Journeyman righthander Casey Fien returns as the primary setup man, with free-agent righthander Tim Stauffer, signed away from the San Diego Padres for $2.2 million, bidding to replace Jared Burton, whose option was bought out. Southpaws Brian Duensing and Caleb Thielbar are durable and have the ability to work out of trouble. Aaron Thompson is another lefty who showed promise in September. Young guns Michael Tonkin and Ryan Pressly also figure to bid for time in a bullpen that lost long-man Anthony Swarzak before his first crack at arbitration. Mike Pelfrey, in the final year of his $11 million deal, could bounce into a long-relief role.
Brian Dozier has remade himself into a power-hitting second baseman over the past season-and-a-half. He also gets high marks for his defense, baserunning and competitive fire. How good has Dozier been? Twins fans no longer pine for sweet-swinging prospect Eddie Rosario to replace him at the earliest opportunity. Shortstop is trickier. Eduardo Escobar enjoyed a 35-double breakout last season while providing above-average defense, but Molitor has made it clear he would prefer to return Danny Santana from center field to his natural position. Santana proved as a rookie he could hit big-league pitching, but his loose defensive history at shortstop leaves him with plenty to prove this spring.
Coming off a career-altering concussion and a long-discussed position change, Joe Mauer had a rare down year at first base. He missed six weeks with an oblique strain and also banged up his left shoulder in the field after returning in August. Heading into his age-32 season and playing for the first time under Molitor, his St. Paul progenitor, the three-time batting champion has something to prove. Four years and $92 million remain on Mauer’s contract. At third base, Trevor Plouffe enjoyed a huge defensive improvement, even as the Twins markedly increased their use of the shift. Far more than a placeholder until Sano arrives, Plouffe did a better job of using the whole field and ranked third on the team in slugging percentage.
Hunter, a 39-year-old nine-time Gold Glove winner, insists he has plenty left in the tank. The Twins certainly hope he’s right after paying $10.5 million to fund this one-year reunion that includes a full no-trade clause. Hunter’s bat remains potent, and his situational chops should come in handy. Young slugger Oswaldo Arcia moves from right to left, where he made 54 starts as a rookie in 2013. He has a strong arm, but his routes remain an adventure, as does his daily ability to avoid nagging injuries. In center, former first-rounder Aaron Hicks should get a third crack in as many seasons at seizing the everyday job. Hunter was his childhood idol, so the daily inspiration could give him a push. If not, glove-first speedster Jordan Schafer returns as a possible platoon option (or more). There’s also the Santana option should Escobar refuse to relinquish shortstop duties.
Not only did the Twins sign veteran Kurt Suzuki on the cheap, but they also managed to bring him under control through 2017 (club option) with a modest contract extension ($6 million per year) that came two weeks after his first All-Star appearance. Suzuki, 31, made 115 starts in his Twins debut despite taking enough backstop abuse to topple a redwood. Pitch-framing stats aside, he brings all the Twins could have imagined after Mauer’s forced position switch. Bat-first bopper Josmil Pinto will get another shot at backing up Suzuki after struggling to polish his defensive skills.
Kennys Vargas went more than a month between walks at one point late in his rookie year, so it was highly encouraging for the Twins to see him pile up more walks than strikeouts in the Puerto Rican Winter League. A protégé of David Ortiz, Vargas brings the same huge frame and outgoing personality to the park every day. Plus, Vargas has big-time power from both sides of the plate. Eduardo Nunez and potentially Escobar, if he loses the shortstop battle, offer versatility and energy off the bench.
Owner Jim Pohlad and team president Dave St. Peter authorized a payroll bump of nearly 25 percent after absorbing a fourth straight losing season amid multiplying empty seats at Target Field. Ryan, after undergoing cancer treatments that limited his 2014 schedule for months, has returned more motivated than ever to restore his organization to its former heights.
At a projected $105.5 million, the Twins are looking at the second-highest payroll in franchise history. Whether that will be enough to make them competitive again this season is debatable. What seems clear, however, is that at least the Twins are trying.
2015 Prediction: 5th in AL Central
SS Danny Santana (S) Only Jose Abreu outproduced him among AL rookies last season (.824 OPS for Twins).
2B Brian Dozier (R) Since late May 2013, Dozier’s power has been undeniable: 40 homers in 264 games.
1B Joe Mauer (L) Strained oblique cost him six weeks; poor season cost him spot in hometown All-Star Game.
DH Kennys Vargas (S) Mammoth slugger went more than a month without a walk but showed better patience in winter league.
RF Torii Hunter (R) Veteran is back where it all started after leaving via free agency seven years ago.
LF Oswaldo Arcia (L) Shows massive power when healthy, but poor defense, nagging injuries have slowed his progress.
3B Trevor Plouffe (R) Quietly improved his defense to the point where advanced metrics like him better than Adrian Beltre.
C Kurt Suzuki (R) Big first half landed him first All-Star nod and, soon, a two-year, $12 million contract extension.
CF Aaron Hicks (S) Former first-rounder keeps flopping, but a platoon arrangement (.410 OBP vs. lefties) might work.
UT Eduardo Escobar (S) Made the most of his opportunity, outslugging Mauer by 35 points while starting 86 games at shortstop.
OF Jordan Schafer (L) Waiver-wire pickup swiped a career-best 30 bases between Atlanta and Minnesota.
UT Eduardo Nunez (R) Versatile and energetic, this ex-Yankee was once viewed as Derek Jeter’s potential successor.
C Josmil Pinto (R) Lots of pop in that bat, but still too much lead in his glove to merit regular playing time.
RH Phil Hughes Move to Midwest agreed with ex-Yankee; extended through 2019 after first season with Twins.
RH Ervin Santana Well-traveled righty has had a sub-4.00 ERA in four of the past five seasons.
RH Ricky Nolasco Unwisely pitched through intermittent elbow pain after signing a then-club record, $49 million free-agent deal.
RH Kyle Gibson Former first-rounder, Tommy John survivor won 13 games and piled up nearly 180 innings.
LH Tommy Milone Finesse lefty won 31 games for Oakland in two-plus seasons before arriving in Sam Fuld trade.
LH Glen Perkins (Closer) Two-time All-Star pitched through forearm strain while blowing seven saves in 2014.
RH Casey Fien Durable setup man saw his nine-inning strikeout rate drop from 10.6 to 7.2 last season.
LH Brian Duensing League-adjusted ERA was 20 percent above average, best among all Twins with 30-plus innings.
LH Caleb Thielbar Lefty batters slugged .433 against him, almost 60 points higher than righties.
RH Tim Stauffer Former No. 4 overall pick has reinvented himself as a middle reliever following shoulder, elbow surgeries.
RH Ryan Pressly Former Rule 5 pick has career nine-inning strikeout rate of just 5.4 in 105 innings.
RH Mike Pelfrey Last chance for the former No. 9 overall pick who has one year at $5.5 million left on his deal.
Beyond the Box Score
Streak continues In the end, Ron Gardenhire wasn’t able to overcome history. With a fourth straight season of 92 or more losses, the media-friendly manager found himself on the chopping block after 13 seasons, giving way to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. That left Twins legend Tom Kelly, who survived a mild stroke in the 2014 season’s final days, as the only manager to leave on his own terms after suffering at least three straight 90-loss seasons since World War II.
Pinpoint Across the first seven seasons of his big-league career, all with the Yankees, Phil Hughes walked 2.80 batters per nine innings and posted a strikeout/walk rate of 2.68. In his first home start with the Twins, Hughes walked the first two batters in a four-run first inning and then walked Eric Sogard leading off the second. At that point something clicked. The durable righty would walk just 13 more batters (one intentionally) the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Hughes’ strikeout rate jumped to 8.0, as he broke Bret Saberhagen’s 20-year-old mark for the best strikeout/walk rate (11.63) for any qualifying pitcher since 1900.
Long wait Between July 18, 2012 and Sept. 13, 2014 — nearly 26 full calendar months — Twins pitchers waited in vain for something taken for granted in most modern quarters: a double-digit strikeout game. The drought reached a majors-high 379 games, dating to Francisco Liriano’s penultimate start in a Twins uniform, before Hughes finally ended the madness with an 11-strikeout performance at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field. The following day, rookie righthander Trevor May, an earnest Hughes protégé, went out and struck out 10 batters of his own.
Catch a whiff While waiting for a suitable offer as a free agent in the spring of 2014, veteran righthander Ervin Santana coined a catchphrase on his popular Twitter account: #SmellBaseball. It took off, and soon the bubbly Dominican was printing up T-shirts with the slogan and even holding baseballs to his nose on the mound. What does it mean? “It’s what he loves. He loves baseball,” says Amy Santana, his wife since 2009. “Anytime you go anywhere, certain smells remind you of something. For him it’s the smell of a dirty baseball, rubbing it in his hands.”
2014 Top Draft Pick
Nick Gordon, SS
The bloodlines are there. Taken fifth overall out of an Orlando-area high school, Gordon is the son of three-time All-Star pitcher Tom Gordon and the younger brother of All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon. Nick Gordon showed mound potential during his high school days, but he always wanted to play shortstop like his hero Derek Jeter. Gordon has soft hands and a plus arm to go with at least average range. At the plate, his left-handed swing can get a little long, but he hits for average and power with the ability to drive the ball to all fields. His raw speed is above average but needs refinement. A broken index finger on his left hand kept him from completing the Appalachian League playoffs and slowed him at his first instructional league as well. He should start 2015 at Low-A Cedar Rapids in the Midwest League.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Byron Buxton, CF (21) Injuries keep dogging the player many consider the No. 1 prospect in the minors. The latest was a fractured finger that ended his Arizona Fall League season.
2. Miguel Sano, 3B (21) After missing all of 2014 following Tommy John surgery, the gifted power hitter is eager to make up for lost time.
3. Jose Berrios, RHP (20) The former supplemental first-round pick reached Double-A and earned the starting assignment for the World team in the All-Star Futures Game at Target Field.
4. Kohl Stewart, RHP (20) Taken fourth overall out of a Houston high school in 2013, the former quarterback signee (Texas A&M) has been slowed by minor shoulder issues.
5. Alex Meyer, RHP (25) Towering in stature and potential; was set to make big-league debut in September until shoulder fatigue scuttled that plan.
6. Nick Gordon, SS (19) Sure, he’s tooled-up, but Gordon is a baseball player who loves the game, has outstanding instincts and impressive makeup.
7. Nick Burdi, RHP (22) A former Louisville All-American with a triple-digit fastball, Burdi posted a 0.72 ERA from July 1 forward.
8. Jorge Polanco, SS (21) A switch-hitter with a live body and bat, Polanco has drawn comparisons to fellow Dominican Tony Fernandez.
9. Eddie Rosario, OF/2B (23) A 50-game suspension wrecked his 2014, but high-average gap threat had strong showing in the Arizona Fall League.
10. Lewis Thorpe, LHP (19) Surgery wasn’t necessary for a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in fast-improving Aussie’s throwing elbow.