Not too long ago, the Minnesota Twins were the class of the AL Central.
Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano formed a dominant front end of the pitching staff, and a potent lineup included Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer and Joe Mauer.
But from this group of all-stars, only Mauer remains, and the past few seasons in the Twin Cities have been difficult to stomach. The team hasn’t won more than 70 games since 2010.
With the presence of the star-studded Detroit Tigers and the re-emergence this past season of the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals, regaining a stronghold over the AL Central is unlikely for the Twins.
But that doesn’t mean the team has refrained from opening its wallet.
The Twins signed two right-handed pitchers to free-agent contracts: Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million deal and Phil Hughes to a three-year, $24 million contract.
If the team were on the verge of competing, these moves would have been viewed as timely tune-ups to shore up the rotation. However, the Twins have so many holes right now that these moves -- especially signing the erratic Hughes to a three-year deal -- are quite curious.
Mauer will be moving permanently to first base, so that at least will preserve his legs and allow his bat to remain in the lineup more often. But other than Mauer, only Josh Willingham presents some sort of offensive threat, and frankly, no one would be surprised if he is dealt before spring training.
Ryan Doumit and Trevor Plouffe are nice complimentary players, but they cannot provide the protection to Mauer that they will be asked to give. The rest of the lineup will be filled with young guys hoping to latch on in the league such as Alex Presley, Brian Dozier, Oswaldo Arcia, Pedro Florimon and Josmil Pinto.
Instead, if the Twins want to begin their climb back to relevance, the bulk of the load will fall on the pitching staff.
Target Field is certainly a pitchers’ park. Hughes especially gives up a lot of fly balls, so home runs in Yankee Stadium would be easy outs in his new ballpark.
Samuel Deduno and Kevin Correia had decent seasons and will round out the rotation, and the team has Scott Diamond and Kyle Gibson to compete for the fifth spot.
The bullpen should hold up well with Glen Perkins returning as closer. Jared Burton, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak, Caleb Thielbar, Ryan Pressly and Casey Fien all had great seasons and should contribute late in games.
With the offense not exactly set up to score many runs, this pitching staff -- especially the bullpen -- will have to protect whatever lead the Twins may have. Opposing teams will certainly be pitching around Mauer, so Willingham and Doumit will be relied upon heavily.
It will be tough for the Twins to get back to the playoffs with the roster they have assembled, but maybe an improved pitching staff will at least help Minnesota get back to the .500 mark.
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