FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) The fall of the Minnesota Twins over the last four seasons can be traced to several factors, none more influential than the struggles of the starting rotation.
So for the second straight winter, the Twins spent millions of dollars to try to fix it.
''We all know that we weren't very good last year as a whole and that we have to be a lot better,'' right-hander Phil Hughes said. ''It's not some big secret, so it doesn't really need to be said when we come in here.''
Hughes was hardly the problem. In fact, had the Twins not signed him after his departure from the New York Yankees, there's no telling how ragged the rotation would have been. Hughes had as many walks as wins, 16, while setting a major league record for strikeout-to-walk ratio, 11.63, among pitchers with a qualifying amount of innings.
''He obviously developed confidence as the year went on. You could see it just progress from month to month, start to start, and there's no reason to think that's not going to continue for him,'' manager Paul Molitor said. ''We're going to put him up there at the top, and hopefully he'll kind of go from there.''
The Twins gave Hughes a new contract through 2019 that added three years and $42 million in guaranteed money to the $24 million he first got last season. They signed Ervin Santana for $55 million over four years, too. The previous winter, they doled out deals to Ricky Nolasco ($49 million, four years) and Mike Pelfrey ($11 million, two years). That's what happens when a team ranks next-to-last (5.40 in 2012), last (5.26 in 2013) and last (5.06 in 2014) in the majors in starting pitching ERA over a three-season span.
Over the last five years, Santana averaged 12 wins, 207 innings and 164 strikeouts while making 30 or more starts each season. Kyle Gibson was Minnesota's second-best starter last year with a 4.47 ERA in 31 starts. So the Hughes-Santana-Gibson trio ought to form a solid if unspectacular trio.
The rest of the rotation is where the focus will be for the rest of spring training.
Nolasco faltered badly in his first American League season, allowing 203 hits in 159 innings while fighting through some forearm problems.
''That's behind us now. I think we need to move forward with Ricky and see if we can get him going because he's capable of throwing 200 innings and that would be very welcome here,'' general manager Terry Ryan said.
Then there's the five-way tryout for the fifth spot. Alex Meyer is the organization's top pitching prospect, poised for his major league debut. He's said he'd be fine starting in the bullpen, but his talent and potential might be too much for Ryan, Molitor and pitching coach Neil Allen to keep out of the rotation.
''I'm 25 years old now, so I'm just going to go in there and do everything I can to try and force their hand,'' Meyer said.
Trevor May is another prospect, a bit ahead of Meyer in experience after making nine starts for the Twins last season but not as widely acclaimed by evaluators and thus likely headed for a return to Triple-A Rochester. After a winter's worth of yoga, May said he feels as strong as he's ever felt with better balance between upper and lower body.
''Hopefully none of us give up any runs so the choice is really hard for the Twins to make and it's a good position for them to be in,'' May said.
Right-hander Tim Stauffer was signed for $2.2 million after spending last year in the bullpen with the San Diego Padres, but he has made 73 major league starts and will have an opportunity, too. So will Pelfrey, whose rough 2013 season was compounded in 2014 by elbow trouble that kept him to five starts.
Then there's Tommy Milone, the only left-hander in the mix and one with two-plus years of decent performance as a starter for the Oakland Athletics. Acquired last summer, Milone struggled, like May and many others who tried to fill the back spots in the rotation. Milone had soreness in his neck that was later found to be a benign tumor.
''I wouldn't pinpoint my neck issue being the reasons why I wasn't very effective when I came here last year. I think I just didn't pitch well,'' Milone said. ''It might have been coming into a new team in the middle of the season, trying to do too much and impress everybody and be a pitcher that they want me to be. But now I feel comfortable. It's a new year, a clean slate.''
That's what the Twins are banking on, too.