FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The last two seasons have been largely forgettable for the Twins. But after finishing with the worst record in the American League each of the past two years, they feel like things are starting to trend in the other direction.
Minnesota now has one of the best farm systems in baseball. The Twins also added young arms Vance Worley, Alex Meyer and Trevor May in offseason trades, but they lost outfielders Denard Span and Ben Revere as a result.
The Twins also rebuilt their rotation by signing veterans Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia and trading for Worley from the Phillies.
So while many prognosticators have the Twins picked to finish last in the American League Central again, first baseman Justin Morneau isn't ready to buy into that notion.
"We've been picked to finish fourth before, and we've won the division," said Morneau, who is in the last year of his contract. "And we've been picked to win, and we've finished third. It's hard to say. I've been around long enough to know that anything is possible, and I have no reason not to believe that. The other teams can do what they do, but if we take care of what we do, we should be right there with those teams."
The strength for the Twins should be their offense, as they have a solid middle of the lineup with established sluggers Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit and Morneau.
But they'll also be counting on younger players to improve on last season, including third baseman Trevor Plouffe, second baseman Brian Dozier, shortstop Pedro Florimon and right fielder Chris Parmelee. Top prospect Aaron Hicks, who has yet to play above Double-A, is slated to take over for Span in center field and bat leadoff.
"There are guys who drive in runs, there's speed at the top," Morneau said. "There's a chance for this offense to score a lot of runs, and I think if you can get anything close to the year that Hammer [Willingham] had last year, and the year Joe had, that's two guys that had great years. You know, you get Plouffe playing every day, it'll be amazing to see if he can reach 30 homers. There's still room for guys to get better, and there's guys who you know what you're going to get."
The rotation is still a work in progress. Left-hander Scott Diamond will start the year on the disabled list and right-handed prospect Kyle Gibson, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, will begin the season at Triple-A Rochester.
Right-handers Liam Hendriks and Cole De Vries will be part of the starting five to open the year, but others such as Samuel Deduno, who starred in the World Baseball Classic, and Gibson could join the rotation at some point this season. Diamond, who had a bone chip removed from his elbow in December, is expected to return on April 12.
The bullpen figures to be in better shape, as it's anchored by closer Glen Perkins and setup man Jared Burton. Familiar faces Brian Duensing, Alex Burnett and Casey Fien will be joined by hard-throwing newcomers Josh Roenicke and Rule 5 Draft pick Ryan Pressly.
So as always, pitching will be key for the Twins, especially after they finished with the third-worst ERA in the Majors last season.
"They've got to go out and get it done, and we've got to pitch better and catch the ball better," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I think we're going to score some runs, I think we've got some pretty good hitters throughout that lineup, but we're still going to have to pitch and catch the ball or it doesn't mean a thing."
But this year isn't just about the players; it's also an important one for Gardenhire, who is in the last year of his contract with the Twins. He is currently the second-longest tenured manager in the Majors behind Angels skipper Mike Scioscia. But Gardenhire, who has been the team's manager since 2002, said he's not worried about his contract status entering the season. He's more concerned about trying to reverse the Twins' fortunes after the past two years.
"I don't think about it at all," Gardenhire said. "I'm going to do the same thing I always do and that's try to get these guys ready to play baseball. It depends on how these players do. That stuff is just out there. It is what it is. I have a one-year contract right now and I'm expected to do a job here, and believe me, no one wants to do that job more than me.
"I like this organization, and I like winning. We did a lot of that around here. And I'd like to get back to that."