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Twins upgrade pitching, but what about lineup?

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sports Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

By Sports Xchange

FORT MYERS, Fla. — It is said that change can be a good thing, and many changes were needed for the Minnesota Twins coming off a third consecutive 90-loss season in 2013.

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But as the team assembles for spring training, there may not yet have been enough changes taking place.

The pitchers and catchers reported on Sunday and those units are significantly changed. The Twins added two new free agent starting pitchers to the staff, and the opening day catcher is not yet locked in after the move of longtime catcher Joe Mauer to first base.

What has not changed much is the starting lineup, and last season that group was responsible for only 614 runs (25th in the majors) and had a team record 1,430 strikeouts (second in the majors). The Twins are still looking for a leadoff hitter and definitely more power in the wake of trading away first baseman Justin Morneau late last season.

The starting pitching staff certainly needed an upgrade, and the Twins front office was aggressive during the offseason, bringing in free agents Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco — who will move right to the top of the Twins rotation. They re-signed free agent Mike Pelfrey, who in May will be another year removed from his 2012 Tommy John surgery and hopes to regain full form.

“I think we’re past worrying about that now with the arm problems and that stuff,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s a self-proclaimed horse, and I expect him to take away that doubt from the elbow now and just let him be the horse he wants to be. We need innings. We need our starters to get seven innings, eight innings, nine innings if they want to, take all the pressure off the other guys. I think we signed some people that we can count on to do those things, and Pelfrey should be one of them.”

Kevin Correia, who ate up a lot of innings last season, will be back and Sam Deduno, who had shoulder surgery the last month of the 2103 season, will return and look to grab a starting spot. They will be battling a host of pitchers (Scott Diamond, Vance Worley and Kyle Gibson) who were on and off the Twins’ 25-man roster in 2013.

The team picked up LHP Kris Johnson for Duke Welker (who was part of the Morneau trade) but he will be battling the likes of Alex Meyer and Trevor May for a shot at coming out of the minor leagues. Meyer was invited to spring training.

The biggest lineup question coming into 2014 is who will replace Mauer behind the plate. Josmil Pinto, who batted .342 in 21 games last season as a late-season replacement for Mauer (who was out with a concussion) has a shot at the job, but his defense needs to improve to solidify that role. The Twins signed veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to bring some experience to the position, and the question remains if he will grab the starting spot.

Hitting and scoring runs were problems last year, and the offseason acquisitions have done little to address them. The pitching staff should be improved, but the Twins must still find some increased run production in order to move in the right direction — upwards from the static 90-loss holding pattern the team is in.

At the end of last season, Gardenhire was brought back with a two-year contract extension, despite plenty of fans calling for his ouster. Gardenhire and general manager Terry Ryan are rebuilding the squad and have one of the richest farm systems in the majors. But they may need to dip into it earlier than expected for prospects such as Byron Buxton (No. 1) and Miguel Sano (No. 11) in order for some progress and promise to be demonstrated — so that the fans, and the team’s manager, continue to hang around.

Notes

3B Miguel Sano will be at major league spring training in Fort Myers, and he will be looking for a starting role. The No. 11 prospect in baseball plans to push incumbent Trevor Plouffe for the starting position. Sano’s defense will have to improve, as he committed 23 errors last season at Class A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain. But fielding is not Plouffe’s strength either, so it could be a showdown at the plate this spring for a shot at the big league hot corner.

OF Byron Buxton, the No. 1 prospect in baseball, is eager and arrived five days earlier than expected at training camp, and all eyes will be on him. Although he has no experience above high Class A and his chances of heading north with the club are slim, Buxton’s abilities will be on display for the first time against major league players. His speed alone will make him a must-see player this spring.

RHP Matt Guerrier was signed to a minor league contract in late January and was invited to spring training. The 10-year veteran returns to the Twins after three seasons away from the ballclub. Guerrier, who spent his first seven major league seasons with Minnesota, has an uphill climb to make the Twins’ bullpen. After posting a 19-25 record with the Twins, he compiled an 8-9 record in the National League the past three seasons.

OF/DH Jason Kubel returns to the Twins after two seasons away. He has a minor league contract (with an invitation to spring training), but the team is looking for him to regain his form and grab the DH position. Kubel, however, is coming off a down year: his 2013 batting average (.216) and slugging percentage (.317) were the lowest of his career. To be sure, he dealt with leg issues throughout the season, including a strained left quadriceps muscle, but he is healthy now. His first big hurdle will be to make the big club and then become a major contributor to the everyday lineup.

C Kurt Suzuki came to the Twins as a free agent from Oakland, and he should bring some veteran experience to the catching position in the wake of Joe Mauer moving to first base. He will likely grab the starting position, but the hard-hitting Josmil Pinto may give him a run for his money.

“Suzuki’s a great catcher,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We talked to Oakland and they had nothing but the best things in the world to say about Suzuki as a leader, a catcher calling a ballgame, (being) very intelligent, and helping everybody out. He brings a lot to the table. We have a young guy, Pinto, so we are going to see what he does here in spring training.”

SS Jason Bartlett returns to the Twins after six seasons away. He last played in Minnesota in 2007, moving on to Tampa Bay and then San Diego. He missed the 2013 season completely due to injury, and the jury is still out on what he has left. Bartlett has been invited to spring training, and the Twins could use some depth at middle infield, so it will be a big spring training for the 34-year old veteran.

LHP Brooks Raley was claimed off waivers by the Twins from the Cubs on Feb. 12. In 38 1/3 innings over the past two seasons, Raley is 1-2 with a 7.04 ERA. The Twins have a dearth of lefties in the rotation, but Raley will likely compete for a spot in bullpen.

RHP Sam Deduno, who is recovering from shoulder surgery that cut short his 2013 season, is battling for the Twins’ fifth starting spot. However, he told the Pioneer Press, “If the team needs me in the bullpen, I can be in the bullpen. I could do that. Whatever they need. If they need me in the fifth inning, sixth inning, I don’t know what inning, I’m going to be ready to help the team. It doesn’t matter how they use me. I’ll be ready to go.”

Quote to note

“We can always have him sit in (meeting). The guy knows all the hitters in the league. We can use him a number of different ways. He knows how to play first base; he’s done the work there. But he can also sit in on the meetings and help our catchers out. He will be a good grandpa for Pinto.” — Manager Ron Gardenhire on catcher-turned-first-baseman Joe Mauer. Gardenhire said Mauer is ready and will embrace the change.

Projected rotation

RHP Ricky Nolasco

RHP Phil Hughes

RHP Kevin Correia

RHP Mike Pelfrey

RHP Sam Deduno

Pelfrey should be improved this season, as he came on strong at the end of last season. The staff in general looks better, but Hughes and Nolasco need to prove they have enough left to lead the staff.

The Twins are missing a left-handed starter and Scott Diamond, last season slated to be the opening day starter until he suffered an injury, will be working to bust into the rotation.

More than anything, the staff will need to do better than last season pitching late into games, and no one knows that more than the manager: “The way to protect your bullpen is by your starters going deep in the game and not having to eat up all those innings they ate up last year,” Gardenhire said. “We need depth in our starters. That’s why we went out and signed some guys we believe can (go deep in games).”

Projected bullpen

LHP Caleb Thielbar

RHP Anthony Swarzak

LHP Brian Duensing

RHP Casey Fien

RHP Jared Burton

LHP Glen Perkins

The Twins bullpen, arguably the strongest unit on the club, looks to be intact after another decent season. They were taxed in 2013 due to a weak starting rotation at times, but still fared well. Thielbar, who came up midseason and was a surprise addition, should slide into the spot vacated by Jeff Roenicke, who was sent outright to Class A Rochester during the offseason. Although Michael Tonkin, who came up late and pitched well, may have something to say about that before spring training if over.

Closer Glen Perkins had 36 saves in 61 appearances (62 2/3 innings) last season and has solidified himself in that role. He returns to once again lead the staff in hopes that the Twins starters will allow fans to see more of Perkins in save situations and less of the middle relievers pitching extended innings.

Projected lineup

1. CF Alex Presley

2. 2B Brian Dozier

3. 1B Joe Mauer

4. LF Josh Willingham

5. RF Oswaldo Arcia

6. DH Jason Kubel

7. 3B Trevor Plouffe

8. C Kurt Suzuki or Josmil Pinto

9. SS Pedro Florimon

The Twins’ lineup is still a work in progress as the team struggles to identify a consistent and productive leadoff hitter. Presley grabbed the role late in the 2013 season after coming over in the Justin Morneau trade, and he will likely begin there in 2014.

Dozier, who had several stints in the leadoff spot last season, is a better hitter in the two-spot and the Twins are hoping to bat him there, with Mauer returning to his natural third spot. Since Mauer is no longer catching (where the changing out of catching equipment prevented him from batting leadoff or second in the past), the team could experiment with him in the one and two spots this season.

The team will need better power numbers this year, and a healthy Willingham (who had midseason knee surgery last year) should help. The team will want to see another step forward from Arcia, who demonstrated great power last year, but struck out too often (117 strike outs in 351 at bats).

Likewise, the Twins are hoping that the return of Kubel will translate into some improved power numbers for the team, but it remains to be seen if his better days are behind him.

Top rookies

In addition to OF Byron Buxton and 3B Miguel Sano, who should make a splash this spring, RHP Alex Meyer may be ready to make the next step. The 6-foot-9 Meyer, 24, was 4-3 with a 2.99 ERA last year in the minors, and he was invited to spring training. RHP Trevor May is another young arm the Twins are waiting to make a move. He was a disappointing 9-9 with a 4.51 ERA in Double-A last season, but with another year of experience pitching his mid-90s fastball, May will be battling for a promotion this spring.

SS Danny Santana could make some noise by pushing incumbent shortstop Pedro Florimon this spring. Playing in the Double-A Eastern league, Santana compiled a .297/.333/.386 line with two home runs, 10 triples and 33 stolen bases. He is on the 40-man roster and will be looking for an upgrade.

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