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Complete Minnesota Twins 2014 Season Preview

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

Complete Minnesota Twins 2014 Season Preview

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Expectations aren't high for the Minnesota Twins at the MLB level in 2014, with the team coming off three straight seasons with at least 96 losses. Despite the lack of recent success, though, there are reasons to pay attention to what the Twinkies are building.

    While the Twins wait for the arrival of highly touted prospects like Byron Buxton, Alex Meyer, Miguel Sano and others, they began the process of supplementing their roster with free agents.

    Right-handed pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, both signed as free agents, are expected to lead a rotation that ranked 30th in ERA and innings pitched last season. Nolasco has established himself as a solid innings eater, while Hughes will look to rebuild his value after flaming out in New York. 

    Even with all the question marks in the rotation and lineup, the Twins still have a rock in the middle of the order, Joe Mauer. The All-Star hasn't gotten the attention he once did when the Twins were competing for playoff spots, but still hit .324/.404/.476 last year. 

    Patience is a virtue that the Twins and their fans can embrace, especially when the long-term future looks as bright as it does.

    Here is a comprehensive breakdown for the Twins' 2014 season. 

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. 

Spring Training Recap

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Spring Training Record: 8-14, 13th in American League

    Even though it's best not to get caught up in spring training records or stats, the Twins have played about the way you would expect them to when the regular season starts.

    There have been some bright spots along the way. Aaron Hicks, who was a star last spring before getting a rude wake-up call in the big leagues, is hitting over .300 with four extra-base hits. Kyle Gibson has thrown the ball well, posting a 2.20 ERA with 12 hits allowed in 16.1 innings. 

    La Velle E. Neal of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Gibson will be Minnesota's No. 5 starter when the season starts, citing both his performance this spring and advanced age: 

    The Twins also feel that it's time to give Gibson a shot, as the former first-round pick is 26 years old.

    Gibson's chances of making the rotation didn't look good when camp opened, as Scott Diamond, Vance Worley and Deduno are all out of options. Diamond posted a 5.79 ERA and Worley 13.50.

    The biggest disappointment, at least statistically, this spring has been Ricky Nolasco. He's got a 7.07 ERA with 19 hits allowed in 14 innings.

    The good news for Nolasco and the Twins is that it just appears to be a random streak of bad luck that happens in a small sample size, because he's allowed just one homer and has eight strikeouts against two walks. 

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    If you are looking at the MLB club, the Twins had about as successful a spring training as anyone when it comes to injuries. Their only notable setback was Pedro Florimon's appendectomy in mid-February, but he's returned to Grapefruit League games. 

    The biggest news to come out of Twins camp this spring, however, was not pleasant. Third base prospect Miguel Sano, who ranked 12th on B/R's top 100 prospects for 2014, will miss the entire 2014 season after elbow problems flared up that required Tommy John surgery. 

    Sano wasn't going to make the Twins out of spring training, but after hitting .280/.382/.610 with 35 homers in 123 games across High-A and Double-A last year, the 20-year-old had a real shot to be in Minnesota by the end of the year. 

    Now, with the missed at-bats this season and time it will take to get back in the swing of things next season, Sano's arrival likely won't happen until mid-2015 at the earliest. 

     

Lineup Preview

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Starting Lineup

    1. Aaron Hicks, CF 
    2. Brian Dozier, 2B
    3. Joe Mauer, 1B
    4. Josh Willingham, LF
    5. Oswaldo Arcia, RF
    6. Trevor Plouffe, 3B
    7. Jason Kubel, DH
    8. Kurt Suzuki, C
    9. Pedro Florimon, SS

     

    Bench

    Josmil Pinto, C
    Chris Colabello, 1B/OF
    Eduardo Escobar, IF
    Chris Parmelee, 1B/OF

     

    Analysis

    Even though the holes in Minnesota's lineup are vast, there are a few spots where the team can expect good production and three others where there is a lot of upside. 

    Starting with the sure things, Mauer will have one of his best and most consistent offensive seasons now that he no longer has to worry about catching. His numbers won't be as impressive or valuable as a first baseman, but a .300/.400/.450 player is still worth a lot to a young, rebuilding team. 

    Josh Willingham isn't going to be the player who hit .260/.366/.524 with 35 homers like he did in 2012 again, nor is he going to be as bad as the .208/.342/.368 line he had in 2013. If the Twins can keep the 35-year-old healthy and hitting .240/.340/.400 in the first half, they should look to flip him at the trade deadline for whatever they can get before the other shoe drops. 

    The rest of the lineup is largely forgettable, though Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia and Josmil Pinto have the talent and youth to ignite a spark in the lineup.

    Hicks was a disaster in 81 games last season (.192/.259/.338), but the Twins promoted him from Double-A right out of spring training before he was ready. He's a prospect with excellent raw tools who usually takes two years at a level before results start to match the potential. 

    Arcia hit 14 homers in 97 games last year. That's not an accident, either, as his ability to hit in the minors was lauded by evaluators. Baseball America (subscription required) ranked the Venezuelan as the No. 3 prospect in the Twins' system last year, behind Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. 

    "Arcia fits the right-field profile well," the report reads. "The Twins used to think he'd be a .260 hitter with power or a .300 hitter with 10-15 homers, but now they believe he can combine the best of both worlds."

    Pinto isn't the best defender behind the plate, which is likely why the Twins will give Kurt Suzuki a majority of playing time at catcher, but he knows how to hit. 

    If even one of those three young players develops this season, the Twins will have had a successful offensive season. 

Rotation Preview

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Rotation

    No. 1: Ricky Nolasco, RHP 
    No. 2: Phil Hughes, RHP
    No. 3: Kevin Correia, RHP
    No. 4: Mike Pelfrey, RHP
    No. 5: Kyle Gibson, RHP

     

    Analysis

    No team needed to supplement an area more this offseason than the Twins needed to supplement their pitching staff. They had just two starters who threw more than 150 innings (Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey), and only one pitcher with more than 100 innings had an ERA under 4.00 (Sam Deduno). 

    Twins general manager Terry Ryan addressed the team's need to add starting pitching at Nolasco's introductory press conference in December:

    As everybody knows, we've had some issues on the mound, particularly in the starting rotation, and we set out this fall to improve our ability to compete. So when Ricky filed for free agency on Nov. 2 or so, he was one of the guys we pinpointed to bring over here, and we did just that.

    Nolasco isn't a franchise-changing pitcher, but that's not what the Twins need right now. He's a valuable piece for a rotation, throwing at least 185 innings in five of the last six years. Someone dependable who can take the ball every fifth day is what Minnesota had to find, and it did. 

    Behind Nolasco, there are a lot of questions, though it's a stronger unit than what the Twins ended 2013 with. 

    Phil Hughes was a bad fit as a fly-ball pitcher in New York, where the short porch in right field is murder, but he should have better success in spacious Target Field, where those fly balls will die before hitting the warning track. 

    Correia, Pelfrey and Gibson are holdovers from last year's rotation. Gibson is the most intriguing name in the group. He was a first-round pick in 2009, is 26 years old and is ranked sixth on the last year's top 10 prospect list, according to B/R Lead Prospect Writer Mike Rosenbaum.

    Gibson allowed too much contact last season (69 hits in 51 innings), but he still has a good low-90s fastball with a solid slider. If the command comes back to pre-Tommy John level, the right-hander has the makings of a solid No. 3 starter. 

Bullpen Preview

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Projected Bullpen

    Closer: Glen Perkins, LHP 
    Setup: Jared Burton, RHP
    Setup: Samuel Deduno, RHP
    Reliever: Brian Duensing, LHP
    Reliever: Casey Fien, RHP
    Reliever: Caleb Thielbar, LHP
    Long Man: Anthony Swarzak, RHP

     

    Analysis

    Glen Perkins could have made a nice trade chip for the Twins at midseason, but the team signed him to a three-year extension through 2017 that ensures he will be a mainstay in the bullpen through his age-34 season. 

    That's a lot of years to invest in an aging reliever, even one as good as Perkins. The southpaw had a 2.30 ERA, 0.926 WHIP and 77-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season. 

    With the exception of Perkins' extension, the Twins didn't spend money to bolster their relief corps, and that's a good thing. A team staring at 90 losses shouldn't be messing with the volatile bullpen market when younger, cheaper players can get them through the season. 

    The key for Minnesota's bullpen in 2013 will be, ironically, getting some relief from the starting rotation. Twins relievers led baseball with 579.1 innings pitched last year, which makes their 3.50 ERA and 508-185 strikeout-to-walk ratio all the more impressive. 

Prospects to Watch

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Byron Buxton, OF

    Byron Buxton, baseball's top prospect, didn't have a real shot to make Minnesota's 25-man roster out of spring training. He hasn't played a game above High-A and is still growing into his frame. 

    But given the exponential trajectory of his career, as well as starting 2014 in Double-A, Buxton has a chance to be in Minnesota by the end of the year. He isn't on the 40-man roster yet, so it is probably a long shot that the 20-year-old debuts in 2014, but things can change in a hurry with a player this talented. 

     

    Alex Meyer, RHP

    Alex Meyer likely had a better chance of making the Opening Day roster than Buxton because of his experience at Double-A and advanced age (24), but he still has to work on commanding the fastball at Triple-A. 

    Like Buxton, Meyer isn't on the 40-man roster. He's going to start the year in Triple-A, and the Twins don't have stability in the back half of their rotation, so adding the 6'9" right-hander seems more likely than adding Buxton to the outfield mix. 

    The Twins did tell Meyer that his path to success requires him to mix in more off-speed stuff, so expect that to be a big point of emphasis for the young workhorse in the minors. 

     

    Josmil Pinto, C

    The one prospect assured of a spot on the Opening Day roster, Josmil Pinto is being put in a precarious position. 

    Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said after it was announced that Pinto will start in Minnesota that they are "most comfortable with him as the other catcher," per Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com.

    It's an understandable statement to make because Pinto's defense has never been an asset, but it sounds like the Twins are robbing the soon-to-be 25-year-old of precious at-bats and learning to catch in game situations. 

    The Twins know Pinto better than anyone else, so it's hard to question their methods. But a young hitter needs at-bats to fulfill his potential. 

Breakout Candidates

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Josmil Pinto, C

    If the Twins give him a chance to play in 100-120 games, Pinto can be a top-10 offensive catcher in baseball by the end of the year. 

    It's a ridiculously small sample size, but the Venezuelan backstop hit .342/.398/.566 in 21 games last year. He has a career slash line of .275/.351/.439 in the minors and has really grown into his power, with 29 homers and 58 doubles the last two years. 

    Kurt Suzuki is a superior defender behind the plate, which is why he won the starting job, but Pinto has a real chance to be the future catcher for the Twins if he gets a fair shot. 

     

    Aaron Hicks, OF

    Some players have raw tools that are so impressive you can't help but stick with them longer than you should. Aaron Hicks falls into that category, though he's hardly over the hill at 24. The Twins pushed him too fast last year, giving him the center field job out of spring training with no experience above Double-A. 

    After an 81-game tryout in 2013, Hicks is ready to take a leap forward this year. The center fielder has always been a slow starter at whatever level he's been at, but the second year ends up better. 

    He's got the ability to hit, draw walks, run and play plus defense in center field. Even with fringy power, Hicks could turn into a 2.00-3.00 WAR player this season.  

Top Keys to Success

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    1. Innings from the starting rotation

    It's been talked about numerous times in this preview already, but it can't be overstated just how important it is for the Twins to get more innings from their starting rotation in 2014. 

    For perspective on how bad the starters were in 2013, the Colorado Rockies, who play in one of the best offensive environments in baseball, were 29th in innings pitched (880.1). The Twins play in a much bigger park that's closer to sea level than the Rockies, yet they could only get 871 innings from their starters. 

    They were 28.1 innings behind the second-worst AL starting staff (Toront Blue Jays). Ricky Nolasco solves some of their problems, but someone else has to step up and provide at least 175-180 innings to avoid blowing out the bullpen by mid-August. 

     

    2. Development of Young Players

    Even though key prospects like Buxton, Alex Meyer and Max Kepler aren't going to be huge factors this year, the Twins are putting faith in a lot of youngsters who could be big parts of their future. 

    Hicks has excellent potential in center field. Buxton is going to slide into his spot next year, but Hicks could become an extremely valuable trade chip if he proves capable of hitting MLB pitching this year. 

    Arcia has to take some of the power he showed in 2013 and turn it into consistent results with the bat. As a below-average defensive outfielder, if he can't hit for average and get on base, it doesn't matter how many homers he hits. 

    Pinto just needs playing time to show the Twins what he's capable of offensively, even if it means playing him at DH so they can get rid of Jason Kubel. 

Previewing the Twins' Opening Series at White Sox

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Projected Pitching Matchups

    March 31: Ricky Nolasco vs. Chris Sale 
    April 2: Kevin Correia vs. Felipe Paulino
    April 3: Phil Hughes vs. Jose Quintana

     

    It's fitting that the Twins and Chicago White Sox open the 2014 season against each other. There was a time these were the two dominant teams in the American League Central, but both teams have been at a crossroads for a long time. 

    The Twins embraced the need to start rebuilding their farm system years ago, which is how they were able to land players like Sano, Buxton, Meyer, Kohl Stewart, Eddie Rosario and so many other high-ceiling talents that make up their bright future. 

    The White Sox tried to keep their window at the MLB level open by signing players like Adam Dunn and Orlando Hudson or trading for Alex Rios and Kevin Youkilis. 

    Chicago finally embraced its fate by drafting higher-ceiling talent in recent years, like Courtney Hawkins and Tim Anderson, though the front office is still spending money for players like Jose Abreu. 

    It's not going to be a pretty series to watch, because neither the Twins nor the White Sox are going to win much in 2014, but with Abreu debuting, Mauer still being one of the best hitters in baseball and Chris Sale being one of the most dominant left-handed pitchers in baseball, there are a number of individual storylines to watch. 

2014 Minnesota Twins Outlook

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 73-89, fifth in AL Central

    The good news is that the Twins have upgraded enough of their roster this offseason, or will when some of their prospects get brought up, that another 90-loss season doesn't appear to be in the cards. 

    The bad news, while not unexpected, is that the Twins still aren't ready to compete in the American League Central. The Detroit Tigers are still the class of the division. The Kansas City Royals aren't far behind, while the Cleveland Indians are still good enough to win 82-84 games. 

    There are some positives to take away from the Twins in 2014 that haven't been there in recent years. They are infinitely more watchable now that there is something resembling a pitching staff. Nolasco gives the Twins instant credibility, while Meyer will eventually give them an intimidating presence. 

    Minnesota's young talent already on the roster (Hicks, Oswaldo, Pinto) could push the team into the middle of the MLB in runs scored with the proper development. 

    Overall, though, there still isn't the impact talent or depth for the Twins to hang with most teams in a loaded American League. They are moving in the right direction, but 2015 will be the year you see vast improvements. 

     

    If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 


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