Playing Pepper 2014: Minnesota Twins

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Minnesota Twins
66-96, fourth in the AL Central

It’s been three long seasons in the Twin Cities, with the high water mark of 66 wins over that span.  A hard fall from a team that won the division back-to-back seasons before this winning outage.

Will this year be different?  Will there be more to cheer about at Target Field?  Or will the All-Star Game being held there be the highlight of the season?

The Twins might not put the best product on the field, but in the blogosphere, they are a powerful force.  With us today are:

Quick note: Most, if not all, of these answers were submitted before Miguel Sano was diagnosed as needing season-ending Tommy John surgery.  Please keep that in mind when reading the below.

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

KSWF: B+. I’m a generous grader, but the Twins went out and addressed their biggest need and spent a lot of money in the process. Adding Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes takes away two giant question marks and shores up the rotation for a number of years. The Twins have been bad for three years, but I don’t feel that they have to fix everything in one Winter. They addressed young, hard-throwing starting pitching last offseason and have moved toward adding more reliable veterans this offseason. They also re-upped the extremely popular Mike Pelfrey. Sorry, I’m confusing tall for popular again.

NDTF: I would give the Twins a B for the offseason. The Twins were very aggressive early in the offseason free agent market with the signings of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. There was talk of bringing in one of the top free agent catchers but that market dried up quickly and the Twins had to settle for Kurt Suzuki. Minnesota is also hoping Jason Kubel can rekindle some of his offensive magic as the team struggled to score runs a year ago. Other than that, there will be a lot of waiting for top prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton to make their debuts.

PP: I’ll have to give the Twins a B. The improvements to the starting rotation are huge and much needed. Kind of disappointed the Twins didn’t get a bigger name than Kurt Suzuki to take over behind the plate, but saving the money is for the best.

TIS: B-. Addressed the rotation issues, but this lineup needs work.

TFFA: I’d give this offseason a B-. To be sure, things couldn’t have gotten much worse for the Twins. But to his credit, Terry Ryan addressed some of the starting pitching issues early on by adding veterans Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. Those were the big moves, and they happened early. The problem is, though, that the Twins were so bad that even adding all that money in decent free agents likely won’t make the team that much better. I’ll also give Ryan credit for sticking to his guns on the rebuild: the Twins have one of the best farm systems in baseball, and Ryan didn’t give up any prospects in a trade. So in short, some good moves were made, but we’re still looking at a team with some significant holes.

TT: I would give the Twins a B. They had a lot of holes to fill, primarily with the starting staff and they went out and spent some free agent money to sign Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes and resigned Mike Pelfrey who I am not a big fan of but at least he showed some signs of life last year. Kurt Suzuki is a good sign for the back-up catching role although it sounds as if the Twins plan him to be the starter, at least in the early part of the season while Josmil Pinto plays in AAA Rochester sharpening his catching skills.

C70: Will the switch to first base pay dividends or cause any issues for Joe Mauer?

KSWF: Yes. It will pay dividends because he should be able to play more games than he has in the past. Mauer has averaged just 123 games over the past five seasons and I would imagine he’ll approach 155 in 2014, if he can stay healthy. Mauer makes outs at one of the lowest rates in the Majors, so having his bat in the lineup for 30 extra games will be a huge boost to the offense. It won’t cause issues for Mauer, but it will cause issues for me as I’ll be constantly tempted to put my head through my computer screen when I read about how Mauer doesn’t hit enough home runs to play first. I have good health insurance though.

NDTF: I love the fact that Mauer will be able to be in the line-up on a more consistent basis. For a career .323/.405/.468 hitter, this is good news for Twins Territory. He has shown the athleticism to play first base in previous years and he could be a Gold Glove caliber defender at his new position. On the negative side, he won’t be working with the pitching staff on a regular basis and this could hurt the organization. He has also seen an increase in strikeouts in recent years and this trend could continue as he might try to increase his power numbers with his shift to a corner infield spot.

PP: Dividends. My theory is keeping one of the best hitters in baseball on the field is the best for thing for the Twins. Mauer not getting a tip off the helmet every other inning will be huge in giving the Twins a boost in the coming seasons.

TIS: Will pay dividends

TFFA: I think it will pay dividends. Like any other athlete, Joe Mauer plays best when he’s healthy, and catching obviously took quite a toll on him over the years. Sometimes I wondered how he got through an entire season, still managing to hit .320 or so with some power, after the beating he took behind that plate. Now, playing first base, Mauer’s knees, legs and head will get a significant reprieve. Instead of struggling to play 140 games, I expect he’ll play in excess of 150 (barring an injury). I also suspect the wear-and-tear will be dramatically decreased. Yea, he’s not going to hit 30 home runs, but having that bat in the lineup nearly every game, and having his entire body healthy, is huge. This is a guy that can still bat over .300 and reach base over 40 percent of the time.

TT: Dividends, big dividends. Mauer will be able to stay healthy at first and I would expect 145-150 games out of him and if he plays that many games, he will put up some nice numbers. Not power, but still he can knock in 100 runs with his doubles if the Twins get on base for him.

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

KSWF: Just like last year, I’ll say the battle for center will be the most intriguing. Aaron Hicks was one of the worst hitters in baseball in 2013. He lost his job to Clete Thomas, which is a lot like having your pants repeatedly fall down during a wedding or some other stuffy service. Then, the Twins traded Justin Morneau for Alex Presley and inserted him as the starter for September. He played reasonably well, as Alex Presley is wont to do. However, Hicks is a far superior talent and much more likely to emerge as a star. Unfortunately, Hicks won the centerfield job because of an amazing Spring in 2013, and that didn’t turn out great. I hope Hicks wins the job, but I’m 99% sure Presley will. Still, if Hicks hits .400 in Spring again…

NDTF: The battle for the fifth spot in the rotation will be one of the most intriguing to watch. Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Kevin Correia, and Mike Pelfrey should occupy spots one through four. This leaves a variety of pitchers for the number five spot. Scott Diamond and Vance Worley both struggled last season and they are each out of minor league options. If neither wins a spot in the rotation, the team might have to make room for them in the bullpen. World Baseball Classic star Sam Deduno looked good for stretches last season and he might be the leader for the fifth spot going into spring training. Young pitchers like Kyle Gibson, Alex Meyer, and Trevor May could have an outside chance but they are more likely to end up in Triple-A.

PP: Not many roster battles to speak of for the Twins. The team didn’t add too many positions players to make any competitions. There is a little flexibility in what might happen in the outfield, but that’s it. We’re all waiting to see if Jason Kubel makes the Opening Day roster and mainly for 2015 and beyond.

TIS: The fifth spot on the rotation. 3 pitchers without options (Deduno, Diamond, Worley) fighting for one spot. Lots of drama.

TFFA: I’m most interested in the catcher battle. Josmil Pinto, who I watched in 2013 with the New Britain Rock Cats, will get a look, but Ron Gardenhire has indicated that new Twin Kurt Suzuki likely will get the nod as the starting catcher. I’d like to see Pinto get the chance to compete for the starting job. Pinto turned heads last year at AA New Britain, AAA Rochester, and in a September call-up at Target Field. With a strong Spring Training, he’ll at least make Gardenhire and the front office have to justify giving the job to Suzuki — who is a capable veteran, but who likely will not be a member of the next “good” Twins team.

TT: For me it is shortstop, Pedro Florimon can field but has no skills with the bat. I have watched free agent signee and former Twin Jason Bartlett and I think he will give Florimon a run for his money even if he is 34 years of age. He does not have Florimon’s range but he is a smart shortstop.

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

KSWF: There are a lot of possible choices, which excites me as a Twins fan. Josmil Pinto is still considered a rookie and he looked great last September. Miguel Sano and Alex Meyer are both top prospects on the verge of MLB jobs. Byron Buxton is superhuman and can do…well, anything it seems. The safe pick is Michael Tonkin, as he appears to have a full-time job in the bullpen and he’s quite talented. Even so, I’m going to pick Sano because I really want it to be him. Science! Honestly, Sano has crushed at every level and he might have the talent to hit 30 home runs in the Majors this coming season. Sano also has the easiest path to a job, as he’s close to MLB-ready and the Twins’ current third baseman (Trevor Plouffe) has had his share of struggles and injuries.

That said, if Buxton somehow reaches the Majors in May, he’ll probably win the AL MVP and get elected to the Hall of Fame somehow.

NDTF: After a strong showing in his September call-up, Josmil Pinto should be in line to take on a more permanent role with the club in 2014. He hit .342/.398/.566 with nine extra-base hits over 21 games. There are still some questions about his defense and this is likely why he will start the year at Rochester. He’s played more games at the big league level than at the Triple-A level. If he finds early season success in Rochester, he could come up a couple months into the season and split catching time with Kurt Suzuki.

PP: Miguel Sano. There’s a great chance that he’ll be making his major league debut in 2014 and that’s what Twins fans are really looking towards this season. Even if Sano doesn’t make a huge impact on his particular season, he just signals the long awaited future for the Twins.

TIS: Josmil Pinto (Arcia is not a rookie any more)

TFFA: Alex Meyer. No — not Byron Buxton, not Miguel Sano, and not Pinto. The Twins need power pitching, and Meyer is a power pitcher with potential “ace” status. He’ll likely start 2014 at AAA Rochester, but there is room for him in the Twins’ rotation as soon as he is ready. Yes, Buxton is the best prospect in baseball, and Sano could hit 40 home runs a year, but Meyer is the only pitcher in the Twins’ system (who is close to ready) that profiles as a #1 starter. I’m anxious to see his MLB debut.

TT: It will not be out of spring training but 3B Miguel Sano will be up by Memorial Day and he will hit a ton of home runs. I also think that Aaron Hicks will surprise some folks in 2014 after his dismal performance in 2013.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

KSWF: 74-88, 4th in the Central. I think the Twins are better than they were last season. They added two Major League-caliber starters, they should get better seasons from veterans like Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham, and they could get big contributions from a bevy of young players with immense talent. The bullpen is shockingly solid and the rotation is much improved. If the Twins don’t have to go 12 deep with starters this season, that should add a few wins. Development from young players could add a few more. An eight-game improvement is a big jump, but I really like what the team has done and I think the young core of this franchise is going to be ready to contribute by the end of the season. Also, the White Sox are terrible.

NDTF: 73-89, 4th place in the AL Central.

PP: 75-87. Fourth Place. This may be a little hopeful, but since it’s Spring Training I’m unhealthy optimistic. I have made it clear that if the Twins lose 90-plus games again that I’m going to start covering your Cardinals.

TIS: Third. 81-81.

TFFA: The Twins will be better than they were in 2014, but not a whole lot better. I think they’ll win 73 games and will finish last in the AL Central. I’ve set 2016 as the year where the Twins could conceivably compete for the division. They are still in the rebuild process, though fans should be starting to see the benefits of the rebuild pretty soon.

TT: I think the Twins will be a surprise team and finish in 3rd place with a 81-81 record.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

KSWF: This is an excellent question! My choice is Joe Mauer. Mauer is an excellent hitter and he makes it look so easy. For anyone who has tried to hit a baseball, it’s not nearly as easy as Mauer makes it look. Mauer doesn’t give away any at-bats, which is usually a cliché, but it just happens to be true with Mauer. He knows what he can do and he doesn’t try to do anything more than that. Lucky for Twins fans, what Mauer can do really helps a baseball team win. He was fun to watch as a catcher and I look forward to seeing what a natural he will probably be at first.

Honorable Mention goes to Oswaldo Arcia because he plays with a lot of passion and I love how aggressive he is. Plus, he’s an adventure in the outfield.

NDTF: Twins closer Glen Perkins. I love the way he has developed from first round pick to failed starter to one of the best relievers in the American League. He also does some great things for the Twin Cities community so that helps his stock. Overall, he is a great player on the field and an even better person off of it.

PP: Joe Mauer. He’s the hometown boy, so everybody loves him, but people who really know baseball will acknowledge that Mauer is freaky good. Mauer is one of the best pure hitters in the game and will soon enough be a Hall of Famer. Might as well enjoy Mauer being the best player on the team while it lasts, a lot of folks are projecting Byron Buxton will be excellent (floor of Torii Hunter and a ceiling of Willie Mays!!!)

TIS: Joe Mauer (in the majors).

TFFA: Of the current Twins, I’d still say Mauer. I never tire of watching him hit. He’s one of the best hitters of this generation of ballplayers. Of the “Future Twins,” many of whom I’ve seen play a bunch in New Britain, I’d say Sano. His power is electrifying. He loves the game. He’s still a kid, and his joy is palpable and contagious.

TT: Right now the player I enjoy watching the most is 2B Brian Dozier. A former shortstop, this guy has turned into a gold glove second baseman with pop in his bat and a never give up attitude. He needs to improve his OBP but I think he can do that.

My thanks to everyone who participated in this project.  There’s no doubt the future is going to be brighter for the Twins, assuming everyone can hold on until they get there!

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