After four years of wandering in the wilderness, the Minnesota Twins pulled out of their nosedive last year. Buoyed by starting pitching that wasn't a disaster and the rise of promising young hitters like Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, and Eduardo Escobar, they weathered the disappointing performances of Joe Mauer, Danny Santana, Kennys Vargas Phil Hughes, and Ricky Nolasco (and the suspension of Ervin Santana) and won 83 games and finished a distant second in the AL Central behind the World Champion Royals.
You might have expected the 2016 Twins to step on the gas and to try to build on their success, but you would be wrong. Instead of spending to upgrade a terrible bullpen, or exploring the market for Trevor Plouffe, the Twins hung back for most of the year, essentially finishing their shopping before Thanksgiving.
The Twins struck quickly after the season ended, sending disappointing former first rounder Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for catcher John Ryan Murphy. Hicks is going to be 26, and showed some signs of life in 2015, particularly on defense and against left-handed pitching. He was rushed and bungled from the start by the Twins, and may still have a good career in front of him. In Minnesota, he was perpetually the placeholder until Byron Buxton was ready, and Hicks's trade may signal that the Twins are ready to simply hand the job to the budding star (probably not though, because these are the Twins).
Murphy is a 25 year old catcher who the Twins hope can take over as the starter for the awful Kurt Suzuki at some point in 2016. He served as the backup to Brian McCann for all of last year, hitting .277/.327/.406 in 172 plate appearances. Before that, hit passably in double- and triple-A, never really distinguishing himself as a prospect. If his defensive chops hold up, Murphy probably tops out at a league average catcher, which definitely has a lot of value under the Twins' control for the next five years. He also might just be a competent backup catcher who looks horribly stretched in a starting role.
The Free Agents
I don't know if you can reasonably call Byung-ho Park a free agent. Nevertheless, the Twins offered the highest posting fee to bring the 29 year old Korean over from the Japanese league, and will pay him around $12 million over the next four years to serve as the club's DH and first baseman. Most of the projection systems think he'll lose some batting average and OBP, but will finish with 25 homers or so, and be an above average offensive player. For the money, that's excellent. However, Park also carries some risk, having never faced Major League pitching before.
Moreover, his arrival (coupled with Joe Mauer's continued presence and the non-trade of Plouffe) pushes Miguel Sano from 3B-DH to right field, where he's never played before. In fact, the only players listed at 260 lbs or heavier who have ever played 100 games or more in the outfield are Dmitri Young, Adam Dunn, Carlos Lee, Evan Gattis, and Wily Mo Pena, all of whom carried huge defensive liabilities. We also don't know how Sano's body will hold up to the additional pounding it takes in the outfield versus third base.
The Twins also added Fernando Abad as a potential lefty reliever out of the bullpen on a minor league deal. He has a realistic chance to make the team simply because there are few other capable lefties lying around on the club. Trevor May will also almost certainly move to the bullpen full time, despite having the stuff and the performance to be a good mid-rotation starter.
Reasons to Worry
Well, there's the Sano to the outfield thing. If that doesn't work, it will require the Twins to either trade Plouffe or to platoon Park and Mauer. So the Twins are going to stubbornly stick to Sano in the outfield for as long as they can, costing themselves runs.
There's also the wasting Trevor May in the bullpen thing. Not that the Twins are hurting for candidates for the starting rotation. It's just that the candidates that they do have (with the exception of Jose Berrios, who will start the season at Rochester), lack May's upside. Beyond May, Kevin Jepsen, and closer Glen Perkins, the rest of the Twins bullpen looks like a hope, a prayer, and a bunch of mediocrity.
There's also a good chance that 2016 will see some regression from some of the players who broke out in 2015. Sano will be hard pressed to put up a .916 OPS again. Rosario's strike zone judgment is so poor he could take a precipitous decline. Murphy might not be able to handle starting.
There's also the Joe Mauer thing. The more time that passes, the less likely we're going to see Joe Mauer, productive hitter, ever again.
Reasons to Hope
Mauer identified some blurred vision in bright light as a possible factor in his post-concussion decline. Perhaps protective eyewear can help resolve some of his difficulties. A full season of Sano will presumably add some value, even if the move to the outfield costs the Twins a few runs. Byron Buxton seems poised to break out, and so too does Max Kepler. And Eduardo Escobar has developed into one of the top five shortstops in the American League.
The starting staff is competent, if not outstanding, and Berrios figures to join by mid-May or June. So too could Nick Burdi and other high-upside relief prospects to fill out lower-leverage spots in the bullpen. Ultimately, the Twins have enough pieces to mix and match, and to compensate for disappointing performances if they identify them quickly and get better pieces in those positions. A better than league-average offense, a competent pitching staff, and impressive rookie campaigns from Buxton, Berrios, Kepler, and Burdi might help them beat the projections, which universally dislike their chances, and prove that standing pat for the winter was the right choice.