After a third straight 90-plus-loss season, general manager Terry Ryan wasted no time executing the offseason makeover of the Minnesota Twins.
Holes in the everyday lineup remain, but Ryan went full bore to address his biggest concern, the starting rotation.
The Twins signed Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million contract and added another right-hander, former Yankees' starter Phil Hughes, to a three-year, $24 million deal. The two pitchers move right to the top of the Twins rotation, already considered an improvement over last season.
Nolasco's four-year deal (which has a fifth-year vesting provision) is a long deal when it comes to Twins signings. Nolasco became the most expensive free agent in team history. But both parties are looking forward to the 30-year old pitcher fulfilling the contract. The Twins needed to improve the staff, and Nolasco is a strikeout pitcher with a long record of durability.
"He has a lot of ability," Ryan said. "He can strike people out. He doesn't walk people. He competes. He's very dependable. He pounds out innings. And also his character and the way he is as a teammate all add up to what we were looking for."
The Hughes deal was formally announced two days after Nolasco's signing and demonstrated Ryan's rotation-improvement focus.
The 27-year-old Hughes brings experience, having pitched in the pressure cooker of Yankee stadium, but perhaps more potential for improvement.
"I don't think I am a finished product," Hughes said. "I think I can still get better, and I am not going to come here and hope the ballpark creates better numbers for me. I know I have to do things better on my end and I'm excited for the opportunity to do that here."
Ryan recalled that Hughes was particularly effective against the Twins, but that is not what attracted him to the former New Yorker.
"He throws hard; he can really spin a ball," Ryan said. "He's got a good feel for his slider. He throws it over. He's got a pretty good pace about his approach. All we've got to do is make sure that he's healthy. Now, he's had some back issues but he checked out medically, so we're alright there. He's got stuff, he's young, he's strong, so, let's go."
Where Ryan goes from here isn't set in stone, but he was still kicking the tires on pitching at the Winter Meetings this week.
The Twins didn't offer a long enough contract to lure former Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The Twins offered a two-year deal and Saltalamacchia signed with the Marlins for three years.
The Twins also missed on A.J. Pierzynski, who signed with Boston to replace Saltalamacchia. The Twins are continuing to look for a seasoned catcher to lead a crew of younger players (Josmil Pinto and Chris Herrmann) who platooned there last season in Mauer's concussion-related absence.
Moving Mauer to first shakes up the Twins lineup. But multiple variables remain.
Ryan contended that he wasn't done overhauling the roster after the Nolasco and Hughes signings.
--RHP Mike Pelfrey re-signed with the Minnesota Twins with a two-year, $11 million contract. Pelfrey's new deal includes $3.5 million in performance-based incentives. The 29-year-old posting a 5-13 record with a 5.19 ERA in 152 2/3 innings spanning 29 starts. Pelfrey has a 55-67 career record with a 4.50 ERA in 1,049 innings.
--RHP Kevin Thomas was selected by the Twins in the Rule 5 draft from Cardinals' Double-A roster. Thomas, 27, is a reliever who went 6-4 with one save and a 3.00 ERA last season in Double-A and Triple-A combined. He struck out 11.4 batters per nine innings.
--LHP James Fuller was selected by the Twins from the Mets' minor league system in the Rule 5 draft. Fuller, 26, is a 5-foot-10 reliever with a live arm but issues with his command. A 21st-round pick from Southern Connecticut State in 2008, he had 3.24 ERA in 25 outings in Class A and Double-A this year.
--RHP Tim Atherton, who was on the Twins' Double-A New Britain roster, was selected by the Athletics in the Rule 5 draft. The Twins lost no one to a major league roster in the draft.
--C/1B Joe Mauer's days behind the plate are done. After a concussion that ended his season with six weeks remaining, the decision was made to move him to first base. Mauer was declared symptom-free in November, and he began preparing for the position transition.
--3B Miguel Sano injured his right (throwing) elbow playing winter ball and was shut down Oct. 19. He will be re-evaluated in late December, according to general manager Terry Ryan. Ryan did not rule out surgery for Sano.
--3B Trevor Plouffe's salary is set to quadruple to near $2 million for the 2014 season and that figure, plus his less-than-stellar 2013 season defense, put him in the hot seat with Sano rising in the ranks. But the uncertainty of Sano's injured elbow may work in Plouffe's favor.
--RHP Sam Deduno, who was one of the few positives on the Twins' pitching staff in 2013, was in Fort Myers, Fla., playing catch in mid-December following offseason shoulder surgery. His rehab from the shoulder procedure is going as scheduled. The Twins expect him to be ready for spring camp.
--RHP Nick Blackburn's days as a Twin may be over. Blackburn, who underwent surgery in August to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, may have to sit out a large chunk of the 2014 season. He missed the 2013 season due to several injuries, and the Twins made the decision to decline his $8 million option in October. Several teams were showing interest in the 31-year-old free agent.
--RHP Liam Hendriks, designated for assignment by the Twins on Dec. 5, was claimed off waivers by the Cubs on Dec. 13. The signings of RHPs Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes made Hendiks expendable in Minnesota. Hendriks, 24, made 10 appearances (eight starts) last season with the Twins, going 1-3 with a 6.85 ERA.
--2B Eddie Rosario, a top prospect for the Twins, received a 50-game suspension for a positive drug test, according to a report by the SportLivePR.com. According to Rosario's manager in Puerto Rico, Frankie Thon, Rosario reportedly "hurt his arm and took some pills" before testing positive. Rosario can continue to play in Puerto Rico but will have to serve his suspension when the 2014 regular season begins. Rosario, 22, hit .302/.350/.460 with 10 homers and 73 RBIs in 122 games in Class A and Double-A last season.
--OF Byron Buxton (strained left shoulder) was injured swinging a bat in the Arizona Fall league. He was shut down after 12 games in early November, but the injury does not appear to be serious. Buxton, 19, hit a combined .334/.424/.520 with 12 homers and 77 RBIs in 125 games in Class A this year. He was the second overall pick in the 2012 draft.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We are always looking for pitching, and just because we signed two guys doesn't mean that we couldn't use a few more. But there are a few other guys position-wise that we have our eyes on. We're still trying here, so we will continue to look. Actually, it's early in the offseason, so there is a lot of time to continue to work and build this roster." -- General manager Terry Ryan, at the winter meetings.
With the midseason trade of Justin Morneau and his contract coming off the books, the Twins had plenty of money for use in the free agent market. They spent much of it on two free agent right-handers, Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. While Minnesota spent some money the past two seasons, general manager Terry Ryan believes building should happen from within -- and he has a loaded farm system to back him up. The Twins need to do both, bring up some hot prospects and to add to veteran leaders who can help them win next season, or there will be no one in the seats to watch those young players when they finally do make it to the big leagues.
BIGGEST NEEDS: The Twins could use an established leadoff hitter (they struggled all season to find one), and they should add some power to the middle of the order in the absence of 1B Justin Morneau and struggles of OF Josh Willingham.
ARRIVALS: RHP Ricky Nolasco (free agent from Dodgers), RHP Phil Hughes (free agent from Yankees), LHP Kris Johnson (trade with Pirates)
DEPARTURE: RHP Liam Hendriks (claimed off waivers by Cubs)
FREE AGENT: RHP Nick Blackburn
Blackburn spent the entire season in minor leagues recovering from a couple injuries. If he comes back it will have to be at a significantly reduced price from his previous deal ($3.5 million per season). Blackburn's time as a Twin may be done.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: 3B Trevor Plouffe, LHP Brian Duensing, RHP Josh Roenicke, RHP Anthony Swarzak
Plouffe should be back for his bat, but needs to be looking over his shoulder at top prospect Miguel Sano this spring. Plouffe's offense rebounded in September, but his defense at third is still a question mark. Middle relievers Duensing and Swarzak performed well this season (as did the bullpen as a whole), but they may not be satisfied with more of the same role next season. The Twins may take a look at them as starters, but they should both be back. Roenicke, meanwhile, had an okay season, and ultimately did his job when called upon. The Twins aren't going to be eager to lose anyone from a bullpen staff that has been a team strength for the past few seasons.
IN LIMBO: LF Josh Willingham, LHP Glen Perkins
Willingham has one year left on his three-year, $21 million deal. His name was mentioned in trade talks until he injured his knee. If he rebounds after a down season, the trade talk could start up again. Plenty of teams called about Perkins (who is signed through 2015) before the trade deadline, but the Twins weren't interested in parting with him them and won't be going forward. A big season in 2013 might warrant a raise for Perkins, so keeping an eye on his situation is advised.
--LHP Glen Perkins (arthroscopic right knee surgery in October 2013) should be ready for spring training.
--OF Darin Mastroianni (left ankle surgery in October 2013) is expected to be fully healed in time for spring training.
--C Joe Mauer (concussion) missed the season's final six weeks. He was symptom-free by mid-November, but the Twins announced that he would move to first base in 2014 in a bid to keep him healthy.
--RHP Samuel Deduno (arthroscopic right shoulder in September 2013) faces a recovery time of a few months, but he should be good to go for spring training.
--3B Miguel Sano (strained ulnar collateral ligament in right elbow) was shut down Oct. 19. He will be re-evaluated in late December, according to GM Terry Ryan. Sano might need surgery.
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