2013 record: 66-96
Finish: Fourth place, AL Central
2013 final payroll: $76.1 million (24th of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $83 million (21st of 30)
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 28th
Twins in six words: Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano: Come soon!
The dumpster fire that was the 2013 Minnesota Twins will not take an eensy-weensy extinguisher to squelch. To wash away those final smoldering pieces of rot necessitates an industrial-power hose, some nose plugs and a cleanup crew that extends far beyond three starting pitchers who are likelier Band-Aids than solutions.
Let it be said: The Twins' starting rotation is better today than it was last season, which optimists see as marked improvement and pessimists as damning with faint praise considering 2013 marked the second consecutive season Twins starters finished the year with an ERA above 5.25.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey all fall into a vague archetype: the right-hander who should be better. Nolasco's ERA never has matched its peripherals. Hughes' best season by far came out of the bullpen. Pelfrey found 95 mph again last season, his first after Tommy John surgery, but still didn't strike anyone out.
Considering what the Twins' rotation looked like last year, if even one of them hits – and considering they spent $81 million on the three, that's certainly the hope – it will put the Twins in better position than last season's horrow show. Midnight struck and Scott Diamond turned into zircon. The smoke cleared and mirrors shattered after Drew Albers' second outing. Eleven pitchers logged starts for the Twins, and the only one with better-than-average adjusted ERA was Sam Deduno, who missed the final month following shoulder surgery. The team's two best – and, arguably, most valuable – pitchers were closer Glen Perkins and long reliever Anthony Swarzak. Championships are not won by losing the first six innings of a game.
The rest of the Twins' offseason mirrored their relative austerity during what has been a long and trying rebuild. The flush Twins of Target Field's opening – three straight $100 million-plus payrolls from 2010-2012 – have yielded to financial restraint along with a predilection to avoid giving up draft picks for signing free agents. None of the three pitchers came with compensation, nor did their other major league signing, catcher Kurt Suzuki.
Ultimately, the most important move this offseason may not concern any of the signings, the minor league pickups (familiar faces Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett) nor the trade of utilityman Ryan Doumit to Atlanta for fringe pitching prospect Sean Gilmartin. Joe Mauer leaving behind catching duties for full-time duty at first base is the right move for his health. Whether it allows him to stay healthy and play 150 games for the first time in his career is the question, as is whether his brilliant bat can produce enough for him to be a $23 million-a-year player for the next five seasons at a position with minimal defensive value.
For those who follow the Twins, the upcoming months do not so much constitute a season as a countdown. This year will be separated into two eras: B.P. and A.P. – or before prospects and after prospects.
Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano represent so much more to the Twins than their future center fielder and third baseman. In a farm system that has struggled to produce any impact talent, they are the game's best overall prospect and best power-hitting prospect. For a team with a lineup that could threaten to score the fewest runs in the league, they are future No. 2 and 4 hitters around whom the Twins can sandwich Mauer. Considering the doldrums the thriving franchise of the 2000s has endured, they are hope.
And while there is more on the farm for Minnesota in the lightning Texas arm of 19-year-old Kohl Stewart and the monstrous 6-foot-9 frame of right-hander Alex Meyer and the unlikely power stuff of right-hander J.O. Berrios, much of the Twins' prospects rest on its top two prospects, the sort for which any franchise would do dastardly things.
Buxton balances tremendous bat-to-ball ability with keen plate discipline, burgeoning power, an elite arm, game-changing speed and strong route running. If there is a Mike Trout 2.0, he is it, though because of his lithe body, a better comparison is Eric Davis. Sano is a monster, 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds now, and has hit the ball a mile since his early teens. He will win a home run crown someday. The only question about him is whether he can stay at third long-term, and the way his bat plays, it doesn't really matter.
Sure, there are other facets of the Twins' season beyond their arrival, especially considering Buxton just turned 20 last month and at earliest will head north midsummer and Sano can't legally drink until May. There is the Mauer move to first, the hope that Brian Dozier's solid season at second wasn't a fluke and Pedro Florimon might be a solution at shortstop and a full season of Oswaldo Arcia will translate into 25-plus home runs a club like this desperately needs. Should they all thrive and Josh Willingham stay healthy, the Twins may have a shot at respectability, though the top-heavy AL Central may have something to say about that.
The two biggest questions, beyond "When does Buxton arrive?" and "When does Sano get here?", are about other prospects. Can Meyer really fulfill his top-end potential? What about Trevor May, the centerpiece of the Ben Revere deal, or Kyle Gibson, the former first-round pick who's finally fully healthy after Tommy John surgery? And even more curious: Did the failure of center-field prospect Aaron Hicks last season torpedo either his confidence or the Twins' confidence in him, and can he return ready for a major league job at which he flopped last season?
This is a fascinating season for Minnesota, one on which GM Terry Ryan will look back as a seminal one in his second rebuild with the organization. The first unleashed an AL Central dynasty. If this one can come anywhere close, it's another rousing success.
Then the baseball gods said to Terry Ryan, "I will rain down talent from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and marvel at him enough for that day." And Ryan said to all the Twins fans, "In the evening you will know it was the baseball gods who brought you out of last place, and in the morning you will see the glory of the baseball gods, because they have heard your grumbling against them. And they have given you Byron Buxton." And everybody said amen.
To skewer walleye, pork chops,
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