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2014 Preview: Minnesota Twins

Mar 30, 2014, 2:20 PM EDT

Rick Anderson, Ron Gardenhire AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.

The Big Question: Did the Twins improve their starting rotation enough?

Prior to this offseason the most money the Twins had ever spent on an outside free agent was $21 million, so dropping $49 million on Ricky Nolasco and another $24 million on Phil Hughes represented a massive shift in organizational philosophy and showed just how focused they were on improving an awful rotation. Of course, in the grand scheme of baseball those are hardly huge contracts and the Twins’ rotation has been so bad that it could improve substantially while still being terrible.

Not only did Twins starters rank dead last in baseball with a 5.26 ERA last season, no other team’s starters had an ERA worse than 4.85. And in 2012 the Twins’ rotation had a 5.40 ERA, which ranked second-worst in baseball ahead of only the Coors Field-inflated Rockies. Which brings us to the Twins’ problem, which is that their rotation’s ERA could improve by, say, a half-run–which is a huge improvement–and still be among the 2-3 worst in baseball. Or, put another way, here are the Twins starters’ projected ERAs according to Fan Graphs:

Ricky Nolasco: 4.20

Phil Hughes: 4.64

Mike Pelfrey: 5.00

Kevin Correia: 5.07

Kyle Gibson: 5.27

Obviously the Twins think all of those guys will fare better than those projections and there are relatively plausible reasons for why that might be true in each case, but it’s hard to come up with a scenario in which that isn’t still a bad rotation. It’s very short on upside and very long on veteran mediocrity, and last season those five starters had ERAs of 3.70, 4.18, 5.19, 5.19, and 6.53.

There’s some high-upside help on the way in the form of 6-foot-9 right-hander Alex Meyer, although if Gibson pitches well enough to stick in the rotation the Twins would have to trade one of their mediocre veterans just to make room for Meyer’s arrival. Minnesota devoted the offseason to making the rotation less terrible, but in doing so the Twins also locked themselves mediocrity. If their rotation is much better but still the worst in the league, was the offseason a success?

What else is going on?

  • All the talk about starting pitching has obscured the fact that the Twins’ offense was awful last season too, ranking 13th in the AL with 614 runs scored. Essentially zero additions were made during the offseason and the expected midseason arrival of stud prospect Miguel Sano has been ruined by Tommy John elbow surgery, leaving the Twins counting on Josh Willingham getting healthy, Joe Mauer being Joe Mauer, Oswaldo Arcia making The Leap, and Aaron Hicks bouncing back from a disastrous rookie season.
  • Hicks has the world’s best prospect, Byron Buxton, breathing down his neck on the center field depth chart, so his window to establish himself in the Twins’ plans is smaller than usual for a 24-year-old. Hicks was about as bad as a player can be as a rookie, hitting .192 with a .597 OPS and 84 strikeouts in 81 games, but he did have a decent power/speed combo and the Twins are hoping that the on-base skills he displayed in the minors will translate to the big leagues eventually. Presumed backup center fielder Alex Presley was lost on waivers to the Astros, so the Twins are going to let Hicks sink or swim.
  • Glen Perkins is really, really good. In his first full season as a closer Perkins saved 36 games with a 2.30 ERA and since moving into the bullpen full time in 2011 he has a 2.45 ERA and 220 strikeouts in 195 innings. During that three-year span his strikeout rate has climbed from 9.5 to 10.0 to 11.1 per nine innings and his K/BB ratio has jumped from 3.1 to 4.9 to 5.1. He’s a strike-throwing, bat-missing, tweet-sending machine.
  • Phil Hughes became sort of a punching bag for Yankees fans while struggling in recent years, but the Twins targeted him early in the offseason believing the one-time top prospect still has significant upside and as guys like Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett have shown recently struggling in New York doesn’t preclude a pitcher from thriving elsewhere. As a fly-ball pitcher Hughes was particularly ill-suited to call Yankee Stadium home, but his road ERA was 4.10 from 2011-2013 and his raw stuff simply isn’t what it once was. Hughes will be an interesting test of the Twins’ brain trust.

Prediction: Improved but still very bad starting pitching, improved but still very bad hitting, and a slightly less unwatchable overall product. Fourth place, AL Central.

  1. undeadjesus - Mar 30, 2014 at 2:47 PM

    One could argue that the offense will actually be worse this year, after losing guys like Morneau and Doumit. Not that those guys were studs or anything, but they were there to provide some pop in the middle of the lineup and drive in runs. Who’s gonna do that now? Willingham? Arcia? Plouffe? Those are all pretty shaky options.

    • bnkrs01 - Mar 30, 2014 at 6:33 PM

      Why is willingham included as a shaky option. He had a bad knee, which eventually required surgery.
      The previous two years he hit over 60 homeruns and had over 200 rbi. Now if his numbers from last year were put up without the knee injury, I then think you would have a valid point. Let’s see how he performs this year. I have a feeling that you’re one of those who thought Scott Diamond was going to be an ace after his rookie year.

      • musicman1434 - Mar 30, 2014 at 6:53 PM

        Willingham is on here partly because of last year but also because he had a horrible spring. On top of that he is a much below average defensive player who has a tendency to dog it at times. If his bat doesn’t come around big time this year he will be a major liability.

      • undeadjesus - Mar 30, 2014 at 11:08 PM

        Like musicman pointed out, he’s also had a very poor spring. Plus, the guy is 35 and not getting any younger. And even IF Willingham can return to his previous form, the lineup will still need other guys to step up in a big way for this team to have any real shot this season.

        The last line about Diamond is just stupid and makes no sense

  2. cjvirnig - Mar 30, 2014 at 2:48 PM

    Fortunately for Twins pitchers, Target Field is cavernous. As Gleeman points out, any and all respectability this club generates will hinge on whether the likes of Trevor Plouffe, Oswaldo Arcia, and Aaron Hicks can become offensive contributors. If they do, the Twins will certainly have a better year than what we’ve seen over the past three seasons. If they all struggle, then they’ll hang right around that 95 loss mark again. Pretty simple.

  3. moogro - Mar 30, 2014 at 3:05 PM

    Pitching will be slightly better, batting will be slightly worse. Mauer will improve and play more games. Last place again.

    • happytwinsfan - Mar 30, 2014 at 6:31 PM

      last year the honor of last place was seized by the whitesox

      • moogro - Mar 30, 2014 at 8:42 PM

        Not this year

  4. missthemexpos - Mar 30, 2014 at 3:06 PM

    Not every day do you get a story with the words bad, terrible, mediocre, and awful sprinkled throughout.

    • racksie - Mar 30, 2014 at 3:49 PM

      And he was just being objective. Imagine if Aaron actually wanted to disparage them? Sad times as a Twins fan. Ugh.

  5. 461deep - Mar 30, 2014 at 3:51 PM

    Except for AT&T Park when the Giants pitching was lights out with mediocre hitting, most teams stuck in big parks kill their big hitters. Thome hit a few HRS a t Target but it killed all the other Twins
    half decent power hitters.

    • happytwinsfan - Mar 30, 2014 at 6:22 PM

      except for a healthy willingham. in 2012 his homers cleared that left field fence usually with room to spare

  6. racksie - Mar 30, 2014 at 3:52 PM

    Pretty much spot, there Aaron. I think it was Pelfrey I heard on the radio a couple of weeks ago saying enthusiastically that they are a .500 team. That’s what this has come to. A veteran predicting a .500 ball club as an accomplishment.

    • happytwinsfan - Mar 30, 2014 at 6:19 PM

      would you have felt better if he’d lied.

  7. happytwinsfan - Mar 30, 2014 at 6:16 PM

    aaron why’d you leave the twins preview for just hours before the sunday night opener, saving the best for last?

    on the bright side making room for meyer should he earn it shouldn’t be a problem. from what i’ve heard about spring training pelfrey’s been looking fairly okay, nolasco’s been looking like nolasco, deduno has looked very good, gibson pretty good, hughes bad and corriea terrible. fortunately corriea only has one year on his contract. if he stinks it up they can afford to cut bait with him, if he does well he probably gets traded at the deadline making his signing last year a good value.

    the offense will probably be very bad unless willingham has a bounce back year, and in spring training he’s looked terrible. i’m actually more optimistic about the rotation, especially considering that they have an adequate bullpen, than i am about the offense. mauer is the only position player where above average production can be expected. they will likely have 200 hitters at catcher and shortstop, and possibly center field if hicks does the same as he did last year. arcia’s production holding down right field will probably fall somewhere in the average range and the production will probably be about the same for the starting third baseman whose name i can never spell. the dh options are mediocre as well. without sano coming up this year, a bounce back year from willingham is the final hope. if it turns out the last year was the first year of his final decline, before the year is over,i’ll be following things in rochester as much as i follow the twins.

    if things break their way they could sniff 500, if things break the other way it could a another 95 loss year, most likely is something in between. but there is a surprise team every year. tomorrow night the unbeaten, untied 2014 minnesota twins take on the winless 2014 chicago white sox. we’ll see what happens.

    • dirtyharry1971 - Mar 31, 2014 at 7:05 AM

      this team just like happytwins love life is going nowhere fast, they are so bad they might even have a worse pitching staff then the bluegays!

  8. djandujar - Mar 31, 2014 at 1:37 PM

    Awful pitching.

  9. 1twinsfan - Mar 31, 2014 at 1:40 PM

    These guys are a bunch of idiots but it all it takes is getting the right combination of idiots together. I believe in the Twins right up until it’s the Sox Vs Giants in October. Go Twins!

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