Minnesota’s chances of contending in 2014 are as solid as my chances of a date with Jenna Coleman, Silje Norendal, Zooey Deschanel, Sofia Vergara, and Rachel Riley combined. And now I’m depressed, thanks for asking.
The fact that the Twins aren’t suddenly going to win 90 games seems to be a source of frustration for some fans, who seem to have gotten used to the team getting kicked out of the playoffs by the Yankees in three games. In reality, the organization has taken a few steps in the right direction. Say what you will about the ease of improving upon the performance of pitchers who seem to prefer throwing batting practice, but it’s hard to deny that the organization was decisive over the winter in terms of addressing the rotation’s needs. They moved quickly on Nolasco and were tied to all of the off-season’s biggest names on the pitching market, from Masahiro Tanaka to Matt Garza to Ervin Santana to Bronson Arroyo.
Pundits seem quite happy to be wrong about a number of things every year, and one of the popular observations for 2014 is that Minnesota’s rotation is still going to be terrible. Optimistically, and I say this without a hint of sarcasm, the Twins rotation could end up being better than a third of the rest of the league. This team is removing 365 innings (and 283 runs) which were given to Scott Diamond, Pedro Hernandez, Vance Worley, Liam Hendriks, P.J. Walters, Cole De Vries, and a rehabbing Kyle Gibson to replace them with innings from Nolasco, Hughes, a fully healthy Mike Pelfrey, a healthy and prepared Gibson and, at some point, Alex Meyer.
It’s doable. Don’t look at me with pity in your eyes.
It’s doable because last year’s collection of starting pitchers performed that miserably. Finishing better than a third of the rest of the league would probably mean a staff ERA between 4.20 and 4.30, and that’s feasible. That’s a whole run off the ERA of Twins starters in 2013.
On the position-player side of the ball, most of the hope for the future is tied up in what Baseball Prospectus has called the best farm system in the game. Everyone is aware of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, but there is a plethora of talent on deck from Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Adam Walker, Trevor Harrison, and Jorge Polanco. The talent for a young, productive core is there, and that isn’t even including Aaron Hicks, who could still come on, or Oswaldo Arcia, who has the minor league track record to become a formidable presence in the middle of anyone’s batting order.
Indeed, it’s hard to project much offensive improvement in 2014. While the Twins will exchange pitchers who allowed 52 percent of the starters’ runs in just 42% of their innings, the projected starting nine features at least five players who figure to be little more than place holders. Suzuki, Plouffe, and Willingham could be displaced by season’s end if things go well. Florimon and Kubel are short-term replacements. Minnesota will be looking at a core of Mauer, Arcia, maybe Dozier, and hopefully Willingham and Plouffe to produce runs. If things go well, perhaps the team finds a way to score an extra 50 or 60 runs this season, but coming off of 614 runs in 2013 that’s not exactly encouraging. That’s also to be expected when so many of your everyday parts are replaceable.
That, in its own way, is an advantage for the Twins. The front office has managed to work themselves into a position of roster flexibility and, when combined with the freedom to spend more money on payroll (when players are available and willing to sign) than ever before in franchise history, it’s an ideal situation. Terry Ryan has maneuvered the Twins into a position where they’re poised to not just get better in the short term, but to contend with a talented, young core over the next five to seven years. The plan isn’t complete yet, of course. Ryan still needs to have better luck in the draft than he had in the mid-2000s, and he needs to make sure his future superstars are surrounded with legitimate Major League talent.
It’s exceptionally easy to look at the Twins and laugh. For 2014, most teams and many fans might still feel comfortable in doing so, and that’s fair enough. But it’s only a matter of time until the Twins rise again, and it will be sooner than many people think.