With a whole slate of new faces joining the Minnesota Twins down in Fort Myers for spring training, it’s worth wondering if the team has any sort of potential for achievement in 2014.
In short, on the national front the answer is no.
However the standards for achievement on the national side and the local side are certainly different. Coming off three consecutive 90-loss seasons, even a .500 season would be a breath of fresh air.
And is that possible? Well, maybe. Right?
The national folks see a rotation that struck out nobody last year. A bullpen that -- while solid -- was overused and perhaps overachieved a little as well. An offense that returns just one regular who posted an OPS north of .750 in 2013 (Joe Mauer, .880).
Factually none of that is false. The team wilted down the stretch, again playing non-competitive baseball in the latter months while marring any positive steps made throughout the year. Samuel Deduno pitched like he could have a future, even at 30. Casey Fien continued to be a dependable late-inning reliever. At times, Oswaldo Arcia pounded the baseball. And perhaps most notably, Brian Dozier seems to have blossomed into one of the better young second basemen in the game.
So what does need to go right for the Twins to look the part of a competent team in 2014? Let’s take a peek:
* A return to form from Josh Willingham (or Jason Kubel or Trevor Plouffe, even)
If one is perfectly honest, the Twins do actually have potential to have a not terrible offense. At some point in the season, the lineup could look like this:
1. Hicks CF
2. Dozier 2B
3. Mauer 1B
4. Willingham LF
5. Arcia RF
6. Plouffe 3B
7. Kubel DH
8. Pinto C
9. Florimon SS
And I’m not so foolish to ignore the fact that everything would probably have to break right for this to happen, but let’s go down the list and consider the potential. Hicks is still well regarded in the organization, and has potential to be an OBP monster up top. If Dozier can prove his breakout was for real -- and start hitting righties a bit better -- he forms a solid top third of the order with Hicks and Mauer, who may become better simply from just not having to catch anymore. It’s almost certain from a quantity standpoint, but if his legs stay strong under him I wouldn’t be shocked if he has a 40 double, 20 home run season in him.
The middle and lower middle of the order is going to make or break this club. Willingham, Plouffe, and Kubel all have plenty to prove, as each of them are coming off tough years following either a career season, or close to it. Even if the Twins hit on two out of three -- and keep in mind Willingham was flat out mashing before he got hurt last year -- that will go a long way towards a rebound from this offense. Chrises Parmelee and Colabello could also do some damage in the right situation.
Pinto has the potential to be a luxury hitting in the bottom third of any order, especially given the way he used the whole field and showed how he could cover the plate last year. His evolution as a player will be fun to watch. And no matter who nails down the shortstop job, they’ll likely be hitting ninth. Top to bottom, it’s obvious that this lineup should be better than it was last year. Maybe this year they’ll take that step.
* Ricky Nolasco to pitch like he usually does; Phil Hughes to pitch like he has in the past
Four times in the past six years, Nolasco has been a +3.0 win pitcher (via Fangraphs WAR), with the other two seasons well over 2.0. In fact, in that six-year time frame (2008 to today), Nolasco has ranked 24 in innings pitched and 21st in fWAR. That combination of quantity and quality is clearly what endeared him to the Twins, and compelled them to sign him to the largest free agent contract in club history. Not only does Nolasco give the Twins the innings they so clearly value -- see Correia and a healthy Pelfrey -- but as a pitcher he still exhibits skills which success a still possible, yet-to-be reached ceiling, even as he enters his early 30s.
Hughes on the other hand just has the classic skill set to succeed at Target Field. He throws gas (92.4 mph average heater for a starter is solid) and gets tons of fly balls, which suits him well to the spacious digs in Minneapolis. Three of Hughes’ past five seasons check in at +2.0 wins or better via fWAR. One of those even came as a reliever. The biggest culprits for Hughes the past couple years have been home runs, and finding a reliable third pitch. He could prove to be a bargain if he can figure out one or the other of those quandaries.
Perhaps the biggest spot for potential improvement comes out of the No. 5 spot in the rotation, however...
* The No. 5 starter should be the best pitcher based on performance
There are presently four pitchers jockeying for the No. 5 spot in the rotation: Kyle Gibson, Samuel Deduno, Scott Diamond, and Vance Worley. And what do they all have in common? They were pitchers whom the Twins were heavily vested in last year, and it showed. These four pitchers tossed a combined to throw 338.2 innings for the club last year. That represents not only 23.3 percent of all innings thrown by the Twins last year, but 44.6 percent of all innings thrown by starters last year for the club.
This year the Twins basically get their pick of the litter. And what’s unfortunate is that the business side of the game may dictate who stays and goes. Only Gibson, who essentially has the highest ceiling of the quartet, has minor league options remaining. So no matter how he performs, even as a now-26-year-old former first round pick, he’ll likely find himself back in Rochester at least to start the season.
The club has properly hedged against losing Diamond, or at least as much as a team should need to hedge for such a thing. Sean Gilmartin, Kris Johnson, and even Brooks Raley could all probably give you what Diamond could with the benefit of some flexibility to move them around based on wherever they fit best (read: Rochester to begin with). That might mean the writing is on the wall for someone like Diamond to depart.
Worley still has a decently good pedigree coming off a good run in Philly, but looking at his stat page reveals that he has never really been all that durable. Still, as part of a big trade he probably gets at least one more crack at the American League before the Twins start considering other arrangements (including perhaps a pen spot). Deduno was so good last year -- inexplicably so, but who can argue with the results? -- that he also deserves another shot. It might be a whole heap of a lot of fun to see where his stuff would play up in the bullpen, but ultimately he might be the favorite to win the No. 5 spot.
And all that is really a lot of rambling for me to suggest that if Gibson really is the best guy, both now and into the future, he should be granted the opportunity to show it. He’s not a kid anymore. Again, he’s 26. It’s starting to be the time to find out exactly what you spent a first round pick on here.
* The bullpen needs to stay healthy, relatively intact
The only reliever gone from a relatively solid group last year is Josh Roenicke, and he was by far the worst of the group, posting the league’s worst xFIP (and sixth-worst FIP) among all relievers with 50-plus innings pitched in 2013. The consistency the group showed last year was nothing short of incredible, as the group more or less stayed the same with the exception of the eventual inclusion of left-hander Caleb Thielbar down the stretch.
Nothing much was done to augment the bullpen in the offseason, and with a couple of solid arms knocking on the door to get in (Edgar Ibarra, Michael Tonkin to name a few), the old phrase ‘competition breeds success’ should be in play with this group this season a bit more than last. Still, ultimately the Twins will need to see continued durability and consistency from the likes of Jared Burton, Casey Fien, Anthony Swarzak, and even possibly Ryan Pressly for this bullpen to hold up their end of a new deal with an improved rotation. It’s still a more likely proposition than the lineup one.
* Get back to defensive competency
For a team that gives up so much contact -- and that’ll be improved with the additions of Nolasco and Hughes, to some extent -- it becomes paramount that the club employ solid defenders at as many positions as possible. The infield should be rather solid with the exception of third base, where Plouffe remains a work in progress. The physical tools seem to be there, but the execution just has been lacking to this point. That may not change in the Miguel Sano era either, if/when that is ushered in.
That change is coming to the outfield however, as the up-and-coming group which will include some or all of Hicks, Byron Buxton, and Eddie Rosario, all of whom project to be solid, if not spectacular defensive outfielders. Not since the Twins employed Ben Revere and Denard Span in the same outfield, or before that Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones, have the Twins employed such a mobile, able-bodied group of outfielders. In such a spacious park, that will bode well for pitchers’ stats to play up.
Anyway, it’s obviously a lofty goal, but in my eyes the team could surprise and be not half bad if these things can happen. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a ceiling of 81 wins, which would be a nice one season turnaround and put the team on a good path for the future to come. Thoughts?