2013 Twins have shot at more than rebuilding

I’ve gotten the question plenty this winter: How will the Twins be this year?

I usually answer by saying, simply, that they’ll be better than last year. Then again, the bar wasn’t set very high as Minnesota lost 96 games one year after losing 99. While the Twins may not compete for an American League Central title in 2013, there are reasons to believe this team will be better than last year’s.

The biggest thing plaguing Minnesota in 2012 was starting pitching, or a lack of it. The Twins’ rotation finished with the second-worst ERA in all of baseball, behind only the Colorado Rockies. So like the 96 losses, there really is nowhere to go but up for Minnesota’s pitching staff. General manager Terry Ryan and his staff made it a top priority this winter to acquire starting pitching to shore up the rotation. He did so by trading for Opening Day starter Vance Worley and signing free agents Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey.

All three have experience pitching in the majors, although none of the three are the marquee names Twins fans were hoping their team would sign this winter. Still, they should help bolster a rotation that proved to be a glaring weak spot in 2012. They’ll be joined by left-hander Scott Diamond, who will start the year with a brief stint on the disabled list. Diamond was Minnesota’s best pitcher last year but had offseason elbow surgery in December that slowed his spring. Who will eventually settle into the rotation as the fifth starter remains a mystery. Cole De Vries and Liam Hendriks will get the chance to lobby for the job early on as both are on the 25-man roster, but Samuel Deduno and Kyle Gibson could get an opportunity this season as well.

Scoring runs wasn’t as much of a problem for Minnesota last year. The 701 runs scored by the last-place Twins were the third-most among AL Central teams (more than Kansas City and Cleveland). Manager Ron Gardenhire’s team returns the majority of last year’s line, minus the losses of outfielders Denard Span and Ben Revere to trades. Span had developed into a reliable leadoff hitter, one who was willing to take several pitches to set up the hitters behind him in the order. Finding someone to replace him at the top of the lineup has been a priority this spring.

It appears as if the replacement may very well be a player who will be making his major league debut on Monday, center fielder Aaron Hicks. The 23-year-old Hicks will bypass Triple A and join the Twins’ 25-man roster to start the season. On top of that, Gardenhire named Hicks his Opening Day center fielder. One of the Top 100 prospects in baseball, Hicks gives fans a reason to be excited in 2013. He has all the tools to be an every-day center fielder: speed, range, a strong arm, and power and patience at the plate.

Aside from Hicks, many of the big bats in Minnesota’s lineup return. Josh Willingham is coming off a career year of 35 homers and 110 RBI. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, the “M&M Boys,” both bounced back from injuries to have productive 2012 seasons. Trevor Plouffe showed power from the right side, and Ryan Doumit was a reliable switch hitter and versatile fielder. The heart of Minnesota’s order should once again be a strength for the Twins.

Minnesota’s bullpen should also be a strong point in 2013, as it was a season ago. Left-hander Glen Perkins emerged mid-season as the team’s closer, and he now enters his first full season in the ninth-inning role. Jared Burton was a pleasant surprise in his first year in a Twins uniform and will set up Perkins in the eighth inning. There was plenty of competition this spring for the remaining bullpen spots, and newcomers like Josh Roenicke and Ryan Pressly wound up securing spots in the bullpen.

Given the amount of top prospects in Minnesota’s minor league system — Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Alex Meyer, to name a few — there are plenty of reasons for Twins fans to be excited about the future. Some argue that 2013 will be yet another rebuilding year for Minnesota, though, and that it may still be a season or two until the Twins are back in the playoff race. But baseball can be a funny sport sometimes, and one that’s often hard to predict. And that’s why the game is played on grass and dirt, not paper.

The most important thing, though, is that baseball is indeed back. Even if Monday’s weather forecast doesn’t agree.

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