Twins ready to round corner to respectability in '14
Farm system, revamped rotation have club's prospects looking up
MINNEAPOLIS -- With a third straight disappointing season, the Twins are more than ready to turn the page on 2013 and move on to '14.
The club has lost at least 96 games in each of the last three years. But it heads into the new year with some optimism because of one of the game's best farm systems and a revamped rotation after signing free agents Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey to multi-year deals.
Minnesota should be more competitive than in recent years, but could still have a tough time staying in contention in the American League Central. The Tigers, Indians and Royals were all solid in '13 and have been active in improving their clubs this offseason.
The future, though, still looks bright for the Twins, who figure to break in some of their top prospects in '14.
Here are 10 questions to consider as Minnesota heads into next season:
10. How will Joe Mauer fare at first base?
The biggest move of the offseason wasn't a free-agent signing but the decision to move Mauer to first base after he sustained a career-altering concussion while catching on Aug. 19. Mauer isn't the prototypical slugging first baseman, but should still be one of the game's best at his position -- given his ability to get on base, his doubles power and his athleticism defensively.
9. How much better will the starting rotation be?
The rotation was easily the worst in the Majors in '13, with the highest ERA and the fewest innings logged. But the Twins addressed their biggest need by adding Nolasco and Hughes to the rotation, while also re-signing Pelfrey. Kevin Correia figures to remain in the rotation, too, leaving just one open spot -- with right-hander Samuel Deduno the favorite to be the fifth starter. They also finally have some depth, with Vance Worley, Scott Diamond and Andrew Albers likely to start the year at Triple-A Rochester. Top prospects Alex Meyer, Trevor May and Kyle Gibson will also be groomed in the Minors.
8. Can Brian Dozier build on his strong performance?
Dozier had a breakout year in '13, hitting 18 homers, 33 doubles and stealing 14 bases in 147 games, while also providing solid defense at second base. Dozier now has to prove it wasn't a fluke and that he can be a building block for the Twins at the keystone spot.
7. Can veteran Josh Willingham bounce back?
A year after winning the Silver Slugger in '12, Willingham failed to match that production in a season that saw him undergo surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Willingham smashed 35 homers and drove in 110 runs in '12 but hit just 14 homers with 48 RBIs in 111 games last year. So the Twins will be counting on him to regain his old form and bring power to the middle of the lineup.
6. Is this the year Trevor Plouffe puts it together?
Plouffe still has plenty of potential, as evidenced by the 38 homers he's combined to hit over the last two seasons. But he's still inconsistent, both offensively and defensively. Time is starting to run out, as he's out of Minor League options and one of the game's top prospects, Miguel Sano, is almost ready to take over at third base, which leads to the next question.
5. Will Sano make his Major League debut?
Ranked as the game's No. 3 overall prospect by MLB.com, Sano finished last season at Double-A New Britain and could make his Twins debut by early summer. The 20-year-old still needs to improve his defense at third, but has as much raw power as any player in baseball. He clubbed 35 homers in the Minors last year.
4. Who will take over in center field before Byron Buxton is ready?
Buxton is baseball's top prospect, according to MLB.com. But unlike Sano, he's more likely to make his debut in '15. So the Twins will have an open competition this spring, with Aaron Hicks, Alex Presley and Darin Mastroianni angling to be the club's Opening Day center fielder. Presley, who was acquired in the trade that sent Justin Morneau to Pittsburgh, is the favorite, as Hicks is likely to start the year at Triple-A Rochester to get more seasoning after a mostly forgettable rookie season.
3. Will Oswaldo Arcia have a breakout year offensively?
Arcia showed some flashes as a rookie, hitting .251 with 14 homers and 17 doubles in 97 games. While he still needs to cut down on his strikeouts, given his strong Minor League numbers, he could be in for a breakout year in his second season in the Majors.
2. Is Josmil Pinto ready to be a starting catcher?
Pinto turned heads in September, hitting .342 with four homers and five doubles in 21 games. He also had strong numbers offensively in the Minors, but the young backstop still has to work on his receiving skills behind the plate. With the signing of veteran Kurt Suzuki to handle the bulk of the catching duties, Pinto will have someone to learn from and help develop his game.
1. When will the Twins be ready to compete in the AL Central?
With an improved rotation, the Twins should be better in '14 than they were the previous three seasons. But, on paper, they will still be picked behind the Tigers, Indians and Royals in the division. Can Minnesota surprise people like Cleveland did in '13 and compete earlier than expected? That remains to be seen. But things are starting to head in the right direction for the Twins, who should be much more formidable by '15.