Looking around the baseball landscape, you would be hard-pressed to find a less successful franchise than the Minnesota Twins between 2011 and 2014. The team lost 383 games in that span. But those prospects that had been the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel were on the horizon, and 2015 was seen as a sort of "take your lumps and learn" kind of campaign. It wouldn't always be pretty, but at least it would be fun to see a handful of talented young players get a bit wet behind the ears.
Instead, the Twins went ahead and led the AL Central for portions of the season, actually laid claim to the best record in the American League for a time, and in the end weren't eliminated from playoff contention until Game 161. A lot of things went right for the 2015 Minnesota Twins, but the youth movement entered full swing with no fewer than four rookies making a significant impact.
The question for Minnesota all winter has been: can they take the next step in 2016?
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Incoming: Byung Ho Park, John Ryan Murphy, Fernando Abad
Outgoing: Torii Hunter, Aaron Hicks, Mike Pelfrey, Neal Cotts, Brian Duensing, Blaine Boyer, Shane Robinson, Chris Herrmann
Minnesota seems to have gotten a nice deal for the best international hitter on the free agent market. After winning their bid with a posting fee of $12.85 million, the Twins turned around and signed Park for four years and $12 million. That's one year less of a commitment and one half of the financial outlay estimated by MLB Trade Rumors. While it's too early to make any kind of judgements on Park and his potential as a Major Leaguer, what we can say is that, to this point, he's done everything that you'd want to see a guy do. There will be a learning curve and plenty of bumps and bruises along the way, but the expectation is that Park will act as the club's primary designated hitter. He's done nothing to dispel that notion.
Rob Antony mentioned that the club wanted to move quickly based on a general need for young, controllable catching around the league, and the Twins did just that. They were very aggressive once they made a match with New York, and the future of the position in Minnesota belongs to the ex-Bomber for at least the next couple of years. He doesn't project to be a star, but he does project to be a quality regular. At this position, that's a very valuable asset. Incumbent Kurt Suzuki still seems likely to get labeled as "The Starter" for the time being, but if he struggles Paul Molitor won't be afraid to make an early switch - particularly in light of Suzuki's $6 million option that kicks in at 485 plate appearances.
Hunter's retirement shouldn't have come as a surprise all things considered, but it was something that ended up happening fairly quickly. His departure cleared some salary for the Twins to pursue Park, but it also forced the club to plan for how they wanted to fill that corner outfield spot.
The club lost three relievers that held down middle relief. Brian Duensing (5.02 FIP, 48.2 IP), Blaine Boyer (4.00 FIP, 65.0 IP), and Neal Cotts (5.99 FIP, 13.2 IP after arriving from Milwaukee) all departed, allowing the club some flexibility to fill those spots with more effective pitchers. While the club's addition of Fernando Abad on a minor league deal was disappointing as the most high-impact external addition, the pitchers with the best chance to grab a bullpen role from Opening Day (Ryan Pressly, Michael Tonkin, maybe a starter) should be able to duplicate if not exceed the contributions from the departed. A lack of multi-year, mult-million dollar additions to the bullpen also clears the road for the three or four relief prospects who should be able to contribute at some point in 2016.
AL Central Preview
Kansas City (95-67)
The Royals surprised everyone by actually being better than they were in 2014, and did the right thing by being aggressive at the trade deadline. Ben Zobrist hit .284/.364/.453 in 34 games. Johnny Cueto's regular season numbers were less appealing, but his performance in the ALDS (14 IP, 3.86 ERA) and World Series (a one-run complete game) no doubt make the big trade worth the cost in the eyes of every fan, player, and front office body in the organization. They made a couple of interesting moves over the winter, but once again don't look obviously better than last season.
It's Cleveland that might be one of the most intriguing teams in the game this season. While the Tigers should have a nice offense and could potentially have a strong front three in the rotation, the Indians could potentially have the best starting five in all of Major League Baseball. If that potential plays out on the field, Cleveland might be able to land their first division title since their 96-win campaign in 2007.
Minnesota is difficult to peg, and that's obvious seeing how little faith the national outlets and pundits have placed in the team when making pre-season predictions. Extrapolating from my AL Central Preview, here's how I'll project the division to finish in 2016.
Kansas City (85-77)
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You won't find me celebrating the club's lack of activity on the pitching front over the winter, particularly in the bullpen, but Minnesota's pitching isn't as bad as people say. Twins starters lowered their ERA 0.92 points from 2014 to 2015, and there's no reason to believe that trend won't continue in 2016.
That's what I said when discussing the overarching themes of best and worst-case scenarios for the Twins in 2016, and it's easy to take that position when you see how the club is postured heading into the season. Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson, and Phil Hughes will lead the pack, and it's a steady if unimpressive trio. Santana posted a 1.62 ERA in his last seven starts of 2015; Hughes is just a year removed from setting the all-time record for best walk rate along with a 2.65 FIP in 209 innings; Gibson's slider has the makings of an actual strikeout pitch and could represent a paradigm shift in his peripherals if he uses it more. There's a silver lining to these three.
Tommy Milone has been awarded the fourth starter's spot. He's looked sharp all spring. He doesn't have overwhelming stuff and his fastball can struggle to hit 90mph at times, but he gave Minnesota a 3.92 ERA in 128 frames last summer. As a back-end starter, Milone is a more than capable option.
That final rotation spot comes down to a one-on-one battle between Ricky Nolasco and Tyler Duffey. Nolasco is halfway through his four-year, $49 million contract, but so far has given the Twins 196.1 innings of 5.64 ERA baseball. He's spent months on the disabled list. But with a $12 million salary and no trade value, Minnesota's options are limited. On the other side of the coin is the 25-year old Duffey, who struggled in his Major League debut but then finished his season with a 2.25 ERA and .653 OPS against in his last nine starts, including 52 strikeouts in 56 innings. Paul Molitor has, on more than one occasion, stated his preference for Duffey to start.
Complicating what might feel like an obvious choice is that Duffey has really struggled for most of spring training, while Nolasco hasn't just pitched well - he's looked good. His velocity is ready. His breaking ball looks better again. This final rotation battle is anything but a foregone conclusion.
Other guys who could get a look-in this summer include top prospect Jose Berrios as well as stop-gap reliever Trevor May and the electric but wild Alex Meyer. While Meyer's future with the club may or may not be in the rotation and May might have a hard time getting out of the bullpen in 2016, Berrios should get his opportunity at a spot in the first few weeks of the season.
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This is the lineup that Paul Molitor filled out for Saturday, which was the first game after the club announced their latest round of cuts and, essentially, announced who their 13 position players would be when they head north.
Brian Dozier, 2B
Joe Mauer, 1B
Miguel Sano, RF
Trevor Plouffe, 3B
Byung Ho Park, DH
Eddie Rosario, LF
Eduardo Escobar, SS
Kurt Suzuki, C
Byron Buxton, CF
It's easy to see how every player in this lineup could be at least an average offensive contributor at his position, but if things go the way the Twins want them to go this isn't how the starting lineup will look by the middle of the season. With his tools, the hope is that Buxton can adapt quickly after his initial struggles at the Major League level in 2015 and ultimately end up in the leadoff position.
How this plays out down the rest of the lineup would depend a great deal on how everyone else is performing. All things being equal I would expect it to go one of two ways. Either Buxton slides to the top and everyone else just slides down, or Mauer stays in the two-hole, Dozier slides into the three, and everyone else moves down one. Knowing how the Twins have at times liked to have some speed from the number nine hitter, it wouldn't be terribly surprising to see Escobar head to the bottom of the lineup, either.
In 2016 the Twins scored 696 runs, or 4.3 runs per game. Improving on that number, which was a primary reason behind the club pursuing Park and refusing to trade Plouffe, will depend on the development of the younger players in the lineup. Buxton, Rosario, Sano, and Park are all considered fairly unknown quantities, and good seasons from those four will make it easier on the rest of the position players to deliver a better offense.
Minnesota's bullpen tossed 515 innings last year, a middle of the road number league-wide but is still more than three innings per game. There are many reasons this area of the team was considered a weakness in 2015, but strikeout rate (league-worst rates of 6.85 K/9 and 17.9 K%) is at the top of the list.
The departures of Boyer, Duensing, and Cotts removes 127.1 innings from this crew, which is roughly one quarter of all relief frames pitched by the Twins. That creates a real opportunity for the club to improve.
Glen Perkins returns as one of the best closers in the league, and has made strides in his training program to help him stay on the hill all season long. Lining up behind him in the set-up role is Kevin Jepsen, who was brilliant following his arrival from Tampa Bay. Trevor May brings some much needed strikeout ability to the 'pen. Casey Fien is back for another year, now in less high-leverage roles as a middle reliever.
Those final three spots are yet to be decided. If Duffey is awarded the fifth starter's spot, the expectation is that Nolasco would head to the bullpen as the long man; if Nolasco gets the nod, then Duffey would head to Triple-A to start, opening up a third roster spot in relief.
Fernando Abad is the favorite to be the second left-hander behind Perkins. Fellow left-hander Ryan O'Rourke might give the Twins three lefties if Duffey is optioned to the minor leagues. On the right-handed side, Ryan Pressly has established himself as an effective Major League reliever and Michael Tonkin is out of options with nothing left to prove in the minors. The expectation is that one lefty and one righty from this grouping will make the roster, with the possibility of one extra arm based on what happens in the rotation.
Which prospects could debut this year?
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- Byron Buxton (CF)
- Max Kepler (OF/1B)
- Jorge Polanco (2B/SS)
- Adam Brett Walker (OF)
- Jose Berrios (RHP)
- Alex Meyer (RHP)
- Nick Burdi (RHP)
- J.T. Chargois (RHP)
- Mason Melotakis (LHP)
One starting pitcher who has the potential to be a number two type arm. Two or three high-velocity relievers who would post strikeout rates north of 25%. One above average middle infielder. One all-around talent with the potential to be a better hitter than Eddie Rosario. One player who could be the club's next superstar in center field. How's that strike you?
By the end of the 2016 season, the Twins could boast an entire outfield, a middle infielder, two starters, and half of a bullpen who were rookies within the last two seasons. It's safe to say the youth movement has been fully committed to at this point. Not every prospect works out, so it's important to temper expectations to a certain extent, but years like this are a guarantee to be interesting and entertaining even if the club needs a lot to go right if they want to win the division.
Did the Twins do enough?
I'm not sure they did. The offense is in pretty good shape, and there's a little bit of depth there to keep things interesting. Oswaldo Arcia, Kennys Vargas, Danny Santana, Jorge Polanco, and Max Kepler are all in positions where if the club needed to rely on them for an extended period, the Twins could get away with it. The rotation has eight or nine MLB-ready arms ready to contribute, although the best of the bunch (Berrios) won't get his first shot for a few weeks yet. In spite of Sano's presence in right field, on the whole this is also a team that should be good defensively.
The biggest concern is whether the bullpen can hold up, and what happens if it doesn't. How close to being ready are Meyer, Burdi, or Chargois? Right now those guys are all Plan B, and it's a good Plan B to have as far as potential and upside are concerned, but it's also a position that's thin on floor. It's easy to dream on the numbers Burdi could put up in the bullpen, for example, but it's not unrealistic to imagine a rookie season where he overthrows, can't locate, and is generally not ready for 40 or 50 innings in the Major Leagues...and that's a scenario that can be applied to not just the bullpen's rookie calvary, but to the last two or three guys sitting on the end of the bench with Eddie Guardado.
W/L record: 83-79
Twins Cy Young: Kyle Gibson
Twins MVP: Miguel Sano
Twins Rookie of the Year: Byron Buxton
Twins Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Mauer