The Twins have made improvements to a beleaguered rotation, but Minnesota's off-season could use some more pitching if the team truly wants to turn it around.
With little more than five weeks left before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014.
2014 Results: 70-92 (.432), fifth place in AL Central (Hot Stove Preview)
After hanging around .500 for most of the first half of the 2014 season — 44-50 at the All-Star break — the Twins sagged in the second half to finish with their fourth straight season below .500, albeit with their best record since 2010. Nonetheless, they fired manager Ron Gardenhire after 13 years at the helm, and to replace him, they turned to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who might have gotten the job back in 2001 before withdrawing his name from consideration. Molitor has spent time coaching at both the major and minor league levels since, though this will be his first managerial stint.
He'll inherit a roster that will feature a familiar face in Torii Hunter, who spent the first 15 years of his professional career with the Twins (1993-2007), the last nine of them as a regular in the big club's outfield. The now-39-year-old is coming off a season in which he hit a fairly representative .286/.319/.446 with 17 homers for the Tigers; his 111 OPS+ matched his career mark. However, his defense crashed through the floor, with both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating measuring his fieldwork at a dismal -18 runs, worse than even his 2013 showing (-10 DRS, -4 UZR). Thus, his 0.4 Wins Above Replacement was his worst mark since 2000, and he turned in just 2.1 WAR over the past two years in Detroit. As the team's new rightfielder — with Oswaldo Arcia shifting to leftfield — he'd better impart a whole lot of veteran wisdom to be worth the $10.5 million he’s making on a one-dear deal.
The team's other big acquisition this winter is also a familiar name — Santana — but it's Ervin, not Johan, who's coming to town. Signed to a four-year, $55 million deal, the 32-year-old righty is now on his fourth team in four years, having passed from the Angels to the Royals to the Braves to the Twins. With the Braves, Santana pitched to a subpar 3.95 ERA (92 ERA+) in 196 innings, though some of that owed to a scorching .326 batting average on balls in play, 42 points above his previous career mark. Aided by facing NL lineups, his 8.2 strikeouts per nine and 2.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio were both his best marks since 2008, as was his 3.39 FIP.
Via FanGraphs (where valuations are driven by FIP), he's been worth at least 2.6 WAR in three of the past four years, but just a total of 7.2 for the period; via Baseball-Reference (where valuations are driven by actual runs allowed), he's been worth just 5.7 in that span. While the move to a larger ballpark could help him, particularly as a flyballer, either mark suggests he'll have a hard time justifying that contract over the four-year stretch, with Ricky Nolasco (5.38 ERA in the first year of his four-year, $49 million deal) on hand to provide a sobering reminder of how wrong things can go. That said, Santana is a substantial upgrade on the replacement-level dreck with which the Twins have been padding their rotation for too long.
There's a bit more to be happier about with the team's other pitching expenditure this winter: a $42 million extension for Phil Hughes. Signed to a three-year, $24 million deal last winter, Hughes shook off the ups and downs of his tenure in the Bronx to post a 3.52 ERA in 209 2/3 innings, both career bests, along with 8.0 strikeouts per nine and a record-setting 11.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His 4.3 WAR (B-Ref flavor) is more than double his previous career best as a starter (2.0 in 2010), so it may seem like a gamble to bank on him to maintain that level. Even so, the reworked deal only bumps him from $8 million to $9.2 million for 2015 and '16 — years in which he should be a significant bargain — then rises to $13.2 million for 2017-19, still less than the average annual value of the Santana contract.
As for the other comings and goings, Jared Burton has been a bullpen staple for the past three seasons, over which his ERA has doubled (from 2.18 to 4.36) and his peripherals have eroded. For the money, the team can do better than his since-declined $3.6 million option. Chris Colabello hit just .229/.282/.380 with six homers in 280 PA en route to -1.0 WAR; lost on waivers to the Blue Jays, his roster spot can be put to better use.
Tim Stauffer, a 32-year-old righty who signed a one-year, $2.2 million deal, is one option for the bullpen. Having overcome a seemingly endless litany of injuries to find a home in the Padres' 'pen, he posted a 3.50 ERA, 3.02 FIP and 9.4 strikeouts per nine in 64 1/3 innings in 2014. Blaine Boyer spent part of last year with the Padres as well, posting a 3.57 ERA and 2.93 FIP in 40 1/3 innings, though he struck out just 6.5 per nine. J.R. Graham, a Rule 5 pick from Atlanta, is a 25-year-old righty who cracked the bottom reaches of prospect lists heading into 2013, but his career as a starter has stalled; he's spent the past two-and-a-half seasons with diminishing returns at Double A, with shoulder woes a factor. Prospect hounds liked his stuff — including a 98 mph fastball and a potential plus curve — before the injury, and many feel that a move to the bullpen might help him rediscover his stuff in shorter stints, so he's not a bad gamble at all.
Unfinished Business: More pitching
Yes, the Twins have spent significant money to upgrade a rotation that was tarred and feathered for a league-worst 5.08 ERA last year, their second straight of bringing up the rear. Even with Hughes, Santana, Nolasco and Kyle Gibson as the front four, the team probably isn't going to turn the corner toward contention yet, and while they have options for the fifth spot — Trevor May, Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey — that trio's 2014 ERAs with the Twins could be confused for Boeing models.
A starter such as free agent Ryan Vogelsong or a trade acquisition could provide a modest upgrade and be flippable at the trade deadline in the event May or fellow prospect Alex Meyer is ready to join the fray. Likewise, it would be good to add another setup reliever to pitch in front of Glen Perkins, since the current options — Stauffer, Casey Fien, Michael Tonkin — aren't exactly overwhelming.
Preliminary Grade: C+
While he may not live up to his contract in the long run, Santana is a clear upgrade over what he's replacing, and the below-market Hughes extension is worthwhile as well. Both should be in place long enough to offer stability while a stable of strong prospects — May, Meyer, Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario (the last three of whom would like to forget the past season) — eventually reach the majors. For a team that minds every nickel it spends, the Hunter deal seems more founded on nostalgia than common sense, however, and not enough has been done to suggest that the Twins are ready to surprise anyone just yet.