AL Central Preview: Ervin Santana, Torii Hunter Can’t Fix Mediocre Twins

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Spring training is almost here, and the Indians aren’t the only team headed to camp with playoff aspirations. When the season begins in April, 76 of the Tribe’s 162 games will be played against their AL Central rivals. So what exactly has the rest of the division been up to this winter, and how much of a threat are they to Cleveland’s playoff chances?

Today, we’ll look at the Minnesota Twins.

2014 Record: 70-92
Biggest issue heading into the off-season: A pitching staff that gave up the most hits, struck out the fewest batters, and had the sixth-worth team FIP in major league baseball.

The Twins are an interesting club, in the way that bad teams with great prospects lurking in the shadows are interesting. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano aren’t quite ready for the major leagues, making Minnesota the kind of team that can be all but counted out this year. However, that doesn’t mean the Twins didn’t try to shake things up this off-season.

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Changes at the Helm
After 13 seasons, the Twins’ organization finally tired of Ron Gardenhire’s leadership. He will be replaced by Hall-of-Famer Paul Molitor, who spent last season as a fielding and base-running coach for the team. Regardless of how much control a manager has over a team’s performance, it will be interesting to see what kind of strategy changes Molitor implements now that he is in charge. The Twins are expecting him to utilize more aggressive tactics than Gardenhire did, based on his coaching performance in 2014.

The team credited Molitor with increasing the amount of shifting that the defense used last season, as well as improving their base-running. Last April, the Minnesota native spoke with the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ Mike Berardino about the need to use all available statistical information and extend players’ comfort zones in order to create the best possible outcome. If he continues to stand by that philosophy, he’ll probably be a much better manager for the Twins than Gardenhire has been recently.

Defensive Liabilities
While the Kansas City Royals were busy making good defense look like an art form last season, the Twins were doing the exact opposite of that. It hasn’t gotten any better this winter. Torii Hunter might have been a stellar outfielder at one point, but currently, he’s become old, and old players just don’t run fast enough to cover the Twins’ outfield. Their best defender is probably Brian Dozier, who’s not exactly a Gold Glove caliber second baseman. Even if the Twins had a great pitching staff, they would still be relying on guys like Trevor Plouffe, Oswaldo Arcia and Edwin Escobar to make key plays.

What Minnesota might have, however, is a pretty solid lineup. Mauer’s performance at the plate shouldn’t really decline from his .277/.361/.371 season. Plouffe is further removed from the injuries that hindered his bat, and it’s possible that he’ll become the player the Twins have always expected him to be. Dozier proved to be one of the more reliable offensive second basemen in the league, and for all that he lacks on defense, Hunter should be able to swing the bat as well as he has in recent seasons. With the Tigers in 2014, Hunter hit .286/.319/.446 with 17 home runs.

Sep 24, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Phil Hughes (45) pitches in the eighth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Regression is likely for Danny Santana, who hit .319/.353/.472 with 7 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 430 plate appearances. Santana had one of the highest BABIP’s in recent history, so despite his stellar rookie year, it would be pretty unlikely for him to repeat such phenomenal numbers. A decline is also likely for Kurt Suzuki, who played much better than anyone expected when he took over behind the plate. Although it isn’t enough to carry the club to a playoff berth, the Twins’ lineup should be a fairly reliable part of the team.

Another Year of Mediocre Starters
Signing Ervin Santana was a pretty bold move for the Twins, given their chances for pulling off a winning season. With the Braves last season, he earned a 3.39 FIP and struck out 21.9 percent of batters while walking 7.7 percent. He’ll join Phil Hughes, who finished the year with a surprisingly-low 2.65 FIP, at the top of the rotation. Ricky Nolasco and Kyle Gibson, who were fairly unpredictable in 2014, will fill in the three and four slots. The final rotation spot should come down to a battle between Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey, Alex Meyer and Trevor May, with Pelfrey and Milone having both the most experience and the least upside. The rotation will have to find a way to work around the poor defense, which might be especially hard for Santana after pitching in front of the Braves’ phenomenal fielders last season.

In the bullpen, Glen Perkins will be back as closer, along with several other familiar faces. Right-hander Casey Fien and lefties Brian Duensing and Caleb Thielbar will reprise their roles from last season. The Twins also signed right-hander Tim Stauffer, who had a 3.02 FIP and a 24.5 percent strikeout rate for the San Diego Padres last season. The remaining spots will likely go to whoever misses out on the third rotation spot, or a fringe pitcher like Mike Pelfrey. The back end of the bullpen should continue to be pretty solid, but the rest of the relief crew isn’t exactly impressive.

The Verdict
Dave Schoenfield’s ESPN rankings have the Twins listed at 27th, which actually might not be too far off. There isn’t one specific area where Minnesota can be considered truly above-average, and there are also plenty of below-average players on this squad. By the end of the season, their incredibly talented farm system should be able to start helping the team, but it’s going to be too late to do any real damage in this year’s playoff race.

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