As we work towards Opening Day, John Pielli will be previewing each team based on past performance, offseason moves, minor league system, and overall outlook for 2015. Today: the Minnesota Twins.

The Minnesota Twins have been an organization trying to rebuild itself since 2011. 2010 was their last winning season and it has been understood why the team has struggled to compete with the top teams of the American League. The Twins have been rebuilding since then, but because of that have some very good young players and seem to be going in the right direction.

In spite of 4 straight losing seasons, a man considered one of the better managers in the game of baseball was Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire. A well respected baseball mind, if there was a list of top managers a team would like to have oversee a rebuild, I am sure Gardenhire would rank among the top of the list. However, in the eyes of GM Terry Ryan, a different voice was needed. Gardenhire was let go after 13 seasons as Twins manager, even though the results of the past four seasons seemed to be more of a result of the players on the roster as opposed to the way they were being led. During his first 9 seasons at the helm, Gardenhire led the Twins to a winning season in 8 of them. In some cases, especially the 2010 season, the expectations were not in the air for the team to do as well as they did. Kudos for Gardenhire not taking a position within the organization, a sign he agrees with my assessment that he was given a raw deal.

The Twins finished last year with a record of 70-92. Hall of Famer and former Twins DH Paul Molitor takes over for his first season as a big league manager. He is joined by free agent RHP pitcher Ervin Santana and former Twins star OF Torii Hunter. The rest of the team returns for another season and is expected to improve with some of the expected young talent on the horizon. 3B Miguel Sano missed all of 2014 because of Tommy John surgery and is expected to be ready for the start of the season. OF Byron Buxton will probably start the coming season in AAA, but should see significant time in the bigs this season.

The Twins made a big push to improve their starting pitching last off season. They signed Phil Hughes to a three year contact and Hughes responded with a great season that got him a 2-year extension. Hughes went 16-10, 3.52 with just less than 210 IP, 186 Ks and just 16 walks. The same could not be said about the Twins other starting pitching additions. Ricky Nolasco (6-12, 5.38, 27 starts) was terrible after signing a 4-year, $48 million deal. Kevin Correia was 5-13, 4.94 in 23 starts before he was traded and Mike Pelfrey was 0-3, 7.99 in 5 starts. Adding Santana (14-10, 3.95, 31 starts, 196 IP) as a free agent from Atlanta gives the team a good one-two with Hughes. RHP Kyle Gibson (13-12, 4.47, 32 starts) emerged as a dependable starter in his first full season. This leaves Nolasco, signed before 2014 to be the ace, as the number 4 starter, something that should alleviate some pressure from the pitcher. Adding LHP Tommy Milone (6-4, 4.19, 21 starts for Athletics and Twins) at the trading deadline last year could be a smart move down the road. He will compete with Pelfrey and young pitchers Trevor May and Alex Meyer for the 5th spot in the rotation.

Pelfrey, the former Mets 1st round draft pick, is an interesting thought for this coming season. Groin, elbow, and shoulder injuries that cost him most of the 2014 season seem to be a thing of the past and reports are his arm strength has returned to the way it was a couple years ago. I can see him having a bounce back season and if his arm strength is back, I like his chances of making the Twins rotation.

The Twins bullpen is led by All Star Glen Perkins (4-3, 65, 34 saves) and LHP Brian Duensing (3-3. 3.31, 62 games). RHP Jared Burton (3-5, 4.36 in 68 games) was one of the go-to relievers for Gardenhire last season. He became a free agent and signed a minor league deal with the Yankees. RHPs Casey Fien (5-6, 3.98, 73 games) and Ryan Pressly (2-0, 2.86, 15 games) will be part of the pen as well as LHP Caleb Thielbar (2-1, 3.40, 54 games). RHP Tim Stauffer (6-2, 3.53, 44 games, 3 starts) comes over from the Padres and has a good chance of becoming one of Molitor’s go-to relievers. Stauffer has proven the ability to start, which has hurt his chances of becoming a good reliever. Perhaps pitching for the Twins, a place that does not have an extra spot in the starting rotation, can allow for Stauffer to emerge as an 8th inning guy.

My Twins starting lineup would feature both top prospects Sano and Buxton. It is unlikely to happen, but when both join the Twins batting order, they should be able to score some runs. While Buxton had a very good 2013 season split between low A and high A (.322, 15, 85, 20 2Bs, 18 3Bs, 57 SB, 119 R), he was injured for most of 2014 (.240, 4, 16 in 30 games) for Fort Myers, playing in just 1 game for AA New Britain. He is likely to start the season in the minors with the Twins likely to allow Buxton’s play to determine when he comes up to the bigs. Sano, who hit 35 HR in 2013 and 32 in 2012, also has not played a game in AAA. Because of this, it may be where he starts the season. The main reason has to do with incumbent 3B Trevor Plouffe (.258, 14, 80, 40 2B) in the mix. Playing Sano would likely force Plouffe to the bench, something the Twins may not be prepared to do. Perhaps a good spring from Sano can lead to Plouffe being dealt.

Hunter coming home after a 7-year hiatus from the Twins gives the offense a little more punch. I looked at Joe Mauer having a big 2014 playing 1B full time for the first time in his career. It didn’t work out that way (.277, 4, 55 in 120 games) — certainly not a down season for a big league ballplayer, but for Mauer’s standards (a three time batting champion, .319 career hitter moving out from behind the dish full time). I would expect him to hit for a higher batting average if he is healthy. In addition to Plouffe, 2B Brian Dozier (.242, 23, 71) and SS Danny Santana (.319, 7, 40, 20 SB) bring out the best in the Twins lineup. Santana moving from CF to SS clears room for Buxton, who like I said, I hope is playing there opening day. In the meantime, Aaron Hicks (.215, 1, 18 in 69 games) will play CF. Oswaldo Arcia (.231, 20, 57) will be playing RF with Kennys Vargas (.274, 9, 38 in 53 games) getting the biggest shot to be the everyday DH. With Sano at 3B, perhaps Plouffe becomes the full time DH. My Twins lineup looks like this: Santana SS, Hunter RF, Mauer 1B, Plouffe DH, Sano 3B, Arcia LF, Dozier 2B, Kurt Suzuki (.288, 3, 61), Buxton CF. Until the top prospects are up, just sub Vargas for Sano at DH with Plouffe at 3B and Hicks in CF for Buxton.

One time top Braves prospect Jordan Schafer (.238, 1, 15 in 104 games) is a good 4th OF. He may be able to take some playing time away from Hicks. Eduardo Escobar (.275, 6, 37) will back up Santana at SS and serve as an alternative if Santana cannot man the position. Eduardo Nunez (.250, 4, 24) continues to have a world of talent that we have yet to see in the major leagues. Josmil Pinto has some power (7 HRs in 169 ABs in 2014) and will serve as Suzuki’s backup. Just like last year, my hopes are that utility infielder Doug Bernier, a guest on the Passed Ball Show, can make the team as a backup middle infielder. His ability to play SS is valuable, as it is in Escobar and Nunez. Unfortunately, all three of them will not break camp with the Twins.

I do think there is some promise in Minnesota. The starting pitching will be better than it has been in the past several seasons, especially if they can get bounce backs from Nolasco and Pelfrey. Maybe Buxton and Sano can have an impact this season. My guess is they will both rise to stardom in 2016. I see enough in place for the Twins to improve 4 games from their 2014 campaign, finishing 74-88 in Molitor’s first season as a big league manager. Vegas had them tapped for 70 1/2, so I am advocating the over. Despite this improvement, the Twins will still finish last in the AL Central.

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