March 31, 2016

Season preview: Are the Twins ready to be a playoff team?

Last year the Twins emerged from the wreckage of four consecutive 90-loss seasons sooner than anticipated, out-performing expectations by climbing above .500 in Paul Molitor's rookie season as manager. Miguel Sano immediately established himself as the big bat around which the lineup can be built, leading the way for a deep, upside-rich farm system that's ready to stock the Twins' roster with young talent for years to come. It's a fun time to be a Twins fan again.

However, rather than build on that momentum and their sooner-than-expected contender status by making a series of significant offseason moves to beef up the roster the Twins basically stood pat. They went outside the box to replace Torii Hunter in the lineup by spending $25 million on Korean slugger Byung Ho Park and addressed the organization-wide lack of catching depth by trading Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for John Ryan Murphy. And that was it.

No significant additions were made to a pitching staff that was 10th among AL teams in ERA last season after ranking dead last from 2011-2014 and one of the team's best second-half pitchers, Tyler Duffey, was sent back to Triple-A in favor of contractual albatross Ricky Nolasco. Rumors that the Twins would trade Trevor Plouffe to open up third base never materialized and led to their shifting the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Sano to right field despite zero outfield experience.

Aside from some minor tinkering, the Twins' offseason consisted of two moves and was over by December 1. And while the perception is that the Twins are a young team on the rise thanks to Sano and an impressive farm system, the actual Opening Day roster is heavy on veterans. Kyle Gibson is the youngest member of the rotation at 28, the average age of the pitching staff is 30, and only three of the nine Opening Day hitters are younger than 27.

Their relative inactivity leaves plenty of room for criticism, particularly on the pitching side, and the front office's decades-long conservative streak always offers a viable explanation. With that said, the Twins' disinterest in adding even moderately priced veterans to an 83-win team is easy to explain: Terry Ryan and company are convinced the young talent they've stockpiled through all the losing is now ready to turn the Twins into winners. Just not right away, apparently.

Jose Berrios is an elite pitching prospect and many teams would have promoted him in the middle of last season, but he's back at Triple-A with Duffey for a second go-around because the Twins spent the past two offseasons handing out long-term deals to mediocre starters. Based on service time considerations the Twins should be planning for Berrios to debut in late April or early May, but that makes the shaky assumption that they'll be ready to ditch veterans by then.

Bypassing the many veteran relievers available via trades and free agency may hurt the Twins in the short term, but they clearly believe that by midseason at least one or two good bullpen arms will step forward from a group of hard-throwing prospects that includes Nick Burdi, Alex Meyer, Brandon Peterson, J.T. Chargois, Jake Reed, and Luke Bard. They had similar hopes heading into last year and the payoff was non-existent, but Burdi looks especially close to the majors now.

If by midseason Berrios and Duffey are leading the rotation turnaround and Burdi or Meyer have joined Trevor May and Kevin Jepsen setting up for Glen Perkins then the lack of offseason pitching moves will look prescient. If instead Rochester's pitching staff is thriving and Minnesota's pitching staff is again among the league's worst the fingers will point themselves. Right now the Twins' pitching looks mediocre at best, but the cavalry is coming. Or at least that's the plan.

Offensively most of the cavalry has already arrived and the young, crazy talented starting outfield of 22-year-old stud prospect Byron Buxton flanked by 23-year-old Sano and 24-year-old Eddie Rosario may tell the story of the 2016 season. That trio has the potential to be the Twins' three best players, but Buxton has yet to prove himself as a hitter, Rosario's lack of discipline threatens to stall his development, and Sano's right field sojourn threatens his health and the team ERA.

Here's the beauty of the Twins' farm system: They also have 23-year-old outfielder Max Kepler, a consensus top-100 prospect coming off an MVP-winning campaign at Double-A, waiting in the wings at Triple-A. Their outfield options are so young, so talented, and so plentiful that Oswaldo Arcia--a 25-year-old former top prospect with a .741 OPS in the majors--is an afterthought. If the Twins take a big step forward this season the young outfield figures to be a driving force.

Park is neither young nor inexperienced, winning a pair of MVP awards and four home run titles in Korea through age 28, but he's an MLB rookie for whom outlooks vary wildly. Based on his Hall of Fame numbers in Korea, the scouting reports from people who watched him there, and his spring training showing it's clear that Park will hit for big-time power, but that power will likely come with tons of strikeouts and a modest batting average.

For years the Twins' lineup was lefty dominated, but adding Sano and Park to Plouffe and Brian Dozier has swung the balance to the right side. In fact, this might be the most right-handed pop any Twins lineup has ever featured and Target Field is an ideal home for right-handed power. Six of the nine Opening Day hitters are right-handed, along with switch-hitter Eduardo Escobar and lefties Joe Mauer and Rosario.

Mauer simply hasn't been the same since suffering a concussion in August of 2013 and at age 33 the odds are heavily stacked against him being more than an above-average first baseman, but his on-base skills are desperately needed in a lineup long on power and short on OBP. Last year Sano and Mauer were the only Twins to crack a .330 on-base percentage and all the right-handed power bats need base-runners to drive in.

Escobar has quietly been one of the best shortstops in Twins history whenever they've actually given him a chance to play the position regularly, hitting .285/.331/.452 with solid defense in 203 career starts. For decades the Twins have repeatedly failed to find competent offensive shortstops, but Escobar is a switch-hitter with plus power for the position and has the ability to lengthen the lineup considerably. He's turned a lot of people--me included--from doubters to believers.

Nearly every hitter in the lineup comes attached to a question mark because of inexperience or injuries and that makes it tough to feel confident predicting how the offense will fare overall, but it's impossible to ignore how much young upside, right-handed power, and depth the Twins have assembled. If they get any sort of decent bottom-of-the-order production from the catcher spot and Buxton the Twins are going to score a bunch of runs.

And they'll need to, because the pitching staff with by far the fewest strikeouts in baseball since 2008 is again lacking the same type of upside and power that fills the lineup. There is some depth in that Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone, and Gibson are solid veteran starters and May, Jepsen, and Perkins are a strong bullpen trio, but at a time when MLB-wide strikeouts and velocity have never been higher the Twins simply lack firepower.

That could change if Berrios and Burdi receive quick call-ups and thrive right away, but counting on two prospects who've never thrown a pitch in the big leagues to drag an entire staff kicking and screaming into the power pitching era is probably wishful thinking. Molitor keeping the lesser starters on a short leash could be crucial, because turning games over to fresher, harder-throwing relievers often makes more sense than risking another trip through a lineup past 75 pitches.

Based on the Opening Day roster the Twins look mediocre, with an above-average offense and a below-average pitching staff. Based on the much younger, higher-upside roster they could begin transitioning to as soon as late April the Twins absolutely have a chance to build on last season's surprising success by making a run at the AL Central title. They just need to trust the youth and have it pay off. And here's the best part: This figures to be the worst Twins team for a long time.

October 14, 2015

My hypothetical Twins MVP ballot

Miguel Sano and Brian Dozier Twins

After four straight 90-loss seasons the Twins re-emerged as a competitive team, going 83-79 and remaining in the Wild Card hunt until the final weekend of the season. Here's my attempt to rank the most valuable individual performances behind the team-wide turnaround:

1. Miguel Sano

It's difficult to be the most valuable player on a team when playing only 80 of 162 games, but two things make Miguel Sano a special case. One is that he was great in those 80 games, ranking as one of the best hitters in baseball and repeatedly coming through with key hits in key spots. Two is that none of the Twins' full-time, season-long players had particularly outstanding years, leaving Sano's great half-season to compete against good but not great full seasons.

Called up from Double-A on July 2 after the Twins went 11-17 in June, he was immediately the best, most patient hitter in the lineup. Sano hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers and 53 walks in 80 games, including a 1.055 OPS with runners on, a 1.028 OPS with runners in scoring position, and a 1.100 OPS in close-and-late situations. He easily led the team in the context-dependent stat Win Probability Added and ranked 17th in the entire league despite not playing in April, May, or June.

At age 22 he forced pitchers to throw strikes and punished them when they gave in. An incredible 28 percent of Sano's plate appearances went to a full count, compared to the MLB average of 12 percent, and he posted a 1.281 OPS on 3-2 pitches. He also batted a ridiculous .700 with a 1.650 slugging percentage when putting the first pitch in play, punishing get-me-over strikes too. Sano's rookie season wasn't just good or even great for a rookie, it was one of the best in Twins history.

Sano's adjusted OPS+ of 146 ranked seventh in the AL behind only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion. Sano tied with Chris Davis, who led the league in homers for the second time in three seasons. Within the context of team history, the only other Twins hitters to top an OPS+ of 145 during the past 20 seasons are Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jim Thome. None of them did it more than once. Sano is 1-for-1.

As a proponent of cumulative production, defense, and positional adjustments being big factors in player value the idea of a half-season designated hitter being team MVP is a tough sell, but Sano had a truly special half-season that was elevated even further in "clutch" situations and it seemed odd not to prefer 80 games of that compared to 150 games of slightly above-average. Sano was the Twins' best player for every moment he wore a Twins uniform and that gets my MVP.

2. Brian Dozier

Brian Dozier appeared to be having a breakout year when he followed up a very strong 2014 season with an even better first half, hitting .256/.328/.513 with 19 homers, 48 total extra-base hits, and 34 walks in 88 games to make his first All-Star team. Seemingly established as one of MLB's best second basemen, he then collapsed in the second half and hit just .210/.280/.359 to finish with worse overall numbers than he posted in 2014.

Starting strong only to fall apart in the second half in back-to-back years is worrisome and calls into question whether Dozier's durability is actually a strength, but the end result was still plenty valuable. He led all MLB second basemen in homers (28), extra-base hits (71), and runs scored (101), ranked second in RBIs (77), walks (61), and total bases (279), and posted a .751 OPS compared the MLB average of .711 for the position.

Toss in up-the-middle defense that rates slightly below average according to most metrics and Dozier was one of the top 10 second basemen in MLB this season. It may have been less jarring for Twins fans to watch if he'd simply been a .750 OPS hitter all year instead of being an All-Star in the first half and replacement-level in the second half, but in assessing all-around value for the season as a whole Dozier has a reasonable argument for being team MVP.

3. Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson took a step forward this year, staying healthy with a full-season workload again and upping his strikeout rate by 25 percent while maintaining nearly identical rates everywhere else. Last season he walked 2.9 per nine innings, induced 54 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play. This season he walked 3.0 per nine innings, induced 53 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play.

Those are remarkably similar numbers and Gibson was able to up his strikeouts from 5.4 to 6.7 per nine innings. He's unlikely to ever be a high-strikeout pitcher, but in both 2014 and 2015 his ground-ball rate ranked among MLB's top 10 and pairing that with even a decent strikeout rate can lead to big things. This year for Gibson that mix--along with better bullpen support and fewer blowup starts--led to slicing his ERA from 4.47 to 3.84 while leading the Twins with 195 innings.

4. Trevor Plouffe

Trevor Plouffe had a typical Trevor Plouffe season, hitting .244/.307/.435 with 22 homers, 35 doubles, and a 124/50 K/BB ratio in 152 games while playing above-average third base defense. His production was nearly identical to his combined 2012-2014 line of .249/.314/.422 and in four seasons as the Twins' starting third baseman his OPS has never been lower than .701 or higher than .756. He is what he is, except for one big difference this year: Double plays.

Plouffe grounded into 28 double plays, which led the league and tied for the most in Twins history. His previous career-high was just 12 double plays. Whether it was a one-year fluke or not, making two outs at a time so often--and in so many key, rally-crushing situations--took a big chunk out of Plouffe's value. Compared to all MLB third basemen he was almost exactly average--slightly below offensively and slightly above defensively.

5. Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario was called up from Triple-A to replace the injured Oswaldo Arcia on May 6 and never went back, hitting better than his recent minor-league track record suggested he would and impressing defensively with excellent range and a strong arm. Rosario's total lack of patience held him back, as he swung at everything on the way to a ghastly 118/15 K/BB ratio and .289 on-base percentage, but his other skills mostly made up for all the hacking.

Rosario hit .267 with 13 homers, 18 doubles, and a league-high 15 triples on the way to a sturdy .459 slugging percentage. He nearly led the league with 16 outfield assists and tracked down fly balls that many recent Twins left fielders wouldn't have even gone after. Long term Rosario risks failing to fulfill his potential if he doesn't develop some semblance of strike zone control, but this season his extra-base power, speed, and defense made him an above-average regular at age 23.

6. Trevor May

Demoted to Triple-A at the end of spring training, Trevor May moved into the rotation following Ervin Santana's suspension and posted the best secondary numbers of any Twins starter through early July. His reward was being moved to the bullpen, where May took the role change in stride despite wanting to remain a starter and logged 31.1 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 37/8 K/BB ratio while emerging as the team's primary setup man.

When the Twins needed a starter, May stepped in and did a good job for three months. When the Twins needed a reliever, May shifted to the bullpen without putting up a Mike Pelfrey-like fuss and did a good job for three months. There's added value in that versatility, not unlike a position player with the ability to handle multiple spots defensively, and May finished his first full season in the majors with a 4.00 ERA and 110/26 K/BB ratio in 115 innings overall.

7. Eduardo Escobar

Eduardo Escobar was as a square peg in a round hole when the Twins gave the shortstop job to Danny Santana and regularly used Escobar way out of position in left field. They finally came to their senses in July thanks to Santana's ineptitude and Escobar picked up where he left off as one of the AL's better shortstops. His overall value is tough to gauge because he struggled in left field and thrived at shortstop, but Escobar certainly isn't to blame for the team misusing him.

He ended up starting 71 games at shortstop compared to 34 in left field or at designated hitter, plus nine more at second and third base. Overall he hit .262/.309/.445 with 12 homers and 47 total extra-base hits in 127 games. For some context his .754 OPS was 70 points higher than the average shortstop and slightly below average for corner outfielders, which is why Escobar's early usage was so silly and why his finally replacing Santana at shortstop made such a big impact.

8. Ervin Santana

Suspended for the first 80 games, Ervin Santana initially fared well upon joining the rotation in early July before having a brutal six-start stretch from late July through late August in which he allowed 33 runs in 30 innings. At that point he had a 6.05 ERA and the four-year, $52 million signing looked like a disaster, but then Santana fixed his mechanics and was one of the league's best starters down the stretch with a 1.62 ERA and 47/14 K/BB ratio in his final 50 innings.

There was nothing special about Santana's overall performance, which included a 4.00 ERA and 82/36 K/BB ratio with 12 homers allowed in 108 innings, but he was an above-average starting pitcher for 17 starts and that carries significant value just the same as it would if he'd been a prospect called up at midseason rather than a veteran banned from participating in the team's first 80 games.

9. Tommy Milone

An afterthought for most of the season--including a month-long demotion to Triple-A despite being 28 years old with 500 innings as a big leaguer--Tommy Milone started 23 games and logged 129 innings with a 3.92 ERA. It wasn't always pretty and it was never flashy, but Milone had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Gibson, Santana, and Pelfrey while ranking second among all Twins starters in Win Probability Added behind only Gibson.

10. Tyler Duffey

It was only 10 starts, but Tyler Duffey saved the Twins' rotation by throwing 58 innings with a 3.10 ERA and 53/20 K/BB ratio down the stretch as veteran starters were dropping like flies and May was working out of the bullpen. After getting knocked around by the Blue Jays in his debut Duffey joined Santana as the only reliable starters for the final six weeks, completing at least six innings and allowing two or fewer runs in each of his last five starts.

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July 16, 2015

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Pitchers

Glen Perkins Twins

Twins pitching was abysmal from 2011-2014, ranking second-worst in ERA and worst in strikeouts among 30 teams. This year they're 15th in ERA, putting them on pace to allow 145 fewer runs per 162 games. However, they're still dead last in strikeouts and have improved to just 26th in xFIP. Vastly improved defense has played a big part, but luck has been a factor too. Before the second half gets underway here's a pitcher-by-pitcher look at the individual performances ...

Phil Hughes: .287/.303/.495 in 486 plate appearances

Last season Phil Hughes logged a career-high 210 innings and posted the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball. This year the durability and excellent control remain, but Hughes' strikeout rate has plummeted and his home run rate has skyrocketed. On a per-plate appearance basis his strikeouts are down 36 percent and he's served up a league-high 22 homers in 18 starts after allowing a total of 16 homers in 32 starts last season.

Hughes' fastball velocity is down 1.5 miles per hour and hitters have teed off on it, adjusting to his strike-throwing machine approach and/or simply taking advantage of a lesser version of the pitch. Whatever the case, he's gone from No. 1 starter to innings-eating mid-rotation starter, which was the fear when the Twins reacted to Hughes' career-year by handing him a three-year, $42 million extension with two seasons remaining on his original deal.

Kyle Gibson: .241/.305/.371 in 468 plate appearances

Nothing has really changed within Kyle Gibson's secondary numbers compared to last year, but his ERA has improved from 4.47 to 2.85 and he's avoided the blowups that plagued him every few turns in the rotation. His strikeout rate (16 percent vs. 14 percent), walk rate (8 percent in both years), and ground-ball rate (54 percent in both years) are all remarkably similar to last season and he's already given up almost as many homers (11) in 18 starts as he did (12) in 32 starts.

The big change is opponents hitting .165 with runners in scoring position compared to .277 last year, which explains avoiding big innings. At some point those numbers are going to normalize and when they do Gibson looks more like a 3.85 ERA starter than a 2.85 ERA starter, but nothing says his luck has to run out immediately and a 3.85 ERA starter is still plenty valuable. He's been the best starter on a team that handed out $170 million to three free agent starters since 2014.

Mike Pelfrey: .293/.357/.398 in 424 plate appearances

Unhappy about being moved to the bullpen during spring training, Mike Pelfrey got his wish and remained in the rotation following Ervin Santana's suspension. He fared absurdly well early on despite no changes to his poor strikeout and walk rates, constantly getting himself into jams and then wriggling out of trouble. Eventually that caught up to Pelfrey, who finished the first half by allowing 27 runs in his final 32 innings to take his ERA from 2.28 to 4.00 in six starts.

There's been lots of talk about pitching coach Neil Allen convincing Pelfrey to rely on off-speed pitches more, but that storyline loses a little steam when you consider his 4.41 xFIP is no different than his 4.42 xFIP for the Mets from 2008-2012 and his 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings are worse than his 5.0 mark during that span. Pelfrey has taken a somewhat different approach to pitching, but the results ended up in the same mediocre place once the early good fortunate vanished.

Trevor May: .286/.323/.428 in 364 plate appearances

Called up one week into the season to replace the injured Ricky Nolasco in the rotation, Trevor May led Twins starters in fastball velocity, strikeout rate, and xFIP. So naturally he was the starter moved to the bullpen when Santana returned from suspension. May took the demotion in stride, finishing the first half with four scoreless relief innings, but given his performance, raw stuff, and long-term upside the 25-year-old right-hander deserves to be in the rotation.

May was a mess in his first few starts as a rookie, but in his last 25 games dating back to August he's thrown 121 innings with 113 strikeouts and 27 walks. He still has plenty to work on, but May has seemingly solved his control problems in the minors without sacrificing velocity or strikeouts and only needs more patience from the Twins to establish himself as a solid mid-rotation starter three years after they acquired him from the Phillies for Ben Revere.

Tommy Milone: .243/.304/.382 in 276 plate appearances

When the Twins acquired Tommy Milone from the A's in exchange for Sam Fuld last July he was an established mid-rotation starter with a 3.83 ERA in nearly 500 career innings. They never saw that pitcher, as Milone allowed 21 runs in 22 innings before being shut down with a benign tumor in his neck that required surgery. He came into this season with a clean bill of health and secured a spot in the rotation, but was demoted to Triple-A in late April.

Milone toyed with Triple-A hitters, going 4-0 with a 0.70 ERA and 47/3 K/BB ratio in five starts before the Twins brought him back to replace the injured Nolasco. He predictably hasn't been able to continue racking up strikeouts since returning, but Milone posted a 1.84 ERA and 33/12 K/BB ratio in 44 innings during his final seven starts. He'll come back down to earth at some point, but Milone has been out-performing his modest raw stuff for five seasons now. He's a solid pitcher.

J.R. Graham: .265/.324/.445 in 171 plate appearances

J.R. Graham has been an ideal Rule 5 pick, showing long-term upside with a mid-90s fastball and proving useful in the short term when spotted in low-leverage situations. Sixteen pitchers have 10 or more innings for the Twins this year and Graham is the only one with an average fastball above 95 mph. Home runs have been an issue and Graham's command comes and goes, but remove one disastrous May 14 outing from his season totals and he has a 1.85 ERA in 39 innings.

Blaine Boyer: .262/.315/.416 in 164 plate appearances

Who leads the AL in relief appearances? Blaine Boyer, obviously. He came into this season as a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 career ERA and his current secondary numbers are actually worse than his career marks, including just 18 strikeouts in 39 innings. And yet Boyer has a 2.75 ERA while spending much of the season as the Twins' primary setup man, refusing to implode. It hasn't been all smoke and mirrors, but it's been a lot of smoke and mirrors.

Ricky Nolasco: .324/.369/.441 in 149 plate appearances

For the second straight season Ricky Nolasco has been injured and ineffective. This time he made just seven starts, going on the disabled list with an elbow injury in April and an ankle injury in June. After a month of unsuccessful rehab Nolasco underwent ankle surgery that seems likely to end his season, so he'll have a 5.40 ERA in 192 innings halfway through a four-year, $49 million contract. What a disaster.

Glen Perkins: .188/.217/.246 in 143 plate appearances

Already one of the three best closers in Twins history, Glen Perkins set a new team record by converting 28-of-28 save chances in the first half. He also had a 1.21 ERA and 36/5 K/BB ratio in 37 innings while holding opponents to a .188 batting average. Perkins has merged plus raw stuff, impeccable command, and an analytical approach to get extraordinary results in the ninth inning at a time when the rest of the bullpen has often been shaky.

Aaron Thompson: .264/.319/.364 in 137 plate appearances

Aaron Thompson's deal with the devil lasted about six weeks, during which time the 28-year-old journeyman moved up the bullpen hierarchy to earn manager Paul Molitor's trust in a setup role. And then he turned back into a pumpkin, initially being relegated to left-handed specialist duties and then being demoted to Triple-A. Ryan O'Rourke replaced him in the bullpen, but Thompson remains on the 40-man roster and could return in a middle relief role.

Ryan Pressly: .257/.331/.314 in 119 plate appearances

Ryan Pressly was a Rule 5 pick in 2013 and, much like Graham currently, was useful in the short term while showing some long-term upside with a mid-90s fastball. Two years later he has a 3.46 ERA in 133 total innings for the Twins, making up for poor strikeout and walk rates by allowing just eight homers in 556 plate appearances. Unfortunately now Pressly is sidelined by a strained lat muscle.

Casey Fien: .250/.270/.429 in 116 plate appearances

After a three-season run as a quality setup man Casey Fien just hasn't been the same this year while struggling with some arm problems. He put together a couple of good stretches, but even during that success there were obvious red flags. Fien's velocity has been normal for the most part, but compared to 2012-2014 he's lost nearly half of his strikeouts and generated one-third fewer swinging strikes. That's a particularly bad combination for a fly-ball pitcher.

For a lot more talk about the Twins' first half, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode featuring our MVP ballots and player-by-player breakdowns.

April 27, 2015

Twins Notes: Mauer, Hughes, Gibson, Perkins, Santana, and Gardenhire

Joe Mauer beard

• He's still not showing any power, but Joe Mauer is doing his usual thing (.299 batting average, .392 on-base percentage, 11/11 K/BB ratio) despite dramatically changing his approach at the plate by being more aggressive early in counts and pulling more balls in the air. Whether it will ultimately lead to a better overall performance remains to be seen since it's tough to improve upon a lifetime .318 AVG and .401 OBP, but the new approach is more likely to generate power.

• Mauer is 13-for-34 (.382) against left-handed pitchers this year and has hit .296 with a .368 on-base percentage off lefties for his career. Among everyone since 1965 the only left-handed hitters with a higher career batting average and on-base percentage vs. left-handers than Mauer are Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew, Todd Helton, Larry Walker, and Wade Boggs. So three Hall of Famers and two near Hall of Famers who called Coors Field home. No platoon needed.

Phil Hughes hasn't pitched particularly well, but his 0-4 record is misleading thanks to awful run support and he's performed better than he did through four starts last season:

YEAR    GS      ERA     IP     SO     BB     HR
2014     4     6.43     21     20      6      3
2015     4     4.39     27     22      2      6

Keeping the ball in the ballpark has been a career-long struggle for Hughes, so serving up six home runs in four starts certainly isn't a positive thing, but everything else is encouraging and Hughes really didn't start rolling last season until May.

Kyle Gibson continues to be difficult to evaluate because for all the talk of his raw stuff being good he can't generate strikeouts and his control has been poor. Through four starts he has twice as many walks (12) as strikeouts (6) in 22 innings and his career strikeout rate of 5.1 per nine innings in a high-strikeout era puts him in the same category as guys like Scott Diamond, Joe Mays, and Nick Blackburn who couldn't sustain their early success.

Casey Fien returning from a minor injury has really helped stabilize the bullpen after what was a horrendous start to the season. Not only is Fien clearly the best non-Glen Perkins option in the bullpen--he has a 3.47 ERA and 159/31 K/BB ratio in 169 innings for the Twins--counting on him as the primary setup man has allowed manager Paul Molitor to push replacement-level relievers like Blaine Boyer back into lower-leverage roles.

• On a related note, the sample size is very small but Perkins looks like his usual, pre-injury self after struggling mightily and then being shut down in September last season. His velocity is up, he's generating swinging strikes, and he's allowed just one run in eight innings while striking out eight and walking zero. Perkins, who's under team control through 2018, has a 2.84 ERA and 332 strikeouts in 317 career innings as a reliever.

Danny Santana hit .319 as a rookie, but his inflated batting average on balls in play, bad plate discipline, and underwhelming track record all suggested he was over his head. Sure enough he's turned back into a pumpkin, hitting .210 with 20 strikeouts and zero walks in 15 games. Santana has 118 strikeouts and 19 walks in 116 total games for the Twins after averaging 91 strikeouts and 23 walks per 116 games at Double-A/Triple-A. That's not the approach of a leadoff man.

• Santana "leads" all American League hitters by swinging at 50 percent of the pitches he's seen outside of the strike zone. Kennys Vargas and Torii Hunter have swung at 40 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, giving the Twins three of the league's nine worst hackers. Santana is still very young and has plenty of talent, but there's a reason his rookie success came as such a big surprise after he hit just .273/.317/.391 in the minors.

Ron Gardenhire is officially looking for another managing gig. He hired an agent for the first time in two decades and is said to be "willing to consider virtually any position." He's still being paid by the Twins in the final season of his contract, but Gardenhire figures to be a popular name brought up by fans and media members to replace managers on the hot seat. He has a 612-685 (.471) record, one 90-win season, four 90-loss seasons, and zero playoff wins since 2007.

• No. 1 prospect Byron Buxton and No. 2 prospect Miguel Sano are both hitting below .200 at Double-A after injury wrecked 2014 seasons, so don't expect to see that particular cavalry arriving at Target Field anytime soon. However, there's plenty of potential lineup and bullpen help playing well at Triple-A, including Aaron Hicks, Josmil Pinto, Michael Tonkin, and Lester Oliveros.

• Right-hander Kohl Stewart, who was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 draft and ranked No. 5 on my annual list of Twins prospects this year, has been shut down with elbow problems.

Joe Nathan needs Tommy John elbow surgery, which at age 40 means his career may be over.

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April 3, 2015

Season preview: Are the Twins ready to stop losing?

Paul Molitor

Nearly everyone involved with the Twins, from players and new manager Paul Molitor to general manager Terry Ryan and owner Jim Pohlad, seems convinced the team is poised to take a big step forward. Nearly everyone not involved with the Twins, from national writers and Las Vegas oddsmakers to numbers-driven projection systems and cranky local bloggers, seems convinced the team is headed for another last-place finish and possibly a fifth straight 90-loss season.

Sports Illustrated picks the Twins for last place and 67 wins. picks the Twins for last place and 68 wins. Baseball Prospectus projects the Twins for last place and 71 wins. Bovada sets the Twins' over/under win total at 72.5. FanGraphs projects the Twins for last place and 74 wins. Grantland picks the Twins for last place and "under 75 wins." CBS Sports picks the Twins for last place. Yahoo Sports picks the Twins for last place. You get the idea.

Last year the Twins were 72-90. Then they fired Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager, handed out the largest free agent contract in team history to 32-year-old Ervin Santana at $55 million over four years, brought back Torii Hunter for a $10.5 million reunion at age 39, signed 33-year-old reliever Tim Stauffer for $2.2 million, and bypassed young talent in favor of veteran mediocrity for every roster spot up for grabs in spring training.

Those are all the moves of an organization that's sick of losing and also sick of their plummeting fan morale and season ticket sales. They spent big on veterans and further delayed the arrival of prospects, leading to an Opening Day roster with just four players who're 25 years old or younger in shortstop Danny Santana, left fielder Oswaldo Arcia, designated hitter Kennys Vargas, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham.

This is a rebuilding team in the sense that the Twins have been very bad and are still attempting to get back on track, but it's anything but a young team. Kyle Gibson is the youngest member of the starting rotation at 27. Graham is the only member of the seven-reliever bullpen under 30. Six of the nine starting position players are at least 28. In terms of their collective average ages, the rotation is 30, the bullpen is 31, and the lineup is 29.

When the reality of the Twins' organizational collapse finally sunk in around mid-2012 or so the idea was that they'd be back to contending by now, but injuries ruined those plans. Joe Mauer's concussion derailed his career and turned him from a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher to a mediocre first baseman. Instead of making their MLB debuts Miguel Sano missed all of last year following elbow surgery and Byron Buxton missed all but 31 games with a wrist injury and a concussion.

Buxton and Sano will begin this season as teammates at Double-A, the Twins sent 25-year-old pitching prospects Alex Meyer, Trevor May, and Michael Tonkin back to Triple-A rather than trust them with roster spots that went to Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey, and Blaine Boyer, and after back-to-back Opening Day starts in center field Aaron Hicks is back in Rochester too. Toss in Arcia's development stagnating a bit and it's easy to see where the rebuild sputtered.

The good news is Buxton and Sano remain superstar-caliber prospects, Meyer and May still have enough upside to project as impact pitchers in some role, and there's another wave of prospects coming soon led by Jose Berrios, Jorge Polanco, and Nick Burdi. The bad news is none of that figures to actually help the Twins win many games before the All-Star break. Sadly, being a Twins fan in 2015 is still more about waiting for help to arrive than watching it play at Target Field.

Brian Dozier; Danny Santana

There's a lot of optimism surrounding the Twins' offense after the lineup produced the fifth-most runs in the American League last season, but building on or even duplicating that performance is hardly a sure thing. For starters, Santana was the only hitter on the team to crack an .800 OPS last season, coming out of nowhere to hit .319/.353/.473 as a rookie after batting .273/.314/.388 in the minors while failing to top a .725 OPS at Single-A, Double-A, or Triple-A.

Santana is good enough, young enough, and skilled enough to buy into reevaluating his upside compared to what his minor-league track record suggested, but his rookie success was still driven by an unsustainable .405 batting average on balls in play and came despite an ugly 98/19 K/BB ratio. The combination of a so-so track record, poor plate discipline, and a high batting average on balls in play makes him a prime regression candidate.

Brian Dozier also needs to fight his track record to show his 2014 was for real, albeit to a lesser extent than Santana. He was the Twins' best all-around position player, hitting .245/.345/.416 with 23 homers, 21 steals, 89 walks, and solid defense to rank among the top half-dozen second basemen in MLB. Clearly the Twins buy into Dozier's age-27 breakout, but prior to 2014 he hit just .240/.297/.384 in the majors and .232/.286/.337 at Triple-A.

Kurt Suzuki was another source of unexpectedly strong offense, hitting .288/.345/.383 to make his first All-Star team at age 30. As with Dozier the Twins bought into his resurgence with a new contract, but Suzuki hit .253/.313/.362 in the second half to resemble his measly .237/.294/.357 line from 2010-2013. Jordan Schafer's track record strongly suggests he'll be unable to repeat his 41-game Twins showing and Hunter is fighting father time at age 39.

All of which isn't to say the lineup lacks the ability to improve in spots. Mauer getting back to his usual self would be huge and he hit .300 with a .400 on-base percentage in his final 55 games. Arcia should take a step forward at age 24 and is capable of breaking out with a better approach. But for the most part more hitters are likely to decline than improve, some by wide margins. Of course, Buxton and Sano showing up in May or June ready to thrive could change everything.

Then there's defense, which has played an overlooked part in the Twins' struggles as the focus tends to be on the "pitching" rather than the run prevention of pitching plus defense. Combined from 2011-2014 the Twins ranked 28th in Ultimate Zone Rating at 90 runs below average and 24th in Defensive Runs Saved at 115 runs below average. They've been horrendous, especially in the outfield, which is doubly bad combined with fly-ball, strikeout-phobic pitching staffs.

Infield defense may not be bad because Dozier is solid at second base, Santana has the skills to be a plus shortstop, Trevor Plouffe showed big improvement at third base, and Mauer is fine at first base. However, the outfield is guaranteed to be a major weakness again. Arcia and Hunter were two of MLB's worst defensive corner outfielders last year and it's asking a lot of Schafer (or Hicks) to cover up their mess when he's actually gotten below average marks in center field.

Phil Hughes Twins

Last offseason the Twins gave a four-year, $49 million deal to Ricky Nolasco and a three-year, $24 million contract to Phil Hughes, and this offseason they took the uncharacteristic pursuit of free agent pitching even further by signing Santana for $55 million. Hughes got three years and $42 million tacked on to his previous deal following a breakout 2014 season and the Twins have Pelfrey and Milone under contract for a combined $8.5 million in 2015.

That's a lot of resources devoted to veteran starters and there's also a hidden cost that comes with having pitchers with guaranteed salaries locked into rotation spots that might otherwise be handed over to prospects. Hughes is signed through 2019, Santana is signed through 2018, Nolasco is signed through 2017, and even though Pelfrey and Milone aren't signed beyond this season the Twins were still hesitant to push them aside.

Hughes was a tremendous find on what was a very reasonable free agent contract that the Twins turned into a much bigger commitment. He logged 210 innings and pitched even better than his solid 3.52 ERA, striking out 186 and walking 16 for the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball. Asking for a repeat of that performance is wishful thinking, but Hughes seemed like a truly different pitcher last season and enters this year as a clear-cut No. 1 starter.

Santana was signed to take over the No. 2 spot and what he lacks in upside he makes up for in durability, although he's probably more of a No. 3 starter on a contending team. Nolasco looked like a No. 3 starter when the Twins gave him $49 million last offseason, but then pitched horribly for several months before revealing he was hurt and is now a question mark the Twins no doubt regret signing.

Gibson is the lone homegrown pitcher in the rotation and the former top prospect finally broke through last season to throw 179 innings in 31 starts. He was wildly inconsistent, but the end result was a 4.47 ERA in a league where the average starter was below 4.00. Inducing lots of ground balls helps Gibson make up for a lack of missed bats, but at age 27 and with just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings his upside looks limited to the back of the rotation.

Milone beat out Pelfrey and May for the fifth spot and the soft-tossing left-hander will try to show that his awful post-trade performance for the Twins was due to a benign tumor in his neck that required surgery. Milone was a solid back-of-the-rotation starter for the A's, but Oakland's pitcher-friendly ballpark overstated his effectiveness and helped compensate for a mid-80s fastball. He has a 4.80 career ERA in non-Oakland ballparks.

If the goal was to put together a rotation less likely to be a disaster than the 2011-2014 versions the Twins absolutely accomplished that, but the price tags indicate they have much higher hopes and that may be pushing things. This is the worst rotation in the AL Central even if it's assumed Hughes will avoid turning back into a pumpkin and there isn't much upside unless Meyer and/or May hit the ground running soon. And compared to the bullpen the rotation is a strength.

Glen Perkins was one of the elite relievers in baseball for 3.5 seasons before melting down late last year while pitching through an injury. The bullpen desperately needs him to be his pre-injury self or things could get very ugly. Casey Fien is the primary setup man. Brian Duensing, who was a non-tender candidate, is the only lefty. Stauffer and Boyer have prominent roles and the Twins are hoping Pelfrey's one-pitch arsenal fits better in relief. It's an underwhelming group.

This should be the least-awful Twins team since 2010, but that's not saying much and confidence in even that mild statement dropped when they stacked the roster with Pelfrey, Milone, Duensing, Boyer, Schafer, Stauffer, Shane Robinson, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez. That's a lot of self-imposed dreck for a team with better, younger options and there's a depressingly strong chance the same "are the Twins ready to stop losing?" question can be asked 365 days from now.

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