As co-owners of the second-worst record in the American League in 2014, the Minnesota Twins' status as a team whose brighter future was put on hold for a year after its top two prospects--the highly touted duo of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano--missed much and all, respectively, of last season with injuries. With both delayed phenoms apparently healthy and possible mid-to-late season call-ups, this could be the last transitional year for the Twins.
2014 season in review
Despite their lowly win total of 70, the Twins weren't without productive players last season. Brian Dozier unexpectedly broke out in his age-27 season with a 23/21 season with a .242/.345/.416 slash, .340 wOBA, 118 wRC+, 4.8 fWAR, and 5.2 rWAR. Trevor Plouffe (3.6 fWAR, 4.0 rWAR) and Danny Santana (3.3 fWAR, 3.9 rWAR) were each surprisingly valuable as well, though some of Santanacoeur's success was attributable to an unsustainable .405 BABIP over his 430 PA. Joe Mauer experienced his worst season at the plate of his entire career in 2014, drawing the ire of much of the fanbase.
On the pitching front, the only inarguable success Minnesota had came in the form of Phil Hughes, who took the opportunity of escaping Yankee Stadium to set the highest single-season K/BB in history at a crazy 11.63--crushing the 11.0 mark that Bret Saberhagen set in 1994--putting up a 5.7 fWAR/4.3 rWAR season in the process. Kyle Gibson was useful in his 179.1 IP, recording a 2.1 fWAR/2.0 rWAR season, but after that the Twins pitching picture was bleak.
Really--but for a couple of bright spots and a couple more prime candidates for regression--"bleak" would be an apropos descriptor for the Twins' 2014 on the whole.
Key offseason moves
Signing Ervin Santana
One year removed from a torturous offseason that saw him toil in free agency while everyone around his talent level got snatched up on multi-year deals, Santana finally got the multi-year deal he'd wanted last time out, landing in Minnesota on a four-year, $54MM deal. This replaced the four-year, $49MM deal that the Twins handed Ricky Nolasco last offseason, as the largest free agent contract in club history. A well-known entity in these parts, Santana has not been placed on the disabled list since the 2009 season, missing just one regular season start in that time due to injury, and unlike the high-dollar signing of Nolasco the year prior, Santana's career ERA lines up well with his peripherals.
Signing Torii Hunter
The former Twin comes back into the fold after signing a one-year deal worth $10.5MM. Hunter, who isn't far removed from a 5.2 fWAR 2012 campaign, was replacement level last season, but at least early on, the former all-star center fielder figures to start in right for this young Twins offense/defense.
Signing Tim Stauffer
The Twins inked the former Padres' first-round draft pick to a one-year deal. After missing most 2012 to a flexor pronator mass injury that required season-ending surgery, the Padres utilized Stauffer primarily in relief, but when he signed with the Twins he was told he'd be in the mix for the fifth-starter gig. At just a $2.2MM price tage, Stauffer makes for a decent depth play, even if he didn't make the rotation out of camp.
One to watch
While Danny Santana burst onto the scene with a 3+ WAR season OUT OF NOWHERE, switch-hitting Kennys Vargas has the potential to hit 30 home runs, as he sent nine out of the park in just 53 games in the bigs last season after making the jump straight from Double-A to the Majors late last summer. The 24-year-old was obviously old for the level in the minors, but his walk rates and strikeout rates in the minors indicate that he could conceivably make the requisite adjustments to better the marks in each category from his rookie campaign, particularly his paltry 5.1 BB% that was less than half the 10.6% he'd drawn in the 97 games played in the Eastern League.
The knock on Vargas early on is that he probably shouldn't play anywhere in the field but first base--the only position he ever played in the minors--and with the $23 Million Dollar Man manning first through at least the 2018 season, it looks as though Vargas will only provide value at the plate, watching from the dugout like a young, much larger Billy Butler.
Still, Vargas produced a .288/.367/.486 slash line in his minor league career, while being at least a little young for each level. If he can make that translate to the major-league level even a little, the Twins might have begun to make up for releasing borderline Hall of Famer David Ortiz 12 years ago in developing another all-bat designated hitter.
Twins by the Numbers
Fangraphs has the Twins projected as a 74-88 team, good for last in the division and second-worst in the American League. PECOTA projects the Twins as a 71-91 squad. Both systems see the Twins' run prevention as being among the worst in baseball yet again this season, something that should come as no surprise, as their defense looks to be genuinely poor across the board with the exception of at first base. Of course given the Twins' organizational philosophy for the past few decades, it apparently does surprise their front office, who have constructed a pitching staff that still pitches to contact more than any other team in baseball--their 6.47 K/9 was worse than every team in baseball--while having one of the sports worst defenses backing that contact-focused staff. For those who want the area between the lines blown up to read with ease, the results are in, and they're disastrous.
Furthermore, whether choosing to look at their ERA or FIP last season, the Twins pitching staff was not particularly good last year. It was Hughes, the middling Gibson, and a bunch of nobodies. Their 4.58 ERA was not as bad as their historically bad ERA the year before, but it was still only worsted by the Rockies. While sporting the fifth-worst defense in baseball according to UZR or second-worst according to DRS did not help the pitching staff in the least, the Twins' 3.97 FIP was still good for fifth-worst in baseball. Obviously adding Ervin Santana to the mix to the tune of roughly 200 IP will help the pitching staff look better, but the Twins' defense actually gets worse thanks to the addition of Torii Hunter, who had the fifth-worst DRS (-18) and fourth-worst UZR/150 (-20.1) in baseball last season.
While none of the projection systems hate the Twins offense, it will be hard for the Twins' win total to climb out of the low 70s with the defense and pitching staff in the state in which they find themselves.
2015 Team Outlook
Twins fans do have the hopeful arrivals of Byron Buxton--who some pundits believe is the best prospect in the game--and Miguel Sano on the nearing horizon. Both could reasonably be expected to make the Major League roster this season with some aggressive promotion, something the Twins did as recently as last year with the aforementioned Vargas. Alex Meyer could also make some noise upon getting called up, and he would appear to be on the verge of getting "the call." The addition of Ervin Santana to a rotation already fronted by Phil Hughes makes the picture a little rosier, though each of those arms look to be factors for a realized success that's at least a season away. This is yet another year in the rebuild, though the cornerstones of the foundation could be in place for success as soon as 2016.