2015 is when the Twins are going to start their turnaround. The cream of the prospect crop is reaching the majors - Arcia, Santana, Vargas, Pinto, Hicks, Buxton, Sano, Gibson, May, Meyer and Berrios. There are some skilled veterans who aren't yet past their expiration date - Mauer, Dozier, Plouffe, Suzuki, Perkins, Hughes and (hopefully) Nolasco. Combining these two groups will make for the core of the next great Twins team. At least, that's what they tell us.
In reality, the Twins struggled to improve as much as they may have liked in 2014. The pitching improved, but is still among the worst in the league. The lineup was actually very good, but still has some gaping holes. And at the end of the day, the team is going to need some help to make it out of the cellar of the American League.
The front office will be looking at a payroll of under $70 million for 2015 and have indicated that they intend to spend. The positions the Twins will attack, according to what I've read online and the general feel around the Twittersphere, are starting pitching and outfield. Let's take a look at some guys they will likely kick the tires on, starting with pitchers:
Phil Hughes is the only pitcher to earn a guaranteed spot in the rotation next year. Ricky Nolasco will almost certainly be given every opportunity to pitch as he enters his second out of five years under contract. Kyle Gibson and Tommy Milone will be on the team, but haven't locked down a rotation spot necessarily. Mike Pelfrey is also slated to make $5.5 million next year and could be a factor at the back end of the rotation. And lastly, Trevor May, Alex Meyer and Jose Berrios are all extremely talented guys who pitched in AAA last season and should get a shot at some point in 2015. Not to mention a slew of extra lefties who could be serviceable, Kris Johnson, Logan Darnell and Sean Gilmartin.
What the Twins should look for:
Given this outlook, rotation spots are going to be difficult to earn next season. However, most of the candidates are young, injury-prone, unproven, not that good or some combination of those. So, that combo of uncertainty plus money to spend plus a need to improve the squad means that the Twins will likely invest in a pitcher. The situation also suggests that the Twins should invest in a certain type of pitcher. There's no need to sign an inning's eater type, like Correia, Nolasco or Pelfrey. They need a guy to pair with Hughes at the front of the rotation. However, it's unlikely they'll be able to draw one of the top pitchers on the market like Jon Lester, James Shields or Max Scherzer. That restricts them to a certain second-tier type with the upside to lead a rotation. This is our prototype.
Who fits the mold:
Josh Beckett -- I'm starting out with the most ridiculous suggestion. Beckett has the talent to be one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball but is inconsistent and often injured. Perhaps the Twins could strike at the right time and get next year's version of Phil Hughes.
Francisco Liriano -- A reunion with this strikeout artist would make sense as the Twins are lacking in frontline left-handed pitching and should be reasonably priced because of his injury history.
Ervin Santana -- Over the past 5 seasons, he's averaged 205 innings and 3.84 ERA. He's been home run prone and may resemble Nolasco too closely, but he has front-line potential as he showed with the Royals in 2013.
James Shields, Jon Lester and Max Scherzer -- Pipe dream of most Twins fans. I would hope they stay away from dishing out huge money on any of these guys who would help, but have their best years behind them and would be a financial drag for years to come.
Oswaldo Arcia has right field on lock for the foreseeable future. Beyond that, there's nothing set in stone for next season. Center field could be occupied by Jordan Schafer or Aaron Hicks until Byron Buxton is ready - but we really aren't sure how long that will take. Left field could also be handled by Schafer, Hicks, Chris Parmelee or a prospect such as Eddie Rosario. Clearly, at least one outfielder is very much needed at least for 2015 and possibly beyond.
What the Twins should look for:
I've read they want a slugger. A big right-handed bat, like another Willingham or Cuddyer. This type of player would fit nicely in left field and the middle of the lineup. Howeveooking at the current construction of the roster and assuming Buxton isn't ready opening day, it's pretty clear they need a guy to man centerfield at least adequately. I would expect this to be where they spend most of their money, with only Cuban Yasmani Tomas probably out of play, as he's expected to make $75 million.
Who fits the mold:
Nelson Cruz -- If the Twins get their dream to come true, they'll end up Cruz. He can be slotted into left field and the #4 slot in the lineup between Mauer and Arcia. Not to mention the damage that right-handed sluggers have done in Minnesota. His gaudy home run total this season might drive up his price while his mediocre plate discipline and injury history tell us more about his actual value. Signing Cruz would almost certainly be an overpay but he is a good fit.
Colby Rasmus -- His career slash line of .246/.313/.438 isn't attractive. But it's excusable when you consider that he plays a solid centerfield, has thunder in his bat and is a solid-average baserunner. He might carry a higher price tag than some others but he also has more upside. He'd fit well on the Twins on a two year deal, starting 2014 as the centerfielder and then providing huge value off the bench once Buxton reaches the majors or taking over left field.
Emilio Bonifacio -- Emilio's triple slash line as journeyman isn't too outstanding .264/.320/.343. But he provides great flexibility in that he could play pretty much any position on the field. Flexibility would be very helpful if team officials think Buxton will be ready early on in the season and could use Bonifacio as a backup at nearly every other position.
So it appears Byron Buxton is the key to the puzzle. If the Twins want him to spend an entire season between AA and AAA getting reps, Colby Rasmus makes the most sense, potentially sharing the outfield with Hicks or Schafer. If Buxton could be ready early in the season, Bonifacio would be an excellent complementary piece and provide flexibility. Nelson Cruz would fit in left field regardless of what's going on in centerfield as Eddie Rosario looks less and less like a big piece of the future in left field. The Cruz scenario is more related to the Pohlad's grip on the purse strings.
I'd love to hear what you guys think about the off-season as well - any trade targets? Do they need bullpen help? How about leaving Santana in the outfield and signing JJ Hardy back? Tweet us @Pitchers_Duel or leave a comment!