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Twins reyling on fortified rotation for improvement

Newcomers Nolasco, Hughes expected to help ease offense's burden

Twins reyling on fortified rotation for improvement play video for Twins reyling on fortified rotation for improvement

MINNEAPOLIS -- After losing at least 96 games in each of the last three seasons, the Twins are ready for an improvement in 2014, especially after a busy offseason that saw them hand out the two most expensive free-agent deals in franchise history.

The Twins made an early splash this offseason when they signed right-hander Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million deal just a few days before adding right-hander Phil Hughes on a three-year, $24 million contract. Minnesota also re-signed Mike Pelfrey to a two-year, $11 million deal and signed veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to a one-year deal worth $2.75 million to be Joe Mauer's replacement behind the plate with Mauer's move to first base because of a concussion experienced in August.

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As a result, the Twins figure to be an improved team in 2014 as they continue to wait on top prospects such as Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Alex Meyer to arrive in the Majors. The Twins are still building a bridge back to being competitive but there's now some optimism in the air with the additions to the rotation as well as the loaded farm system, which ranks as one of the game's best.

"I think it's gone from we can't possibly be worse to how good can we be?" Twins closer Glen Perkins said. "I'm curious to see not only just preventing more runs for our staff but what that does for our offense when they're not down four runs in the fifth inning. I think that we saw if we kept games close last year that we had a chance at the end and we pulled some out. That's what it's all about. We're not going to go score 800 runs or 900 runs so we do need to minimize the runs we allow and give our guys a chance toward the end of the game."

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who signed a two-year extension to remain with the Twins despite the club's struggles over the last three years, is also excited to see how the revamped rotation will fare.

"I think Terry [Ryan] and them made a statement: 'We don't want to see this again. We don't want to go through this again this summer'" Gardenhire said. "And they went out and got some guys who are proven, who can throw a baseball and can get us to the second halves of games. You add them with a couple guys we had, [Kevin] Correia and Pelfrey, and with Hughes and Ricky, I think it's kind of showing a few other guys that are going to be fighting for that spot in that rotation, you know, this is something to be reckoned with."

Pitchers and catchers report

Sunday

Full squad reports

Feb. 21

First Spring Training game

Away vs. Red Sox, Feb. 28 at 12:05 p.m. CT

Opening Day

Away vs. White Sox, March 31 at 3:10 p.m. CT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. How much better will the revamped rotation be in 2014?
The rotation simply can't be any worse than in '13, when Twins starters combined to post the worst ERA in the Majors while also logging the fewest innings.

Nolasco figures to be the Opening Day starter and brings much-needed durability atop the rotation. Hughes and Pelfrey are both bounce-back candidates with strong peripheral stats but identical 5.19 ERAs last year. Correia was the club's most dependable starter last year, while the fifth spot will be up for grabs in Spring Training.

Samuel Deduno figures to be the favorite but will be pushed by both Scott Diamond and Vance Worley, who are both out of Minor League options. Prospects Kyle Gibson, Trevor May and Meyer also could be part of the rotation at some point in 2014 but all three figure to open the year at Triple-A Rochester.

2. What can the Twins expect from their offense?
The Twins thought their offense would be a strong suit last year but instead the club set a franchise record for most times striking out while scoring the third-fewest runs in the American League.

The Twins didn't do much to address their offense in the offseason, signing only Suzuki to a big league deal. But the Twins also added Jason Kubel on a Minor League deal and he figures to be the club's designated hitter if he can stay healthy. The Twins will be counting on players such as Josh Willingham and Mauer to stay healthy while hoping for improvements from players such as Oswaldo Arcia and Trevor Plouffe.

3. How will Mauer adjust to the move to first base?
Mauer sustained a career-altering foul tip while catching on Aug. 19 and missed the rest of the season. After consulting with doctors from both the Twins and the Mayo Clinic, Mauer decided it would be in his best interest to move from behind the plate to first base.

Mauer doesn't figure to be a prototypical slugging first baseman but still figures to be one of the top first basemen in the league, as his .880 OPS would've ranked fifth among all Major League first baseman last year. The key will be his health, as he's now primed to play every day for the first time in his career now that's he's done with the rigors of catching.

2013 record
66-96, fourth in the American League Central

Projected batting order
1. CF Alex Presley:
.276 BA, .313 OBP, .373 SLG, 3 HR, 15 RBI in 2013
2. 2B Brian Dozier:
.244 BA, .312 OBP, .414 SLG, 18 HR, 66 RBI in 2013
3. 1B Joe Mauer:
.324 BA, .404 OBP, .476 SLG, 11 HR, 47 RBI in 2013
4. LF Josh Willingham:
.208 BA, .342 OBP, .368 SLG, 14 HR, 48 RBI in 2013
5. DH Jason Kubel:
.216 BA, .293 OBP, .317 SLG, 5 HR, 32 RBI in 2013
6. 3B Trevor Plouffe:
.254 BA, .309 OBP, .392 SLG, 14 HR, 52 RBI in 2013
7. RF Oswaldo Arcia:
.251 BA, .304 OBP, .430 SLG, 14 HR, 43 RBI in 2013
8. C Kurt Suzuki:
.232 BA, .290 OBP, .337 SLG, 5 HR, 32 RBI in 2013
9. SS Pedro Florimon:
.221 BA, .281 OBP, .330 SLG, 9 HR, 44 RBI in 2013

Projected rotation
1. Ricky Nolasco, 13-11, 3.70 ERA in 2013
2. Phil Hughes, 4-14, 5.19 ERA in 2013
3. Kevin Correia, 9-13, 4.18 ERA in 2013
4. Mike Pelfrey, 5-13, 5.19 ERA in 2013
5. Samuel Deduno, 8-8, 3.83 ERA in 2013

Projected bullpen
Closer: Glen Perkins, 36/40 saves, 2.30 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Jared Burton, 3.82 ERA in 2013
LH setup man: Brian Duensing, 3.98 ERA in 2013

The new guys
RHP Nolasco: Nolasco is coming off a solid season with the Marlins and Dodgers, as he posted a 3.70 ERA in 199 1/3 innings. He's thrown at least 185 innings in five of the last six seasons, and hasn't been on the disabled list since 2011. The Twins need his durability, especially with Minnesota starters combining for the fewest innings in the Majors last year.

RHP Hughes: Hughes had some success in his seven years with the Yankees and was an All-Star in '09 but had a 5.19 ERA in 145 2/3 innings last year. But the move to the more spacious Target Field should serve him well, as he's been homer prone throughout his career. The Twins surprised some by giving him a three-year deal but he's still just 27 and is a good bet to bounce back from his recent struggles in New York.

C Suzuki: Suzuki will serve as Mauer's replacement behind the plate but is known more for his defense than his offense. Suzuki hit a career-worst .232 in 94 games with the A's and Nationals last season but is still regarded as a solid pitch caller and framer. He figures to split time behind the plate with Josmil Pinto, who could start the year at Triple-A Rochester but remains the club's catcher of the future.

DH Kubel: Kubel is a familiar face for the Twins, as he played with them for seven seasons before joining the D-backs as a free agent before the 2012 season. He fared well in his first year in Arizona, hitting .253 with 30 homers but hit just .216 with five homers in an injury-plagued '13. If he can stay healthy, he's a good bet to start the year as the club's Opening Day designated hitter.

Prospects to watch
OF Buxton: Buxton is the game's top prospect according to MLB.com, and is a true five-tool talent who can do it all on the baseball field. But he's still not likely to make his Major League debut until 2015, and is likely ticketed for Double-A New Britain to open the season. But he's a potential franchise-altering talent and one Twins fans can't wait to see as evidenced by the long lines he drew for autographs at TwinsFest.

twins top prospects
Twins on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list:
Rank Name Pos.
1 Byron Buxton OF
4 Miguel Sano 3B
28 Alex Meyer RHP
40 Kohl Stewart RHP
90 J.O. Berrios RHP

3B Sano: Sano is ranked as baseball's No. 4 overall prospect, and is regarded as the premier slugger in the Minor Leagues. He hit 35 homers between Class A Advanced Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain last year, and is likely to start the year at Triple-A Rochester. But he could make his debut by early summer, especially if he doesn't suffer any issues with his strained throwing elbow suffered during the offseason.

RHP Meyer: Meyer is the club's top pitching prospect and is ranked as the No. 32 overall prospect by MLB.com. The 6-foot-9 right-hander dealt with shoulder issues in '13 but finished the season strong, including an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League. He's slated to open the year at Triple-A Rochester but could join Minnesota's rotation later in the season.

C Pinto: Pinto is the club's most Major League-ready prospect, as evidenced by his strong numbers as a September callup last year. He could start the year as Suzuki's backup but the Twins still want him to work on his defense and pitch-calling skills. So he could open the year at Triple-A Rochester but is considered the club's catcher of the future.

On the rebound
RHP Worley: Worley was originally acquired by the Phillies in the trade that sent Ben Revere to Philadelphia before the '13 season. He was the club's Opening Day starter but posted a 7.21 ERA in 10 starts before being optioned to Triple-A Rochester where he finished the season with shoulder problems. It figures to be an important Spring Training for Worley, who is competing for the fifth spot in the rotation and is out of options. He could also be moved to the bullpen if the Twins feel his stuff will play better in that role.

LHP Diamond: Diamond, like Worley, is out of options and will be competing with Deduno for the fifth spot in the rotation. Diamond was the club's most dependable starter as a rookie in '12 with a 3.54 ERA in 27 starts but faltered last year with a 5.43 ERA in 24 starts. So it'll be an interesting Spring Training to see who emerges as the club's fifth starter.

LF Willingham: Willingham won the Silver Slugger Award in '12 after hitting 35 homers and driving in 110 runs in a career-high 145 games but hit just 14 homers and drove in 48 runs in 111 games last year. He was bothered by a torn meniscus in his left knee but had it operated on in early July before returning in mid-August. His health and power production will be key for the Twins, and he's in the final season of a three-year deal inked before the '12 season.

CF Aaron Hicks: Hicks won the competition to be the club's starting center fielder with an impressive showing in Spring Training but the former top prospect couldn't replicate that success in the Majors. He finished the year in Triple-A Rochester and wasn't called up in September so he'll have a chip on his shoulder heading into this year. Presley is still the favorite to be the Opening Day center fielder but Hicks could win the job with another strong spring.

Long gone
1B Justin Morneau: Morneau didn't finish the season with the Twins, as he was traded to the Pirates on Aug. 31, but was a free agent this offseason. The longtime Twin and former AL MVP wasn't a fit with Minnesota with Joe Mauer moving to first base so the four-time All-Star signed with the Rockies on a two-year deal this offseason.

C Ryan Doumit: Doumit, who adds versatility because of his ability to catch and play the outfield, was traded to the Braves in mid-December for former first-round Draft pick Sean Gilmartin. The Twins felt they had a similar player on their roster in Chris Herrmann and were on the lookout for pitching, so they found a match with Atlanta. Gilmartin, a 6-foot-2 left-hander, will start the year at Triple-A Rochester.

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Bollinger Beat, and follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"event":["spring_training" ] ,"content":["team_preview" ] }
{"event":["spring_training" ] ,"content":["team_preview" ] }