Photo credit to minnesota.twins.mlb.com
It is hard to believe that opening day for the Minnesota Twins is just around the corner when the state is still covered in snow, but regular season baseball is less than a week away as spring training wraps up in sunny Florida. The Twins open their 2014 campaign on the road starting March 31st against Central Division rival Chicago Whitesox in a three game series before heading to Cleveland to take on the Indians in another divisional showdown.
The biggest question on the minds of Twins fans heading into 2014 is how competitive can this team be? Since winning the Central Division title in 2010 the Twins have racked up three consecutive seasons with ninety or more losses while fielding teams consisting of veteran cast-offs, long-shot prospects, and simply players who didn't belong on anyone's major league roster. This year seems to be different though and here are three reasons for optimism about the 2014 Minnesota Twins.
During the off-season the Twins went against their longstanding approach of spending as little money possible and actually spent big money addressing the biggest organization weakness, starting pitching. Minnesota bolstered its rotation by adding established veteran Ricky Nolasco on the biggest deal ever given to free agent by the Twins, bringing former top Yankee prospect Phil Hughes on a three year deal, and finally bringing back Mike Pelfrey on a two-year deal.
What does this mean for the Twins? It means that for first time in what feels like forever, the Twins have some semblance of a MLB caliber pitching rotation. While Ricky Nolasco isn't a true ace, he's the closest thing the Twins have had since Johan Santana. His ability to pitch deep into games and save the bullpen is a huge asset. The guy who could be the ace by the end of the season is Phil Hughes. A former 18 game winner and Cy Young candidate at only 27 years old, Hughes has shown the ability to be a top of the rotation pitcher and his poor numbers recently were largely a victim of the little league dimensions in Yankee Stadium. Hughes is also the strike out type pitcher the Twins have lacked since, well you know, Santana again. Overall, the rotation looks a lot better with Hughes and Nolasco pushing Corriea and Pelfrey down into the bottom of the rotation and top prospect Kyle Gibson likely filling out that fifth spot. Having a rotation that can keep you in games will go a long, long way towards more wins.
2. Young Star Power
Terry Ryan may not be everyone's favorite General Manager. The guy doesn't like to spend money and that can be very frustrating for fans. One thing Terry absolutely has down is how to draft and evaluate talent. Since coming out of retirement to take over for Bill Smith as the GM, Ryan has transitioned the Twins from one of the worst farm systems in all of baseball to one of the best. Two of the products from Ryan's prospect overhaul that will be seen in Target Field this season are Oswaldo Arcia and Josmil Pinto. Both players are considered lethal with the bat while defensively there is room to grow.
What does this mean for the Twins? This means that Twins have young players stepping into starting roles who are ready to contribute and have the potential to be great in the middle of the lineup. As terrible as the Twins pitching has been over past few years, an equal area of frustration has been a weak lineup that relied on one or two players (Mauer and Morneau) to provide all the offense. This season the Twins lineup is getting an injection of power and youth with Pinto and Arcia. Arcia will be the everyday RF and should easily improve on his .251 BA 14HR 43RBI 97 game showcase from a season ago. Meanwhile Pinto will look to continue crushing the ball like he did during his late season call-up last September when he hit .342 with 4HR and 12RBI's in just 21 games playing a mix of C and DH. These are just two of the young guns the Twins have waiting and developing in their system. There are many more players on their way including top prospects in all of baseball Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano.
3. Healthy Joe Mauer at 1B
At first glance I was not a fan of Mauer moving from C to 1B. The reason being that I didn't think Mauer's offensive skillset would be positive at that position. No doubt Joe is one of the greatest hitters in all of baseball, but he doesn't have the HR power or run production of a 1B. Then I remembered that Mauer obliterated that myth in 2009 when he won the MVP award after hitting 28HR with 99RBI. While a few years have passed since that performance, the key take away is that when Mauer decides he wants to hit for power he definitely has the capability.
What this means for the Twins? This could potentially mean that the Twins will once again get above average offensive production from the 1B position. A healthy and rested Mauer should be much more dangerous at the plate and hopefully a power surge will come along with that good health. While I don't at all expect to see Mauer go off and hit 30 homeruns again, if he can fall somewhere between 20-30 HR while keeping that average above .300 that is the best production the Twins will have gotten since 2009 Justin Morneau. Additionally it cannot be overlooked the impact this will have on the rest of the lineup. If pitchers are afraid to pitch to Mauer that means guys like Brain Dozier, Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe, etc.. are going to see better pitches making the lineup more dangerous and productive as a whole.
Obviously, a whole lot has to go right for the Twins to produce even a winning season. The team still isn't quite there, but the encouraging thing is that they are very close. With guys like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano knocking on the door of the Major Leagues the Twins are in very good shape for the near future. It's safe to say the playoffs are out of the question for this season barring miracle, but it's also safe to say the days of 90 plus loss season are in the rearview.