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Minnesota Twins 2016 Preview and Prediction

Miguel Sano

Miguel Sano

As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.

After shrugging off a slow start and successfully stemming a run of four straight seasons with 92 losses or more, the youthful Twins hope to build on those gains with an even stronger postseason push in 2016.

Bridging the 12-game gap that separated them from the Kansas City Royals, two-time reigning American League pennant winners, remains the primary objective — and it won’t be easy. The 83-win Twins, after finishing second by the majors’ largest margin and falling three games shy of the second Wild Card, also will need to find a way to hold off the revamped rosters of their other three division rivals in Detroit, Cleveland and the South Side of Chicago.

Rotation

This area showed great improvement under first-year pitching coach Neil Allen, whose increased emphasis on the changeup and working inside helped Twins starters jump from last in the majors to 16th in earned run average (4.14). Slashing nearly a full run off their rotation ERA, they were able to overcome an 80-game steroid suspension to $55 million free agent Ervin Santana and injury-marred seasons for fellow righthanders Phil Hughes (back) and Ricky Nolasco (ankle surgery). Mike Pelfrey has jumped to the division-rival Tigers on a two-year deal, but the Twins feel encouraged after watching sinkerballing Kyle Gibson enjoy a breakthrough campaign and rookie curveballer Tyler Duffey go 5–1 in his 10-start audition.  Lefthander Tommy Milone also fought back from a first-half demotion to Triple-A to post some of his best work since he was in Oakland. Righty Jose Berrios, the organization’s top pitching prospect, should arrive at some point in the first half after leading the minors in strikeouts last season.

Bullpen

Three-time All-Star closer Glen Perkins was unable to stay healthy for the second straight year. Neck and lower-back issues that required a combined three cortisone shots severely hampered the hometown hero down the stretch. Into the void stepped career setup man Kevin Jepsen, acquired at the July 31 trade deadline from Tampa Bay. In line for an arbitration-fueled raise to at least $6 million, Jepsen is coming off a career-best 15 saves and provides much-needed insurance should Perkins break down again. An overbooked rotation that pushed Trevor May into a setup role figures to keep him there from the outset this time. May’s fastball reached 98 mph in a relief role, which seemed to suit him until lower-back issues of his own slowed him in September. Journeyman Casey Fien doesn’t miss many bats, but he challenges hitters and avoids free passes.

Middle Infield

All-Star second baseman Brian Dozier faded badly in the second half, especially in terms of power production, but the Twins are still pleased to have their fiery leader under contract for another three seasons. Dozier’s offensive profile seems to fit best in the middle of the order, but he seems most comfortable atop the lineup, even though the former 20/20 man doesn’t run as much anymore. For the second straight year, switch-hitting mite Eduardo Escobar stepped in for an anointed shortstop who failed (Pedro Florimon in 2014, Danny Santana in 2015) and made the most of his opportunity. This time, the Twins figure to ride with Escobar from Opening Day forward.

Corners

Trevor Plouffe seemed like an obvious trade candidate with the emergence of young slugger Miguel Sano, exclusively a third baseman in the minors. However, the Twins were so impressed with Plouffe’s steady improvement on both sides of the ball that they opted to move Sano to corner outfield so they could keep Plouffe for another season at the hot corner. Franchise first baseman Joe Mauer may take a few more breaks with Byung Ho Park signed away from South Korea’s Nexen Heroes, but Mauer remains the primary option despite his lack of traditional power at that spot. Three seasons and $69 million remain on the former catcher’s contract. Mauer, who turns 33 in April, has a full no-trade clause as well, so the Twins will simply have to find their power supply from other sources.

Outfield

Even with 40-year-old Torii Hunter patrolling right field, the Twins saw their outfield defense improve markedly last season. Now that Hunter has retired and acrobatic center fielder Aaron Hicks has been traded to the Yankees, it remains to be seen whether those gains are ceded. Sano will give one corner outfield spot a go despite ending last season at an acknowledged 268 pounds. At 22, he could evoke memories of a late-career Adam Dunn, but the Twins were determined to keep him from getting pigeonholed at designated hitter. The key will be keeping his legs in shape after a nagging hamstring injury slowed him down the stretch in an 18-homer debut. Byron Buxton, still considered an elite prospect, will get every opportunity to win the Opening Day job in center field after an underwhelming offensive debut. Slowed by a sprained left wrist that cost him six weeks at midseason, Buxton is still just 22, and his eye-popping tools remain. Free-swinging Eddie Rosario was one of the rookie revelations who thrived under Paul Molitor. Rosario’s defensive prowess was a key benefit as well, and he could play center should Buxton need a little more time in Triple-A. Germany’s Max Kepler, the reigning Southern League MVP, could push for a starting job at some point this season.

Catching

Kurt Suzuki, who turned 32 on the final day of the regular season, is coming off his worst year at the plate. His durability, however, remains unquestioned after a variety of physical ailments and dings failed to keep him from making 123 starts and trailing only Salvador Perez for innings caught in the AL. Suzuki remains the starter, mainly due to his game-calling and staff-handling talents, but ex-Yankee John Ryan Murphy is being groomed as his successor. Suzuki will earn $6 million in his third season with the Twins, but his 2017 option appears unlikely to vest. At 24, Murphy has shown some pop to go with solid catch-and-throw skills in parts of the last three seasons in the American League East. He also got in the face of ex-Twins agitator Carlos Gomez last season, which shows some of the competitive fire the position demands.

DH/Bench

Park may get 30-40 games at first base, but his main job will be to DH and hit the ball over the fence. After averaging 52.5 homers the past two seasons in Korea, the 29-year-old figures to set up shop in the middle of the order. Park also tends to strike out, so it will be interesting to see if Molitor sits him against some of the league’s tougher righthanders, at least in the early going. Danny Santana, who held down center field in the second half of 2014, could transition to a utility role after picking up second base in the Dominican Winter League. He would join veteran utility man Eduardo Nunez, who shared shortstop duties with Escobar for portions of July and August.

Management

General manager Terry Ryan mostly remained in stealth mode after splurging for rotation help the previous two offseasons. Despite a stated need to improve the bullpen, the Twins weren’t about to pay exorbitant prices on the free agent market, especially with young power arms such as Nick Burdi, J.T. Chargois and Jake Reed on the way. After the Twins successfully integrated a handful of rookies in Molitor’s rookie year at the controls, the plan is to try the same approach in 2016. Payroll figures to remain in the same neighborhood of $108 million, including the pro-rated portion of the $12.85 million posting fee it took to sign Park.

Final Analysis

Keeping pace with the high-flying Royals is a tall task, but the Twins appear to have stabilized enough to eye a return to divisional prominence in the next few years. Once free agency hits the Royals’ core with its full brunt after the 2017 season, the Twins will be well positioned to sweep past them on a wave of young, cost-controlled talent. After winning six division titles in a nine-year span from 2002-10, the Twins just might be able to enjoy another run of sustainable success.

Prediction: 3rd AL Central

Lineup

2B Brian Dozier (R)

1B Joe Mauer (L)

RF Miguel Sano (R)

3B Trevor Plouffe (R)

DH Byung Ho Park (R )

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LF Eddie Rosario (L)

SS Eduardo Escobar (S)

C Kurt Suzuki (R)

CF Byron Buxton (R)

Bench

C John Ryan Murphy (R)

UTL Eduardo Nunez (R)

OF Oswaldo Arcia (L)

UTL Danny Santana (S)

Rotation

RHP Ervin Santana

RHP Kyle Gibson

RHP Phil Hughes

RHP Tyler Duffey

LHP Tommy Milone

Bullpen

LHP Glen Perkins (Closer)

RHP Kevin Jepsen

RHP Trevor May

RHP Casey Fien

RHP Ricky Nolasco

LHP Fernando Abad

RHP J.R. Graham