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Twins' rotation, defense likely to doom them to AL Central cellar again

With 90-plus losses in four straight seasons, the Twins are hoping to climb back toward the top of the AL Central. But they'll need far better from their pitchers to do that.

This week, is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 28: the Minnesota Twins.

2014 Record and Finish: 70–92 (.432), fifth place in AL Central (27th overall)

2015 Projected Record and Finish: 67–95 (.414), fifth place in AL Central (28th overall)

The Case For

The Twins could field a lineup with better-than-average offense (an OPS+ above 100) at every position, as they did last year while ranking fifth in the league in scoring—their highest rank in that category since 2010, which was, not coincidentally, their last winning season. The lineup will include three players in their age-24 seasons (Oswaldo Arcia, Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas) and just one over 32 years old (Torii Hunter). Santana and Vargas are heading into their first full major league season after promising 2014 debuts, and to that core, they could add Miguel Sano, who missed all of last year due to Tommy John surgery but nonetheless rates as one of the top 10 or 15 prospects in the game.

To that, you can add a rotation in which newcomer Ervin Santana, holdover Phil Hughes and, perhaps during the season, power arms Alex Meyer and Trevor May could push the team into the league's upper half in strikeouts for the first time since 2007. Then there's progressive rookie manager Paul Molitor, who is already providing a contrast to his predecessor, kindly old Ron Gardenhire, at the helm. Put all that together, and you can start to see the nucleus of a contender emerging.

The Case Against

Minnesota has lost at least 90 games in each of the past four seasons, finishing last in the AL Central three times, and it's not like the division stood still this winter. Even with Hughes coming off a strong season in which he went 16-10 with a 3.52 ERA and an MLB-best 11.63 K/BB ratio, the other members of the current starting five—Santana, Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson and Tommy Milone—were below average in terms of run prevention. (To be fair, Santana's career-best 3.39 FIP was undone by a career-worst .326 BABIP en route to a 3.95 ERA for the Braves).

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The Twins' staff has ranked last in the league in strikeout rate in each of the past two seasons, and they were last in defensive efficiency (.672) and second-to-last in Defensive Runs Saved (-72) last year, so it’s not like pitching to contact helped. Since then, they've added Hunter, who has won nine Gold Gloves but also posted -28 DRS in the past two seasons, which is to say that he's not likely to help much on that side of the ball. Perhaps he can at least impart some wisdom to Arcia (-10 DRS) and centerfield candidate Aaron Hicks (-3 DRS).

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X-Factor: Ricky Nolasco

In December 2013, Minnesota committed $49 million over four years to the enigmatic Nolasco, hoping that he could serve as a rotation anchor as the waves of young talent arrived. He certainly made like an anchor last year, sinking to the bottom via career worsts in ERA (5.38) and FIP (4.30) as his strikeout rate plunged to an all-too-Twins-like 6.5 per nine. A flexor pronator strain that cost him five weeks could have been a contributing factor, but Nolasco is a pitcher who's notorious for underperforming relative to his peripherals (career FIP 3.82, career ERA 4.48). At $12 million a year with a $1 million buyout on his 2018 option year, he's not an easy pitcher for a small-market team to hide, so if Minnesota is going to turn the corner, it needs him to pitch up to that contract.

Number To Know: .277/.361/.371

That's Joe Mauer's batting line from last season, his first after moving from catcher to first base so as to avoid further concussion problems. In 120 games—a total held down by a six-week absence due to a strained oblique, lest you think that the move guaranteed him good health—he hit just four home runs; he hasn't hit more than 11 since 2009, and other than the 28 he hit that year, he's never exceeded 13. Beyond the power outage, he set a career low in batting average and came within a few points of doing so in the other two slash categories.

Yes, Mauer is a three-time batting champion, but at 32, his best days may be behind him. It remains to be seen whether he can be more than a league-average first baseman over the final four years and $92 million of his contract.

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Scout's Takes

Most Overrated: Joe Mauer

“He's a good middle-of-the-order hitter, but he can't hit the ball over the fence. His reputation is so strong because of his many accomplishments, and he was a great player for a long time, but when you lose your power and you play a position that requires power, it diminishes you.”

Most Underrated: Casey Fien

“He's made himself into a quality eighth-inning setup guy. He challenges hitters, his fastball is good enough, his breaking ball is good enough. He'll come in and do a good job setting up in front of [closer Glen] Perkins.”