The Twins improved by four games in 2014, reaching the 70-win barrier for the first time since 2010. But they also lost more than 90 games for the fourth year in a row, so it's safe to say that the improvement was - if we're being diplomatic - moderate. Minnesota's front office believed the team under-achieved, but there's only so much weight that argument can hold when fans are staring down the barrel of a 92-loss campaign.
Yet 2014 wasn't all thorns. Minnesota's offense finished with 717 runs, which was the seventh-best mark in all of baseball (4.43 runs per game). It was 103 more runs than the club tallied in 2013. In the second half the 2014 squad scored 4.6 runs per game. In fact, if you go by Baseball Reference's starting lineup every single one of the starting nine was at the very least a league-average hitter; Eduardo Escobar's 102 OPS+ was the worst mark. If your worst hitter is batting 2% better than the league average, you're doing it right.
That starting rotation and bullpen, however, weren't as good. A bullpen that had been considered a strength on a weak team took a step backward last year, seeing opponent OPS marks jump from .680 in 2013 to .723 in 2014. The starting rotation's ERA was still over 5.00, at 5.06, and that's a negligible improvement over the 5.26 mark the team put down in 2013.
After a winter of few additions and a number of subtractions, the front office has put together a team that they believe will improve upon the things we saw in 2014. Let's put everything together, shall we?
Key Roster Additions/Subtractions
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Outgoing: Josh Willingham, Chris Parmelee, Chris Colabello, Jason Kubel, Kendrys Morales, Pedro Florimon, Kevin Correia, Yohan Pino, Jared Burton, Sam Deduno, Anthony Swarzak
Not all of these players were around by the end of the 2014 season, but just take a moment to appreciate that list. This is a list of players whose contributions can be fairly easy to replace or even exceed, and it includes 430 innings and nearly 1,200 plate appearances of sub-standard play. Are the Twins going to plug in players guaranteed to do better? Perhaps not to a man, but in the aggregate I certainly like my chances.
Incoming: Ervin Santana, Torii Hunter, Tim Stauffer, J.R. Graham
Santana's arrival heralded yet another high-water mark for a contract given to a free agent, at four years and $55million (including a one million buyout of Santana's fifth-year option). Hunter's one-year contract is a little bit about a bat that should be better than what the Twins had in the corner outfield (outside of Oswaldo Arcia) last year, a little bit about the leadership and mentor role that he brings to a team with a great deal of young talent on the way, and a little bit about his legacy in the organization both on and off the field. Tim Stauffer and J.R. Graham have roles that won't be quite as high-profile, but they're expected to compete for roles in relief. Certainly, in Stauffer's case, there's an expectation that he'll be one of the new arms coming out of the bullpen.
You'll notice that there are a great deal of subtractions and very few additions on our list. That's because the front office has cleared the road for a significant number of prospects who are being groomed to take the reigns of this franchise sooner rather than later.
AL Central Preview
The American League Central Division often gets overlooked. Perhaps Detroit, with its payroll and high-caliber rotation and other-worldly talent of Miguel Cabrera, gets a bit more attention. Kansas City may be an afterthought considering their run at a World Series title last October. But as far as Chicago, Cleveland, and Minnesota are concerned, you have to think that nobody will be giving them the credit that they're due.
2014 Record: 90-72
Playoffs: Lost to Baltimore in ALDS, 3-0
Maybe this is a roster that's getting a little old, but the Tiger rotation still features three pitchers who would be considered an ace (or borderline ace) on most rosters: David Price, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez. There isn't the gap in talent between Detroit and other teams in the division as there has been in recent years, and things will catch up with the Tigers eventually, but will it be in 2015? I'm not convinced. The Tigers are a very good team until proven otherwise.
Kansas City Royals
2014 Record: 89-73
Playoffs: Lost to San Francisco in World Series, 4-3
James Shields is out, replaced by Edinson Volquez. Billy Butler is out, replaced by Kendrys Morales on a contract that should remind Twins fans of Mike Pelfrey (only worse). Nori Aoki is out, replaced by Alex Rios. There's still a lot of talent on the roster, from Yordano Ventura to Greg Holland to Alex Gordon to Salvador Perez, but if the Royals are going to threaten in October again you'd have to imagine that the offense and pitching will need to step it up a notch.
2014 Record: 85-77
Some people aren't giving Cleveland the respect they deserve, and I think that will play out in the standings this year. A talented rotation (which isn't as young as I thought it would be) is led by the great Corey Kluber, flanked by Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, and T.J. House. Lonnie Chisenhall has taken third base as his own. Brandon Moss will join Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, and Yan Gomes as a legitimate power threat. Jason Kipnis and a 34-year old Nick Swisher are decent bets for players on a rebound. The bullpen returns four players with sub-3.00 ERAs in Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison, and Marc Rzepczynski. If I'm Detroit, it's not Kansas City who I'm looking for in the rear view mirror. It's Cleveland.
Chicago White Sox
2014 Record: 73-89
An already promising rotation led by Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Hector Noesi will be joined this year by Jeff Samardzija and 2014 first-round pick Carlos Rodon. It's a group of starters without the top-end notoriety of Detroit's, but it could match Cleveland's in potential. Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton were given a little bit of help with the addition of Adam LaRoche, and perhaps Avisail Garcia can stay healthy this year and hit the way his minor league track record suggests he might, but where the pitching is promising in Chicago it's the offense that will be suspect. The White Sox are better. Every team in this division is better (although perhaps the jury is out on the Royals in that regard). But will Chicago score enough runs to win more than 73 games?
2015 Rotation Outlook
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While we've covered this topic ad nauseam here in recent months, this wouldn't be a 2015 Twins preview without a discussion about the starting rotation. The top four spots, health provided, will be filled by Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson, and Ricky Nolasco. It's that fifth spot that is one of the most intriguing questions of the spring.
The candidates for the fifth starter's role are, in alphabetical order, Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey, and Tim Stauffer. We can rule out Stauffer as, in spite of the lip service from the front office, he's never been a pitcher who has been effective long-term coming out of the rotation. His track record the last two years, exclusively as a reliever, has been pretty good. There's zero reason to shake that branch just to see what happens.
Amongst the field of May, Meyer, Milone, and Pelfrey, there are two leading candidates. May and Meyer will be building blocks upon which the future rotations of the Minnesota Twins may depend, but for 2015 they both have options and - as we're discussing - the field is crowded. Pelfrey, the right-handed veteran, is due $5.5 million from Minnesota in 2015, and so the Twins could look to squeeze some vestige of value from the last of an ill-advised two-year contract. Milone, meanwhile, is left-handed, has a good Major League track record, and is under team control for four more seasons.
Who wins the contest between Milone and Pelfrey remains to be seen, but the loser would appear to be the front-runner for the long-relief role in the bullpen. The fact that Milone is a southpaw may give him the edge in the race for that fifth rotation spot, and for that reason alone is the likely favorite at this time.
2015 Lineup Outlook
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SS Danny Santana
2B Brian Dozier
1B Joe Mauer
RF Torii Hunter
LF Oswaldo Arcia
DH Kennys Vargas
3B Trevor Plouffe
C Kurt Suzuki
CF Aaron Hicks
Rookie manager Paul Molitor has been shaping his lineup along these lines so far this spring. There are still a number of moving pieces here, including whether or not Hunter is the best option in the cleanup role, whether Hicks can make the roster (and what the resulting fallout would be), and perhaps how Molitor shapes the trio of Arcia, Vargas, and Plouffe. But right now, this is probably the best guess at Minnesota's starting nine on opening day.
Hicks could be something of a linchpin here. If he doesn't make the roster, center field could go to Jordan Schafer, Danny Santana, or even Eddie Rosario. Who backs up center field, or the outfield as a whole, will depend on which of those guys would be awarded the job of keeping the center field seat warm for Byron Buxton. To be honest even if Hicks does get the job, unless he starts hot and stays consistent we could see a center field rotation.
Can this offense be better than it was in 2014? The talent is there. There is more power potential in this lineup than the Twins have seen in four years. The success of the offense could very well depend on players who aren't likely to be on the 25-man roster at the end of spring training. It's a group that is solid if, on the whole, unspectacular...for now.
2015 Bullpen Outlook
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Minnesota's bullpen has a lot of question marks, but it also has a great deal of potential answers. In the Gardenhire era the Twins would typically carry seven relievers. This left the bench with four players, sometimes fewer in recent years as pitching really struggled, but it's a makeup that Molitor is likely to emulate. With that in mind, the two spots already locked up belong to Glen Perkins in the closer role and Casey Fien in the set-up role.
Beyond that the Twins are looking at a long list of players - each with varying levels of chance when it comes to taking up one of those other five spots. The aforementioned Stauffer, brought in on a one-year, $2.2 million dollar contract with incentives that could make his deal worth nearly $4 million, looks like one of the more probable options. Brian Duensing, who (along with Joe Mauer) is one of the longest-tenured players on the team, was brought back through his final arbitration season and is on the hook for $2.7 million. When a team commits multiples of millions to a reliever, chances are they're going to give those players the benefit of a doubt when it comes to roster crunch time.
Ryan Pressly, a Rule 5 selection by Minnesota in December of 2012, has given the Twins 105 innings of relief over the last two years and posted a 3.60 ERA while he was at it. On most occasions that would be enough to guarantee the guy a spot, even if his peripherals think he didn't exactly earn that 2.86 ERA in 2014.
Caleb Thielbar, who has also been a member of Minnesota's bullpen for the last two seasons, has tallied a 2.59 ERA in 93.2 innings in that time frame. His 1.76 ERA in 2013 was better than his performance, but his FIP (3.40 in 2013, 3.55 in 2014) is consistent. He also has the benefit of being left-handed. Gardenhire used him mostly in the seventh inning, which is a spot he normally reserved for one of his most trusted relievers. It's worth noting for Thielbar that he was usually used to get a couple of outs; it wasn't uncommon to see him pitch less than an inning.
Then there's Michael Tonkin, who has a few innings with the Twins and has done just about everything he can do in the minor leagues (including posting some decent strikeout totals). J.R. Graham was Minnesota's Rule 5 pick in December, and the Twins have been talking him up since spring training began. On the periphery of this group of pitchers who you could call "the bubble options," there's Stephen Pryor, A.J. Achter, and Aaron Thompson. Logan Darnell and Lester Oliveros have already been optioned, so at least this group has been trimmed a bit.
Finally, there will be three starting pitchers who won't make the rotation. Could the Twins attempt to stash young strikeout arms like Trevor May and Alex Meyer in the bullpen? It's unlikely, particularly with Meyer. The Twins are building up arms for the future of their rotation, and with the assortment of players available for the bullpen it would be counterproductive to use two men who have been starters their entire career in roles in which they are unfamiliar. This leaves us with Tommy Milone and Mike Pelfrey, each of whom could end up in long relief.
It's a long list to sort through. There's finally some structure starting to take shape here, but the Twins are still a distance from having these roles locked up. And none of this takes into account prospects like Nick Burdi or Jake Reed, who could debut before the year is out.
How the Twins make a run
The Twins will absolutely surprise some people this year, but for the Twins to compete for anything other than fourth or - optimistically - third place in 2015 would require a great deal to go not just right but better than could reasonably be expected. Health, in the first instance, would be of vital importance.
After that you could list the necessities in any order you like. The rotation would need to go above and beyond "Ricky Nolasco has a bounce-back year," because that wouldn't be enough. Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana would need to have great years, and it probably means seeing someone like Alex Meyer coming up and pitching like a Rookie of the Year candidate. The bullpen would need to quickly find its balance and one or two pitchers to develop in front of Perkins and Fien. Offensively, it would require a nice bounce-back season from Mauer, a competent bottom of the order, and the continued development of Oswaldo Arcia and Kennys Vargas as power hitters in the middle of the lineup - not to mention good performances from Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano upon their arrival.
How it could go wrong for the Twins
Succinctly: it would require things to go exactly how the national media thinks it will go. A lack of health, young players not developing, and seeing the few existing stars fall short of their potential would be more than enough to sink Minnesota in 2015.
What needs to happen to call 2015 a success?
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Success for the 2015 Twins will come on two fronts: wins and building bridges to the future.
In terms of the fans and the perception of the organization, everything will be measured in wins. The front office thought that the team under-achieved in 2014 and was capable of winning seven or eight more games than they did. For 2015 to be dubbed a success they need to make up that difference, and for ownership to lessen the pressure on team management the Twins will need to win 77 or 78 games. That's within spitting distance of .500, and it's also in the realm of possibilities that a few good bounces and a couple of things going the right way means the club could actually get to 80 wins.
In terms of the future of the club, success will be measured in how the young players begin to develop. Kennys Vargas and Danny Santana will be expected to take between 400 and 600 Major League plate appearances this year, and if they don't that's probably going to hurt the team. If Josmil Pinto can't be a competent catcher, if Aaron Hicks can't establish himself as an everyday outfielder, if Alex Meyer and/or Trevor May stumble out of the gates, it's going to have an impact not just on this year's club but on how reliable those players will be towards the future success of the team.
The list goes on. Byron Buxton. Eddie Rosario. Jose Berrios. Miguel Sano. There is a long, long list of young, talented players who could make their Major League debuts in 2015. Their development and how they adjust when they have the spotlights of Major League Baseball upon them will go a long way in determining whether this was a good year for the Twins or not.
The Twins' national perception
Projection systems see the Twins as one of the four worst teams in all of baseball in 2015. They peg Minnesota as a 70-win team (FanGraphs at 74 is an exception), but more often than not they're a last-place team and competing with clubs like Philadelphia and Colorado for the worst record in baseball.
National pundits aren't any more optimistic - or even informed, in many circumstances. Jim Bowden's "dilemma" facing the Twins in 2015? Apparently that the Twins don't have enough pitching prospects to go along with their position player prospects - as though the organization doesn't have three pitchers listed among the game's best 100 prospects. These ill-informed takes and the occasional pot shots aren't irregular.
The Twins have lost more than 90 games in each of the last four seasons, so it's natural that projection systems and experts won't be very optimistic. To be honest, that's just fine. If the Twins play like they're capable of playing, we'll have fun with how quickly their tunes will change.
Which prospects could debut this year?
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- Byron Buxton (CF)
- Eddie Rosario (OF/2B)
- Miguel Sano (3B)
- Alex Meyer (RHP)
- Jose Berrios (RHP)
- Nick Burdi (RHP)
W/L record: 77-85
Twins Cy Young: Phil Hughes
Twins MVP: Brian Dozier
Twins Rookie of the Year: Eddie Rosario
Twins Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Mauer