BASEBALL 2016: Twins carry expectation, not hope, of winning
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Twins finally tasted last year the intensity and exhilaration of meaningful September games, following four straight deeply flawed seasons.
Maybe this time they'll take the experience a little further.
''It's the first time that I've felt it in my five years here, that you come in expecting to be pretty good instead of hoping to be,'' All-Star second baseman Brian Dozier said. ''That confidence level is as high as it's ever been.''
Their 83-79 record and second-place finish in 2015 was their best since 2010, the last time they made the postseason. Factoring in the anticipation of a full year of rising young stars Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, with another wave of well-regarded prospects approaching behind them, the outlook for the Twins is brighter than it's been since their new ballpark opened six seasons ago.
''We have a very young talented group that's coming up,'' first baseman Joe Mauer said, ''and I can see why everybody's excited.''
The opener is Monday at Baltimore, where the burly slugger Sano will be formally broken in as the right fielder. The 6-foot-4, 260-plus-pound Sano was sent there for now, with Mauer set at first base, Trevor Plouffe still manning third base and Korean import Byung Ho Park signed to be the designated hitter.
Sano's ability to play adequate defense and stay healthy so he can reach his full hitting potential will go a long way toward Minnesota's success. Here are some other key angles to watch with the Twins this season:
BUXTON FROM THE BEGINNING: When they traded Aaron Hicks in November, the Twins took the final step toward turning center field over to Buxton for, they hope, the next decade or more. Injuries prompted general manager Terry Ryan to promote Buxton last summer before he played above Double-A, and his 44 strikeouts in 138 plate appearances provided glaring evidence of being overwhelmed at the plate.
Speed doesn't slump, though. The 22-year-old is already considered a Gold Glove-caliber defender. Buxton will bat ninth without much pressure to produce, and his ability to bunt, steal and beat out groundballs ought to provide the Twins some offensive value in case his bat is still a work in progress.
SMOOTH SO FAR: By all accounts, Park's first spring training went about as well on and off the field as the team could've hoped. Park, who hit 105 home runs over his last two seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization, can provide a valuable power boost for the Twins even if he can go deep this year, say, 20 to 25 times.
''He's swung the bat well enough for me at this stage of camp where I think he's a guy who can contribute somewhere close to the middle of the lineup,'' manager Paul Molitor said.
A WEIGHT OFF THEIR BACKS: Two of the team's most important pitchers, Phil Hughes and Glen Perkins, are coming off setback seasons marked by back problems that hindered them down the stretch. They each came back lighter and leaner, thanks to some adjustments to their winter workouts. Hughes, the opening day starter last year, dropped about 15 pounds. Perkins, the three-time All-Star closer, focused on strengthening his lower abdominal muscles.
ROTATION DEPTH: Though they're lacking that true ace, the Twins have the makings of a sound starting five with Hughes, Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson, Tommy Milone and Ricky Nolasco, their best group in at least six years. If one or more of them falter or get hurt, Tyler Duffey and Jose Berrios will be waiting in Triple-A.
MEDIOCRE MAUER?: Not often does a six-time All-Star with three batting titles making $23 million annually become an afterthought, but the Twins made their strides last year despite the worst of Joe Mauer's 12 years in the majors. He struck out a career-most 112 times and batted a mere .265.
Mauer recently acknowledged he'd been bothered by some blurred vision that made picking up pitches difficult over the past two years since the concussion that forced his move from catcher to first base, but he declared himself feeling as well as he has in several winters. If he can re-establish himself in the second spot in the lineup as the on-base machine he once was, the Twins lineup will be all the more dangerous.