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Twins Season Preview: The future is on the farm

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The Twins aren't ready to compete with the Tigers and the Royals just yet, but that doesn't mean they won't be worth watching this year.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It was not that long ago that the Minnesota Twins were the team to beat in the AL Central. From 2002 to 2010, the Twins won the division six times and missed a seventh title by a single game in 2008. They failed to capitalize on those division wins, making it out the ALDS just once, all the way back in 2002, however. Now those playoff failures make that success all the more easy to forget after four seasons spent at least twenty games away from the top spot.

The playoff freeze-out will almost certainly continue in 2015 as the Twins wait for the Byron Buxton/ Miguel Sano-era to begin. If injuries don't derail that duo this season, the thaw might not be far off, but it could very well come too late for the last remaining star of the Twins glory days, Joe Mauer, to contribute any heat of his own. The catcher-turned-first-baseman slumped last season, hitting just .277/.361/.371 for an OPS+ of 107, his worst performance at the plate since 2005. It appears that the transition away from the plate did not yield the positive effects for his bat many fans had hoped for. He will be 32 this season and if his performance last season is a sign of the start of his decline, he will have difficult time justifying an everyday role now that he is playing at the low end of the defensive spectrum. Even if Mauer can no longer justify his spot in the lineup everyday, it is hard to see what Minnesota will be able to do with their aging star. He is owed $96 million dollars over the next four seasons, so the Twins just might have to suffer his diminishing returns. He would need to bounce back in a major way to have significant trade value and if that does happen, it is hard to imagine Minnesota dealing him. His deal is not exactly an albatross for the Twins just yet, but their short-term future would look much better if he is able to show that 2014 was not the beginning of the end.

Departures: You won't have Chris Parmelee to shuffle around any more

Position

Player

Team

RHP

Kris Johnson

Hiroshima Carps (NPL)

RHP

Jared Burton

Yankees

RHP

Yohan Pino

Royals

RHP

Anthony Swarzak

Indians

OF/1B

Chris Parmalee

Orioles

The Twins really didn't lose anyone they will miss this winter. The most notable departure is that of corner outfielder and first baseman Chris Parmelee. Parmelee was a first round pick for the Twins back in 2006 and he even cracked Top-100 lists ahead of the 2007 season, but his defense was not strong enough to be an asset in right field and his bat never managed to play at the major league level anywhere near as well as it did in the minors. A lefty hitter who has actually hit lefties slightly better than righties- which is still not all that well- Parmelee is the kind of player that will probably hover around the majors for some time, giving other teams the same thing he gave Minnesota- a lefty bench bat and a little organizational depth. Though now that he is with the Orioles, I see a suspicious resemblance to a guy who might have fit the same description before going nuts in 2014. Did Minnesota just let Baltimore have a left-handed Steve Pearce? Only time will tell (but probably not).

Additions: A new Santana, A (very) old Torii Hunter

Position

Player

Old Team

RHP

Ervin Santana

Braves

RF

Torii Hunter

Tigers

INF

Argenis Diaz

Diamondbacks

OF

Shane Robinson

Cardinals

RHP

Blaine Boyer

Padres

RHP

Brayan Villareal

Red Sox

LHP

Wil Ledezma

Yucatan (Mex)

Tim Stauffer

One of the best moves of the 2014 off-season went largely unheralded despite working out even better than even the most optimistic Twins fan might have hoped. When Minnesota signed ex-Yankee Phil Hughes to a 5-year, $58 million deal one winter ago, it looked like a smart move. Now it looks like pure genius. Hughes had been a fly ball-heavy right-handed pitcher in a place that could not be worse for that skill set. Despite that, he had shown fairly good control and reasonable strikeout ability. No one loves control more that the Twins, so they bought low on Hughes and got a fantastic return. His 11.63 K/BB in 2014 was the best in the American League by a North Country mile and he even got a few down-ballot Cy Young votes for the effort.

It would not be hard to imagine writing something very similar about the Twins Ervin Santana signing a year from now. Santana has been fairly good in the two years since his ruinous 2012 season. He revived his career on a one-year deal with the Royals in 2013. Pitching in a park that suppresses home runs, Santana was able to post the best control numbers of his career with Kansas City. He fell victim to the qualifying offer and wound up taking a one-year deal with the Braves last spring. He was even better with Atlanta if you go by FIP, but his ERA shot up and his control took a step back. The Twins will give Santana a comfortable home park where he can attack the zone without fear of the long ball. Minnesota has had a culture of control over power on the mound since the days of Brad Radke and that might just be the best approach for Santana. At four-years, $55 million, he is a serious bargain in the making for the Twins. Hughes and Santana will not give Minnesota the twin ace attack they had in Francisco Liriano and Johan Santana at the height of their early century run, but they should be affordable arms in the middle of the rotation now and still useful enough when the farm system starts paying off as well.

The other major addition of the off-season in Minnesota is the return of one of the major forces behind all those division titles, Torii Hunter. Back when the Twins were the best team in the AL Central Torii Hunter was the face of the franchise. He won nine straight Gold Gloves in center. He hit for power, he stole bases, he drove in runs. He was the model of a five-tool player. Now he is old. His defense was probably overrated at this peak but now, both the eye test and the metrics are against it. He gets caught almost as much as he succeeds in stealing bases now, so it is good that he doesn't try often and it would probably be better if stopped trying altogether. He can still hit though. In two seasons with Detroit, he posted a .295/.327/.456 line. It might not be the wisest thing for a small-market far from contention team to spend $10.5 million on a 39-year-old veteran who could be worthless if this is the season his bat speed abandons him, but Hunter means more to Minnesota than he would to another team in a similar position. He will remind fans who have suffered through the last four season of better days and if he winds up playing next to Byron Buxton later this year, there will be a nice symmetry to things as a result. There are worse ways to market a baseball team than be selling a little nostalgia every now and then.

Payroll Outlook: Dead last, done dirt cheap

Estimated Payroll (per Baseball-reference): $107.6 million

Even with Joe Mauer's contract, the Hughes, Nolasco and Santana deals and Torii Hunter's return, the Twins are set to be one of the lowest payroll teams in the Majors. Last season they finished 26th in spending and another finish in the bottom third seems practically guaranteed. Minnesota will probably never support a giant payroll, but the Twins willingness to spend on Santana and even Hunter should encourage fans a little. The Twins can't simply spend their way back into contention. The talent coming up through the system will make or break the Twins in the years to come, but making a few cost-conscious deals to improve the pitching now should help set the stage for the days when Byron Buxton and others can carry the team back to glory. The Twins are still a cheap club and they will remain so as long as the Pohland Family is in control. They have not gone to the extreme of the Astros or the Cubs these past two years, however and that is probably a good thing.

Odds (Via Bovada)

World Series: 150/1

Over/under wins: 72

As promising as the farm system is and as much as one can justifiable praise moves like Hughes and Santana and understand a deal like Hunter's, noone is likely to mistake the team on the field in Minnesota this year for a contender. The Tigers still rule the AL Central and the Royals are still the scrappy underdogs that captured the imagination of the baseball world this October. The Indians are probably better than they were last season and the White Sox might even have turned themselves into contenders with the deals they made this winter. If the Twins are going to get out of the cellar this season, a lot of things will have to go right for them and wrong for other teams. And that is just to manage a third or fourth place finish. Thanks to the star potential on the farm, this story could change soon, but 2015 is going to be another tough year for the Twins.

Bottom Line

This season is not going to be much different from the past four seasons. But unlike a few other long-shots, the Twins are an interesting team to watch in 2015. They don't have the arms or the offense to compete in the division, but they have young talent that could land in Target Field this year and change that. Their farm system was ranked second by Baseball Prospectus this off-season and Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are the main reason for that. Both players fell to injury last season, delaying their debut but both are healthy now and in camp with the Twins this spring. Both could arrive in the Majors this year, but as things stand, Minnesota has no need to rush them. But if both are knocking on the door, it could be the performance of some of the current players that determines whether or not they get their call-up. If the pitching moves of the last two winters stabilize the rotation some and guys like Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier give the offense some life, Minnesota could see 2015 as the ideal time to give kids like Buxton and Sano, as well as others like Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios and Nick Burdi exposure to the highest level, eyeing a run in 2016 or 2017. Ifthe time-table for success isn't there, another uninspiring season up North is probably in the cards. This isn't a team that has a reasonable chance to win now, even if just about everything goes right. They could win in 2016, however and it would be fun to watch that team fall into place later this year.