The Minnesota Twins had another rough year in 2013. They struggled to a meager 66 wins, 27 games back of the division leading Tigers, and their lone solace came as a result of beating the even lowlier White Sox who coasted in 30 games back of the lead. Joe Mauer continued to toil away, producing elite numbers from the catching position for the last time, as he posted a 144 wRC+ in his 501 plate appearances and hit for a mammoth .324 batting average. Mauer is left to play out his contract in a city where he is adored for a team that likely will not be winning any rings, but that’s not Joe’s fault. Behind Mauer on the team’s 2013 WAR leaderboard is Brian Dozier, who had a career year by embodying the Twins’ “little of everything, lots of nothing” identity with a .244/.312/.414 line along with 18 dingers and 14 stolen bases that all added up to a not-too-shabby 2.8 WAR. Just behind Dozier on that leaderboard was “ace” Mike Pelfrey, who clocked in at 2.1. No other Twins player cracked the 2 WAR threshold last year. In 2014, Fangraphs is projecting even less players to cross that line. They’re expecting Mauer to halve his WAR with his move to first base robbing him of his significant positional adjustments, and new addition Ricky Nolasco is the only other Twin expected to contribute more than 2 wins in 2014.
The Twins made a number of moves that qualify as splashy for them this offseason, bringing in starters Ricky Nolasco (4 years/$49 million) and Phil Hughes (3/$24M) while also re-signing 2013 hero Pelfrey to a 2 year, 11 million dollar pact. Considering last year’s crop of starters posted the worst ERA in baseball (5.26!) and pitched the fewest innings, adding starters can’t be a bad thing. They added a young and promising triple-A arm in Sean Gilmartin in exchange for nominal ‘catcher’ Ryan Doumit and replaced him by signing actual catcher Kurt Suzuki to a 2.75 million dollar deal. The Nolasco deal marks the highest contract the team has ever given out to a free agent, and the fans have to be excited about how this bodes for future offseasons.
Doumit was not much of a catcher, though the Twins will miss his sometimes-competent, sometimes-excellent bat in the coming year, but he was hardly the biggest departure the last year, even if he was the biggest of the offseason. There will surely be thousands of Twins’ fans at the park still wearing Justin Morneau jerseys and hoping for the best for their former franchise co-cornerstone (because people from Minnesota are genuinely great) but the former MVP and former good hitter of baseballs has left for greener pastures after he was traded by the Twins midseason to the Pirates. Even if he was a shell of his former self after concussions and injury wreaked havoc on his abilities and caused his power to go up in smoke, the Twins need all the offense they can get, and whether or not there’s any left in Morneau’s tank, the fans will surely miss their long-time first baseman. Johan Santana‘s contract also departed for free agency, presumably with Johan still attached firmly to it. (I kid, I wish the man well, he was great.)
The Twins come into 2014 with a lighter load in payroll, even with all their hefty additions, as the cumbersome Johan Santana contract’s removal makes a huge difference. Their opening day payroll in 2013 reached 100 million dollars (down from a sky-high 113 in 2012) but will be significantly lower point in 2014. The fantastic Cot’s Contracts currently has them projected to open the season with a payroll a hair north of $82 million.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Joe Mauer is, as he has been for years, the main reason to watch the Twins play baseball in 2014. The man whose smile and hair has brightened up three 95+ loss seasons is moving off of his natural position to preserve his giant body. He’ll move to first base in one of the more publicized 90 foot transitions of recent memory, and will sacrifice a large amount of his WAR-type value in the process. Joe’s numbers have always been magnificent from behind the dish, and his always-fantastic-average will continue to carry with it a significant amount of value, but his lack of power relative to his peers at the position may become a bit more tough to swallow in that cavernous ballpark when he’s playing a position with a much higher offensive expectation. Expect Joe Mauer to be an excellent first baseman and to have another excellent year, because what else can you expect from Joe Mauer at this point, after all he’s accomplished, but expect to read a lot of Joey Votto-style headlines about how he needs to be a “run producer” and hit some dingers if he’s going to play first.
NEEDS TO SHINE
Josh Willingham added a hefty pinch of strikeouts to his game in 2013 and it lowered his batting average to an awful .208 over 471 injury plagued plate appearances. He posted the lowest power numbers of his career by far with only 14 home runs, but the future doesn’t necessarily look dark for the slugging outfielder. He upped his walk rate and still managed a more-than-respectable .340 OBP in spite of his terrible batting average, and that boosted his WAR to level at exactly 0.0. The Twins can hope that a healthy year for Willingham will mean another productive one, and such a year would do a lot for a team with the limited upside seen around the Twins’ current roster.
This has got to be newcomer and heir to the throne Josmil Pinto. After a promising rookie debut last year that saw him post 0.9 WAR in only 83 plate appearances, he looks poised to become the Twins’ everyday catcher of the future on the heels of Mauer’s move to first. His impressive stint in 2013 featured a .342/.398/.566 slash line and, obviously with any numbers like that, you have to plan for a lot of falling back to Earth. Pinto’s minor league stats don’t paint much of a prettier picture for his chances of sustaining that kind of pace. While Steamer and ZiPS both agree on his likely average hovering in the .250s this coming year, he did hit around .300 pretty consistently through the upper minors over a limited sample, so the ability to make contact is definitely there. He could be an excellent player, and quickly, but counting on him not to regress would be insane.
The Twins needed help, and they definitely went out and improved themselves, however with the Tigers perched high atop their division and the Indians and Royals fighting for the middle, the Twins may not have done enough to place themselves into serious wildcard contention. There’s value in fielding a team that isn’t god-awful to watch, and the Twins should be better in that regard in 2014 with upgrades to their pitching. Hughes is an extreme flyball pitcher who will be moving end to end on the dinger-park spectrum, as I outlined after the signing, and could post the very strong season in Minnesota that was always expected of him during his time as a prospect in New York. The Twins may not have put themselves into a position to contend, barring the planets aligning and every cylinder firing and all that (like any team), but they’ve improved enough that they could have a shot at being respectable. When your farm system contains studs in the making like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, giving your fans a nicer show to watch while they wait is commendable.