2014 Team Preview: The Minnesota Twins are treading water, but the future is in sight

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Twins are basically waiting on their talented farm system -- highlighted by Byron Buxton -- to reach the big league level.

The 2013 season was not easy for Minnesota Twins fans to watch. Their team finished 66-96, their third consecutive 90-loss season. They were spared the shame of finishing in last place by the Chicago White Sox, but were among the worst teams in the big leagues in many offensive and defensive categories. The front office targeted starting pitching during the offseason, signing Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes to bolster a rotation that was easily the worst in the American League. With plenty of positional talent in the minor league pipeline, the Twins should improve down the road, but 2014 may be another lost season for a franchise that was the class of the division just a few years ago.

Manager: Ron Gardenhire (13th year)

2013 record: 66-96, 4th in AL Central

SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town

Other Twins coverage: Minnesota Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press

First series vs. Tigers: April 25-27 @ Target Field

Lineup

The biggest change to the Twins' everyday lineup will not come from a free agent, trade, or promising young rookie. Instead, the Twins made the sensible decision to move Joe Mauer to first base on a full-time basis. While Mauer put up some staggering numbers behind the plate -- he's arguably a top five catcher all-time already -- the position change will help prolong his career and keep him on the lineup card everyday. He will be in the field most days with Jason Kubel serving as the primary designated hitter. Kubel has the typical platoon splits you would expect from a lefty power bat, and the DH options behind him aren't promising. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe struggled to follow up his 24-homer 2012 season, slugging just .392 in 522 plate appearances.

Up the middle, Brian Dozier and Pedro Florimon will form the Twins' primary double play combination for the second straight season. Dozier flourished in a move from short to second base, hitting .244/.312/.414 with 18 home runs and 14 stolen bases in 623 plate appearances. He was also a net positive defensively, amassing 2.8 fWAR. Florimon was worth 1.3 fWAR, nearly all of which came from his glove. He posted a .273 wOBA and 68 wRC+, and still ended up being one of three Twins position players with 1.0 fWAR or more. Utility infielder Eduardo Escobar is still in the fold, though he fared no better than Florimon at the plate.

After using Mauer and Ryan Doumit in part-time catcher roles last season, some semblance of consistency will be present in 2014. Kurt Suzuki will be the starter early on, with promising youngster Josmil Pinto learning under his wing. Pinto was excellent in a September call-up last season, hitting .342/.398/.566 in 83 September plate appearances. Suzuki was a disappointment with the Washington Nationals last year, but went 10-for-33 with a pair of home runs after being traded to the Oakland A's in August. Suzuki has always been a glove-first catcher, but may hit second in the Twins' lineup during the season. Pinto's glove is still a work in progress, but should continue to progress under Suzuki's tutelage.

Center fielder Aaron Hicks had a rough go during his first big league season in 2013, hitting .192/.259/.338 with a 26.8% strikeout rate. Of course, striking out three times against Justin Verlander in your big league debut can't be great for your confidence, so 2014 is an opportunity for Hicks to turn the page. Oswaldo Arcia contributed 14 home runs and 43 RBI in 97 games as a rookie, but struck out in 31% of his plate appearances. Defensive metrics were harsh on his glove -- small sample caveats apply -- resulting in a -0.4 WAR season. Josh Willingham was unable to replicate his surprising 35 homer season from 2012, but a 14% walk rate helped him contribute a .322 wOBA and 102 wRC+.

Rotation

A season after parting with young outfielder Ben Revere in exchange for Vance Worley, who started on Opening Day for the Twins in 2013, the club has parted ways with Worley, sending him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for cash considerations. In his place on Opening Day 2014 will be Ricky Nolasco, who signed a four year, $49 million contract with the club this offseason. Nolasco put up a 3.70 ERA and 3.34 FIP in 33 combined starts for the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers, but was passed over for Clayton Kershaw on short rest during the NLDS due to a late season slump. Nolasco has historically underperformed his peripherals -- he was worth 4.1 fWAR in 2009 despite a 5.06 ERA -- and 2013 was the first time since 2008 that he allowed a sub-4.00 ERA.

Slotting behind Nolasco is Phil Hughes, who received $24 million over three years from the Twins this offseason. Hughes wore out his welcome with the New York Yankees, allowing a 4.53 ERA in seven seasons. He has always struggled with the home run ball, but a new home park may pay big dividends. Of the 112 home runs he has allowed in his career 76 came at the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. I relentlessly mocked the Twins' decision to sign Kevin Correia to a multi-year contract last year, but Correia stuck it to the haters with a 1.3 fWAR season in 2013. His 4.18ERA was slightly below league average, but his 185 1/3 innings were by far the best on the club. If he can replicate those numbers in 2014, his $10 million contract was a bargain.

Mike Pelfrey got off to a rough start in 2013 after missing the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, but settled in after a couple of awful months. From June 1st onward, Pelfrey posted a 4.44 ERA in 101 1/3 innings. He did a good job of limiting home runs during that stretch, coughing up just seven gopher balls in the final four months of the year. His 3.99 FIP from last year is more indicative of what to expect in 2014. Kyle Gibson earned the fifth spot in the rotation after allowing four earned runs in 16 1/3 innings this spring. He dominated the International League in 2013 -- his third go-round in Triple-A -- but struggled in a short stint in the big leagues.

The Twins sported one of the better bullpens in the American League last season, ranking fourth in ERA and fifth in fWAR, largely thanks to the second-lowest walk rate in the league. Closer Glen Perkins led the way, totaling a 2.30 ERA and 2.49 FIP while saving 36 games. He signed a four year contract extension during the offseason worth just over $22 million with a team option for the 2018 season. Right-hander Casey Fien led the pen with a 6.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while Anthony Swarzak ate 96 big innings with a 2.91 ERA. Jared Burton, Brian Duensing, and Caleb Thielbar were also net positives, while World Baseball Classic hero Samuel Deduno will be the long reliever and sixth starter. It isn't the best bullpen in the AL, but it is an above average group with the ability to absorb a lot of innings left behind by the starters.

This is the part where I am legally obligated to mention Byron Buxton in a Twins preview

Buxton, the top prospect in the game according to anyone and everyone rating baseball prospects this year, will begin the year on the disabled list with a wrist injury. This, coupled with losing top-10 prospect Miguel Sano to Tommy John surgery, has repercussions that could be felt at the big league level. Even if a prospect plays for most of the year, a nagging injury can essentially result in a "lost" season for the player's development. The St. Louis Cardinals are going through this with Oscar Taveras, who dealt with an ankle injury in 2013. Buxton has rocketed through the minors so far, but a significant setback could delay his big league timetable by a year, further jeopardizing the window that the Twins have of combining their strong farm system with Joe Mauer's elite bat.

Player to watch: Brian Dozier

Dozier's 2013 season was an interesting rebound from 2012, when he was worth -0.5 fWAR in 84 games. He moved from shortstop to second base, where his glove plays better. He also saw little improvement in his batting average, but nearly doubled his walk rate and hit 18 home runs. His overall numbers look like a poor man's Dan Uggla -- before the move to Atlanta -- but Dozier's minor league pedigree suggests that he isn't quite the three true outcomes player he was in 2013. He may want to consider a permanent transition to his power hitting ways, as his 2.8 fWAR ranked eighth among all big league second basemen last year, ahead of guys like Ian Kinsler and Brandon Phillips.

Outlook

The Twins may have one of the best farm systems in baseball -- including the consensus top prospect in all the land -- but their major league roster is far from competitive on paper. The bullpen is good, but the rotation is hoping for a lot of bounce-back seasons and the lineup will struggle to score runs. It will take another year or two before the Twins are ready to compete, and by that point there is no telling what kind of shape Joe Mauer will be in. With other AL Central teams working more aggressively to improve in a faster time frame -- looking at you, Chicago -- the Twins may be looking at a run of lower division finishes unless things change in Minneapolis.

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