Wait 'Til Next Year: Farm system, rotation big losers for Twins in 2014
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.
Current Record: 63-86 (.423, fifth in the AL Central)
Mathematically eliminated: Sept. 11
What went right in 2014: The Twins hung around .500 for most of the first half of the season, going 23-21 through May 21, 36-38 through June 22, and sitting at 44-50 at the All-Star break — their best showings at each point since their 94-win 2010 campaign. They need only another four wins over their final 13 games to post their best record since that year.
On the pitching side, free agent addition Phil Hughes has turned in career bests in Wins Above Replacement (3.9), ERA (3.56) and FIP (2.64) as a starter via the league's lowest walk rate (0.7 per nine) and highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (11.0); his 0.7 homers per nine is roughly half of his last four seasons in the Yankees' rotation. Kyle Gibson has shaved his ERA by nearly two runs (from 6.53 to 4.58) while halving his homer rate, and Glen Perkins earned All-Star honors as closer for the second straight season.
Meanwhile, the offense has been the team’s most potent since that 2010 campaign, scoring 4.38 runs per game, good for fifth in the AL. Second baseman Brian Dozier and third baseman Trevor Plouffe have shown improvement over solid 2013 seasons despite low batting averages; the former has hit .237/.342/.404 with 20 homers en route to 4.7 WAR, while the latter has hit .251/.322/.427 with 14 homers and 3.6 WAR. Free agent Kurt Suzuki has had a career-best season at the plate (.249/.327/.408) and a solid one behind it; after signing him to a one-year, $2.75 million deal for this season, the team extended him for two more years and $12 million.
Beyond the veterans, some young players also put up promising numbers. Rookie centerfielder Danny Santana came up in May and has hit a sizzling .316/.352/.470 with 15 steals and 2.7 WAR in 89 games, albeit with a 79/17 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Flanked by fellow rookie callup Kennys Vargas and sophomore Oswaldo Arcia, the team now has a young outfield with punch and speed, which at least helps offset their lack of plate discipline.
What went wrong in 2014: For a team looking to the future and stocked with high-caliber prospects, the Twins experienced some disastrous setbacks below the major league level. Centerfielder Byron Buxton, the consensus No. 1 prospect in all of baseball, was limited to 31 games by a left wrist sprain and a concussion. That was at least better than the outcome for third baseman Miguel Sano, who missed the entire season due to Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Meanwhile, infielder/outfielder Eddie Rosario has had a lost year as well, hitting just 237/.277/.396 at Double-A New Britain after being suspended 50 games due to a second positive test for a drug of abuse.
At the major league level, Joe Mauer's conversion to first base failed to keep him healthy or particularly effective; he missed nearly six weeks due to an oblique strain and has hit just .272/.357/.369 with four homers — an ominous sign for a player still owed $92 million over the next four seasons. Centerfielder Aaron Hicks has improved only marginally after flopping in 2013 and has now been surpassed by Santana. Josh Willingham hit just .210/.345/.402 and battled injuries before being traded to the Royals for Jason Adam, a pitcher with a back-rotation profile.
Then there's the rotation, which has been a massive issue. The team ranks second-to-last in the league in run prevention, with the starters posting a league-worst 5.08 ERA and delivering a quality start just 40 percent of the time. Of the 10 pitchers to make more than four starts, the since-traded Kevin Correia was the only one besides Gibson and Hughes with an ERA under 5.00. Ricky Nolasco, who was signed to a four-year, $49 million deal, has pitched to a 5.64 ERA while missing nearly six weeks due to a flexor pronator strain. Mike Pelfrey, re-signed via a two-year, $11 million deal, made just five starts with a 7.99 ERA before undergoing surgery to decompress his ulnar nerve. Prospect Trevor May and trade acquisition Tommy Milone were both torched for ERAs above 7.00 in limited duty.
Finally, while he's under contract for next year, it's fair to wonder if manager Ron Gardenhire's time has run its course after 13 seasons on the job. It's rare that a manager can survive four straight seasons of 90-plus losses, and it isn't clear what upside Gardenhire offers that's keeping him around. One ongoing problem in particular is the team's mismanagement of injuries to key players. Having turned over the training staff and several coaches, he’s the constant on a team where communication about such serious matters often seems to be lacking.
Overall outlook: Better days can’t help but lie ahead for a team en route to its fourth season of at least 90 losses. But despite what at the outset of the season appeared to be one of the game's top farm systems, the future doesn't appear to be a whole lot closer thanks to so many high-profile setbacks. As for the financial commitments … ugh. Even with only $59.35 million committed for next year, the money going to Mauer, Nolasco, and Pelfrey — which accounts for more than $40 million of that — doesn't inspire much confidence. On the other hand, if the prospects can rebound next year, the team still has years of club control over a nucleus of players who could help this franchise turn the corner.