After unexpected success, Twins aim higher in 2018
MINNEAPOLIS -- The turnaround for Minnesota last year was sharp, with 26 more wins than the miserable 2016 season on a march to the AL wild card game.
This year, the Twins are in position to actually measure progress by postseason advancement. The entire starting lineup stayed intact, with five core players age 25 and under, and the bullpen was given a big boost with three free agent additions.
For the first time in seven years, the previous appearance in the playoffs, Minnesota is a desired destination.
"I feel like this team is on the edge of being really good for a while," said left-hander Zach Duke, who joined right-handers Fernando Rodney and Addison Reed as veteran relievers who signed this winter. "Maybe a pitcher or two away, and it's there. It's a very exciting thing."
The pitcher or two could still materialize, with an unsigned logjam of free agents still available around the game.
"If we bring a good baseball decision to Jim Pohlad, I'm certain we'll have support," chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said.
Here's what to watch for when the Twins arrive in Fort Myers, Florida, for spring training:
The Twins committed more than $23 million in guaranteed money to Rodney, Reed and Duke. That gave them a closer in Rodney with 300 career saves, a reliable setup man or ninth-inning replacement in Reed if the 40-year-old Rodney were to falter, and a left-hander in Duke with a cumulative 2.85 ERA over the last four seasons.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Stephen Gonsalves could pitch his way into the rotation sooner than later, particularly if injuries persist among the other starting pitchers. The club's minor league pitcher of the year award winner in 2016, Gonsalves dominated Double-A for Chattanooga last season before a promotion to Triple-A Rochester in August.
Minnesota's minor league player of the year award in 2017 went to catcher Mitch Garver, who appeared in 23 games for the Twins but still has rookie status. He's in line to serve as Jason Castro's backup with the departure of Chris Gimenez via free agency.
With Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler in place and Zack Granite pushing for time behind them, the Twins have one of the most promising outfields in the game. Buxton won his first Gold Glove award last season.
The strength of the starting rotation remains tenuous without a significant addition from the open market, and the finger injury to Ervin Santana was another setback. Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson are settled in, and Adalberto Mejia was effective enough as a rookie to warrant a spot at the back of the rotation. Phil Hughes is one prominent option in the mix following a second thoracic outlet surgery on his ribs to alleviate shoulder trouble. Tyler Duffey could get another look as a starter.
The infield has a former All-Star at each of the three bases, but Miguel Sano's recovery from left leg surgery and the MLB investigation into the sexual misconduct allegation against him leaves some uncertainty on the left side of the diamond. The designated hitter role remains uncertain, too, with Sano, Robbie Grossman and Kennys Vargas in the mix for now.
Trevor May could make himself a wild card candidate for the rotation, as he's recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery. The right-hander didn't pitch in 2017, and he might not be ready for major league action until May, but he's a hard thrower with the potential to remake himself into a productive starter.
"Just making sure when I go throw for a team, I can throw the five, the six, the seven innings, stretched out like that and be ready, so that when I do get back up here it's competition time," May said, "and not the rehab guy."