It might only be mid-February, but it’s feeling a lot like baseball season. At least that’s the case if you’re in Fort Myers, Fla.
Minnesota Twins pitchers and catchers reported officially for Spring Training on Tuesday, although many had already been around the facility working out. The rest of the squad officially reports this weekend, and several players are already in Florida doing their own preparations for the season.
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) February 15, 2017
After the disaster that was the 2016 season, wholesale changes had to be made. The Twins went 59-103 last year to finish dead last in the American League Central Division. They were the worst team in the AL, and it wasn’t close. They finished 19 games behind the White Sox for fourth in the division, and 35.5 games back from the division winner, Cleveland.
The 2017 season can only get better, because it can’t get any worse right? After all, five out of the last six seasons have ended with at least 90 losses and irrelevant baseball after the All-Star break.
Here are four reasons why the Twins will be better this year. It may not lead to a playoff spot, but they should at least be competitive most of the season.
New Front Office Shaking Things Up
The Twins front office got a new look after the dismissal of general manager Terry Ryan during the 2016 season. Once the season ended, there was a shift in the organizational approach and culture. Derek Falvey was named the chief of baseball operations, and he brought Thad Levine with him to be the general manager. Falvey is younger and relies a lot on analytics. They made an immediate change in not retaining hitting coach Tom Brunansky and first base coach Butch Davis. They did retain bullpen coach Eddie Guardado, bench coach Joe Vavra, base coach Gene Glynn and pitching coach Neil Allen. They’ve also brought back former players in Michael Cuddyer, LaTroy Hawkins and Torii Hunter to the staff as consultants.
On the field, the Twins parted ways with Trevor Plouffe, clearing the way for Miguel Sano to play third base full-time. They added catcher Jason Castro in the offseason, and they’re still looking for pitchers to help them get out of the AL Central cellar. They also designated Byung-Ho Park for assignment. He cleared waivers and will get another shot at Spring Training after a rough 2016 season marred by injuries. The rebuild will take time, but Falvey and Levine have showed they’re not afraid to shake things up if they believe it will make the organization better over the long haul.
Pitching Will Improve
One of the top priorities this year if the Twins want to be competitive is to improve the pitching staff. Part of that process involved bringing in a new catcher in Jason Castro to manage the pitchers. The Twins had one starting pitcher with an ERA under 4.0 last year, Ervin Santana at 3.38 in 30 starts. Kyle Gibson, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Tyler Duffey and Tommy Milone all had their struggles last year. The relievers weren’t much better and had the tendency to blow the few late leads the Twins had last year.
The biggest key might be the health of closer Glen Perkins. He appeared in just two games before being sidelined the rest of the year with arm and shoulder problems. We were all excited to see Jose Berrios last year, and then he fell apart because he couldn’t throw strikes. Too many pitchers either spent most of last year hurt or ineffective, and that has to change if the Twins are to win more games this year.
Brian Dozier Still A Twin
Perhaps one of the biggest offseason moves for the Twins is one they didn’t make. Despite widespread rumors of a trade, Brian Dozier is still with the Twins and is expected to start the season at second base. Dozier hit .268 last year, but was one of the hottest hitters in the major leagues the second half of the season. He finished with a career-high 42 home runs and 99 RBI. He scored 104 runs and had a .546 slugging percentage.
Maybe most importantly, he’s a clubhouse leader who is liked and respected by his teammates. He works hard when nobody is watching and never takes a day off. There is still a chance he could be dealt by this year’s trade deadline, but he’s more likely to be the heart and soul for the Twins for many years to come.
More Rest For Joe Mauer?
Joe Mauer is the Twins’ $23 million first baseman. For some fans, he’s a $23 million thorn in the side of the organization. Some argue his contract is preventing the organization from seeking big money free agents to take them to the postseason and beyond. That’s just simply not true, but at the same time the Twins’ highest paid player needs to be at a higher level when he’s on the field. For that to happen, he may actually need more rest.
Mauer played 134 games last year and hit .261 with 11 home runs and 49 RBI. He did have 22 doubles and four triples, but those aren’t the numbers of a $23 million player. He could be asked to be the designated hitter more, clearing the way for another power hitter to play first base. If Mauer hits for more power and comes through in clutch situations because he’s rested, it could go a long way in the Twins being more competitive this year.
Twins fans are tired of being patient. They want to win, and they want to do it sooner rather than later. The honeymoon at Target Field is over. It’s a great ballpark, but it doesn’t matter if nobody is there to watch them because they don’t win consistently. They’re unlikely to be playoff contenders this year, but it’s time to at least be relevant for most of the summer. That’s not too much to ask.