Spring training preview: Spotlight on Twins’ pitchers
MINNEAPOLIS — The first step toward fortifying the fallen Minnesota Twins was a change in leadership, with chief baseball officer Derek Falvey plucked from Cleveland’s front office and general manager Thad Levine hired from Texas.
The revamp stopped there, though, during an inaugural offseason for the new regime that was more methodical than it was a makeover.
“There are some great people here, some great players here. We never had any intention to come in here with a bulldozer and risk losing great players, great people, by making short-sighted, rash decisions,” Levine said.
Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Miguel Sano form the under-25 core of a lineup that ranked sixth in total bases in the American League in 2016 despite a club-record 103 losses. Second baseman Brian Dozier returns from a 42-home run season after trade talks fizzled.
“You can’t really dwell on youth anymore, and I think that’s going to be a huge factor moving forward,” Dozier said, adding: “You’ve got to recognize you’re playing with the big boys up here and you can’t make the same mistakes you made last year that cost you ballgames.”
Here are some key angles to follow as the Twins start spring training, with pitchers and catchers reporting on Monday:
The only major roster move this winter was the signing of catcher Jason Castro to a three-year, $24.5 million contract to replace Kurt Suzuki. Castro batted only .215 over the last three seasons combined for Houston, but the 29-year-old has been lauded for his work behind the plate with pitch calling and framing.
YOUNGSTER TO WATCH
The awkward experiment with Sano in right field was scrapped at midseason after he missed a month because of a strained left hamstring. He still hit 25 homers despite the distraction, the injury and playing overweight. Now he can settle in at third base. The Twins remain bullish on Sano’s ability to replicate the .916 on-base-plus-slugging percentage he posted as a rookie (rather than his .781 mark last year) as well as his defensive potential.
“Still going to be some growing pains there as he settles in, and we’ve got to see how he will respond to potentially playing that position a high number of games,” manager Paul Molitor said. “Just a guy you want to try to find a way to keep on the field.”
YOUNGSTER TO WATCH II
Buxton was sent back to Triple-A twice last season for relief from his hitting struggles, but his return in September from the second demotion yielded a tantalizing performance by the fleet-footed center fielder: six doubles, two triples, nine home runs, 22 RBIs and a .357 on-base percentage over his final 29 games.
“We haven’t given up on the ceiling that has been created for him,” Molitor said. “Good athletes have a way of figuring things out, and I don’t think there are many better athletes in the game.”
With Buxton, Dozier, Kepler and Sano in place, production from Castro and first baseman Joe Mauer, the three-time batting champion who has hit just .267 over the last three years, will be a bonus.
Ervin Santana is the one sure bet in the rotation. Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Pressly, Taylor Rogers and newcomer Matt Belisle form the backbone of the bullpen, with three-time All-Star closer Glen Perkins coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum that ruined his 2016.
The spotlight this spring will be on pitchers Jose Berrios, Tyler Duffey, Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes and Hector Santiago. They made a combined 87 starts last season, with an abysmal cumulative 6.02 ERA. Hughes was the only one who wasn’t healthy. Trevor May could displace one of them in his transition back from middle relief, and 39-year-old Ryan Vogelsong is in camp on a minor-league contract as another option.
Jorge Polanco must improve defensively to be trusted as the regular shortstop, with the reliable Eduardo Escobar at the ready if he doesn’t. Eddie Rosario (left field) and Kennys Vargas (designated hitter) will again have chances to be everyday players.
MINNESOTA TWINS CAPSULE
Manager: Paul Molitor (third season).
2016: 59-103, fifth place.
Training Town: Fort Myers, Florida.
Park: Hammond Stadium at CenturyLink Sports Complex.
First Workout: Feb. 14/19.
He’s Here: C Jason Castro, RHP Matt Belisle, RHP Ryan Vogelsong, SS Ehire Adrianza, OF Drew Stubbs.
He’s Outta Here: 3B Trevor Plouffe, C Kurt Suzuki, LHP Tommy Milone, RHP Pat Light.
Going campin’: After the club compiled its most losses since the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1961, the Twins are starting fresh, but they’re not starting over. New baseball chief Derek Falvey, with new GM Thad Levine as his top lieutenant, has been using a measured, patient approach with his attempt to turn around a team that hasn’t reached the postseason in seven years. With still-budding young talent in the lineup like 3B Miguel Sano, CF Byron Buxton and RF Max Kepler, and the return of 2B Brian Dozier after trade talks didn’t yield enough for Falvey and Levine’s liking, significant run-scoring potential remains. The Twins ranked a respectable sixth in the AL in total bases and eighth in OPS despite their abysmal record. The focus in Fort Myers will again be on the mound, with a downtrodden rotation seeking candidates to join steady RHP Ervin Santana. RHPs Jose Berrios (8.02 ERA in 14 starts), Tyler Duffey (6.43 ERA in 26 starts), Kyle Gibson (5.07 ERA in 25 starts), Phil Hughes (broken leg, shoulder surgery) and RHP Hector Santiago (5.58 ERA in 11 starts) will get the chance to bounce back. RHP Trevor May will try to convert back to starting after his bullpen assignment contributed to a lingering back injury.