FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Just looking at the numbers, it's easy to see how much the Twins' starting rotation faltered last season.
Twins starters combined to post the worst ERA in the Majors by nearly half a run -- their 5.26 ERA lagged far behind Toronto's 4.81 -- while also tallying the fewest innings in the Majors with just 871. They also struck out just 4.93 batters per nine innings, which was the lowest such figure since Kansas City's staff struck out 4.91 batters per nine in 2006.
So it's easy to see why upgrading the rotation was a major priority for Minnesota this offseason. The Twins were able to accomplish that by spending a combined $84 million on free-agent right-handers Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey.
It's led to optimism in the clubhouse for the Twins this spring, as they believe they can put the struggles of the past three years behind them. Nolasco, Hughes, Pelfrey and veteran Kevin Correia have the first four spots locked up, with a competition for the fifth spot between Samuel Deduno, Vance Worley, Scott Diamond and Kyle Gibson.
"It was obviously an area of need, and they recognized that and addressed it," Pelfrey said. "I look at it as a chance to win every night, and that's all you can ask for. Hopefully, it'll also put our offense in a better spot where we're not down four or five runs early."
Nolasco, 31, was Minnesota's major signing, as his four-year, $49 million deal with a one-year option was the largest ever handed out to a free agent by the organization. He's as durable as any pitcher in the game, as he hasn't been on the disabled list since 2010 and has made at least 31 starts in five of his last six seasons.
The right-hander also had a breakthrough last season, posting a 3.70 ERA with 165 strikeouts in 199 1/3 innings between the Marlins and Dodgers. It was a case of Nolasco's ERA finally catching up with his peripheral statistics, as advanced stats, such as Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), always painted him in a better light than his ERA. He consistently had a higher ERA than FIP during his time with the Marlins, as his career ERA is 4.37, but his career FIP is 3.76. FIP measures what a player's ERA should look like based on strikeouts, walks and homers allowed.
So Nolasco is looking to build on his strong performance in 2013, and he thinks he'll be part of a much improved rotation this year.
"I think it should be better," Nolasco said. "It's going to be fun getting to know the guys and helping each other out, and helping to improve the part of the team that was lacking last year. We know what jobs we have to do, so we're focused and ready."
Hughes was the second big piece added to the rotation, signing a three-year, $24 million deal just a few days after Nolasco. The 27-year-old struggled in 2013 with the Yankees, posting a 5.19 ERA with 121 strikeouts in 145 2/3 innings, but the fly-ball pitcher will be moving from homer-friendly Yankee Stadium to the more spacious Target Field.
With the change of scenery, Hughes believes he's much closer to the pitcher who was an All-Star in 2010 than the one who struggled last season.
"I'm not trying to do too much or reinvent myself," Hughes said. "I'm just trying to get back to what I know what I can do best and go from there."
Pelfrey, 30, became the final piece when he was brought back on a two-year, $11 million deal in December. Like Hughes, he struggled in 2013 with a 5.19 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 152 2/3 innings, but he was coming off Tommy John surgery from the previous May.
The Twins are banking on Pelfrey's command to return in 2014 now that he's fully healthy and a year further removed from the surgery.
Pelfrey was also much better in the second half of the season, and like Nolasco, advanced statistics painted him in much more positive light than his ERA. He had a much more respectable 3.99 FIP compared to his ERA, and he believes he's primed for a bounce-back year, much like Hughes.
Pelfrey is also convinced the rotation will be a strong suit in 2014, and he thinks that if Minnesota is going to compete, it will be because the rotation will be much better than in recent years.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it," Pelfrey said. "I think the quickest way to turn things around is starting pitching, and I think we have that. Now it's just a matter of going out there and performing."