MINNEAPOLIS — Hope springs eternal, and for fans of all 30 Major League Baseball teams, hope is always eternal in spring.
That includes those who cheer for the Minnesota Twins, a club that grew accustomed to winning in the 2000s before three straight years of 90 or more losses from 2011-13. After going 66-96 this past year, it appears as if there’s nowhere to go but up for the Twins. But just how much better can this club be? That’s what Minnesota fans will soon find out.
"I think it’s gone from, ‘We can’t possibly be worse,’ to, ‘How good can we be?’" said Twins closer Glen Perkins.
Given the way the last three seasons have unfolded for manager Ron Gardenhire and his club, this is a relatively important spring training — which begins Sunday when pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla. For the team’s younger players, it’s a chance to prove that they belong in the majors. For the veterans who have underperformed as of late, it’s an opportunity to show that they can indeed contribute.
Many believe that the Twins are still likely at least a year away from being competitive in the American League Central. The 2015 season is when uber-prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, as well as pitching prospect Alex Meyer, are expected to all be in the major leagues. The first two are the type of can’t-miss prospects that only come around every so often, while Meyer has the chance to be the dominant pitcher that the Twins have lacked in recent years.
Before Minnesota can get too far ahead of itself, though, it has to get through this spring and the 2014 season. Some familiar faces will be in this year’s camp — veterans Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett are back with the Twins on minor league deals — as well as some new faces. That includes pitchers Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco, who both hope to have found new homes in Minnesota after signing free agent deals this winter.
The Twins, meanwhile, are hoping their offseason acquisitions can help stop the bleeding of the last three years. It was the most active winter in recent memory for general manager Terry Ryan, but something had to be done in order to get things back on track.
"It sent a message that the guys we had here weren’t good enough, for one," Perkins said of Minnesota’s plethora of free agent signings. "It’s been a pretty crappy three years. I was laying in bed (the other) night thinking about it, that we’ve been backed into a corner. We need to start punching our way out.
"We’ve had our teeth kicked in, and we need to start kicking other peoples’ teeth back and start fighting back. That’s the first step."
For Minnesota’s front office, the first step in rebuilding things was to address the starting pitching. With the previously mentioned pitching additions, the Twins will have stiffer competition for spots in the rotation than it has in previous spring trainings. Several pitchers are expected to compete for that fifth and final rotation spot, giving Minnesota depth in numbers.
The struggles of the Twins’ starting pitchers last year have been well documented as Minnesota’s rotation was the worst in baseball in several categories. Given the additions made by Ryan and his staff, Minnesota is optimistic entering this spring that it has the arms needed to be more competitive.
"I think Terry and them made a statement," said manager Ron Gardenhire. "They made a statement: ‘We don’t want to see this again. We don’t want to go through this again this summer.’"
Other position battles will be closely watched, too, as the Twins try to sort out their catching depth this spring and also determine the outfield situation. All-Star Joe Mauer will spend the spring attempting to learn a new position after moving from catcher to first base, and a few bullpen spots are still up for grabs.
Many questions must be answered this spring for the Twins before the regular season starts on March 31 in Chicago. Minnesota’s position players report to camp Feb. 21, with Grapefruit League games beginning on Feb. 28. These next few months will springboard the Twins into a regular season that they hope will be much better than the ones they’ve endured the last three years.
"I feel it’s a very young, talented team with some veterans in there," said catcher Kurt Suzuki, one of the Twins’ offseason additions. "From me noticing from the other side, they’ve always been a team that’s had good pitching and defense and plays the game the right way, very fundamentally sound and very strict to detail. I think you just pair that up with guys staying healthy, first of all, guys just getting more comfortable, younger guys getting comfortable, I think we’ve got a good mix."