Twins hope 2014 is the year the tide turns back to winning

Perhaps the move to first base for former catcher Joe Mauer will result in a spike in his already impressive average, and a few more home runs.

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It can only get better, right?

After three straight seasons with 96-plus losses, the Minnesota Twins are hoping that 2014 is the start of a turnaround. Under manager Ron Gardenhire, the Twins grew accustomed to winning during the 2000s, taking home six American League Central titles since 2002.

But Minnesota has gone through a drought that harkened back to the woeful teams of the mid-1990s. When the Twins lost 99 games in 2011, it seemed to be an anomaly as the team won the division just one year earlier. After 96 losses in 2012, a disturbing trend started to emerge.

One more 96-loss season last year and it started to seem like a habit — one Minnesota now hopes to break.

To do so, the Twins had no choice but to shore up a starting rotation that ranked dead last in the majors last year in both ERA and innings pitched. Eleven different pitchers made starts for Minnesota last year, and none of them posted an ERA below 3.83. The Twins also failed to have a 10-game winner on the staff; Kevin Correia led the bunch with nine victories.

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It was no secret that general manager Terry Ryan and the front office were going to target starting pitchers in free agency, and that’s exactly what Minnesota did. The Twins signed right-hander Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 contract — the biggest deal ever given to a free agent in franchise history. Minnesota also inked Phil Hughes for three years and re-signed right-hander Mike Pelfrey, who is another year removed from Tommy John surgery.

That trio will be paired with Correia and right-hander Kyle Gibson, a prospect Twins fans longed to see for several years. They finally got their wish last year when Gibson debuted and started 10 games for Minnesota. He broke camp this spring as the No. 5 starter after emerging from a competition of several pitchers.

There’s little doubt that the starting pitching will be better in 2014 than it was in 2013 — there’s nowhere to go but up — but the offense remains a big question mark. Minnesota made several moves to improve the pitching but did little to nothing to bolster a lineup that scored just 614 runs last year, sixth-fewest in baseball. Rather than making any splashes for a bat in free agency, the Twins are hoping for several bounce-back seasons for a number of returning players.

That includes left fielder Josh Willingham who, at 35 years old, isn’t getting any younger. Willingham was one of the Twins’ big bats in the lineup during his first season with the club in 2012, setting career highs in home runs (35) and RBI (110). While it seemed unlikely he’d replicate those numbers the following year, his dropoff in both categories (14 homers, 48 RBI) was drastic.

Minnesota also needs Trevor Plouffe — who doesn’t have to deal with the pressure of Miguel Sano knocking on the door this season — to find some consistency both in the field and at the plate. Plouffe was one of baseball’s hottest hitters for a two-week span in 2012 but struggled throughout much of the rest of the season. Youngsters such as Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia will also be counted on to provide some punch at the plate.

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If players like Willingham and Plouffe don’t rebound in 2014, runs could be at a premium for Minnesota’s offense. Oswaldo Arcia has the potential to be a 25-homer player, but there’s not a ton of power elsewhere in the lineup. The hope is that a move to first base for former catcher Joe Mauer will result in a spike in his already impressive average, and perhaps a few more home runs. Second baseman Brian Dozier hit 18 homers to lead the club a year ago. Whether or not he can sustain that pace again in 2014 remains to be seen.

There are some positives for the Twins, including a bullpen that was steady last year despite constantly being overworked. Closer Glen Perkins emerged as an All-Star, and the rest of the relief corps remains nearly intact from last season. Defensively, Pedro Florimon was solid at shortstop (although his bat is a work in progress), while newly signed catcher Kurt Suzuki comes to Minnesota with a reputation as a good defensive backstop.

After three straight losing seasons, it’s only natural for fans to look to the future. Much focus has been placed on the Twins’ strong farm system, which includes the likes of uber prospect Byron Buxton, as well as hard-throwing right-hander Alex Meyer. The latter could debut at some point this year, while the former has done nothing but tear through every minor league level he’s played at. Sano won’t be ready until 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, but he’s a key piece of what appears to be a bright future for Minnesota.

That future is not here yet, however. Until it is, much work needs to be done at the major league level.

For the Twins, that starts today.

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