Twins see revamped rotation fueling progress

Nolasco, Hughes add credibility to staff hoping to move past disappointment

Twins see revamped rotation fueling progress

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is sick of the losing that his club has endured over the last three seasons.

The Twins lost nearly 300 combined games in that span, and starting pitching has been the main culprit.

Minnesota's starters combined to post the fifth-worst ERA in the Majors in 2011 en route to 99 losses; the second-worst in '12, leading to 96 losses; and the worst last season, culminating in another 96-loss season.

But the Twins figure to have an improved rotation this season after signing free-agent right-handers Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey for a combined $84 million over the winter. And with that improved rotation comes hope, even though Minnesota is still considered a long shot to compete in the American League Central in 2014.

"I'm not saying we hit rock bottom last year because you can always lose more, but it felt like rock bottom," Gardenhire said. "Everybody involved -- my coaches, myself, the fans, the press -- it didn't feel very good. I don't know if we hit rock bottom. I hope that was about as low as you'd want to go. We feel pretty bad about ourselves. We definitely had better be better than that. I believe we will be. I'm pretty confident about that. I'm pretty excited about that, to tell the truth."

Minnesota's starting rotation will almost assuredly be better, if only because of how woeful it was in 2013. Twins starters posted the worst ERA in the Majors, recorded the lowest strikeout total and tossed the fewest innings last season.

Nolasco was the biggest addition, signing a four-year deal worth $49 million, and he will start Opening Day for the Twins against the White Sox on Monday at 3:10 p.m. CT. He's expected to help anchor a rotation that saw only Kevin Correia make more than 30 starts last season.

Pelfrey -- who re-signed with Minnesota after posting a 5.19 ERA in 29 starts last season, his first year back from Tommy John surgery -- is optimistic the rotation will be much improved this season.

"I was a part of last year, and I think I was a huge part of why we weren't good; the starting rotation was terrible," Pelfrey said. "But I think the quickest way to turn it around is starting pitching, and I think with Ricky and Phil, we can do that. I think if Correia does what he did last year and I get better, we'll be good. You have to give your team a chance to win. That's all you can ask for."

But the next question becomes where the Twins will find offense this season, as they finished sixth-to-last in the Majors with 614 runs scored last year, and they didn't address their offense with any major signings in the offseason.

Jason Kubel is arguably their biggest offensive addition, but he was added via a Minor League deal, while catcher Kurt Suzuki is known more for his defense than his offense.

The Twins are counting on bounce-back years from players such as Josh Willingham and Trevor Plouffe while also hoping young players such as Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks have breakout years.

The biggest change offensively is that six-time All-Star Joe Mauer is moving from catcher to first base after sustaining a season-ending concussion last August; Minnesota is hopeful the shift will allow the team's best player to see more playing time.

"Six hundred plate appearances -- I think that's the biggest thing," closer Glen Perkins said of Mauer. "We just need him healthy and in the lineup. I don't think we've ever done well when he's not in the lineup."

Mauer said he still doesn't know fully what to expect in his transition to first base, but he believes he'll be better offensively because he'll get a chance to play every day and won't have to deal with the rigors of catching.

"Twenty more games playing that position, I think my numbers will be better," Mauer said. "But I think it's a lot of unknowns, what is going to happen. I'm not going to try to be anything I'm not. I'm going to go out there and just try to have good at-bats and play the game like I always have. It will just be at a different position."

Given his track record, Mauer is all but certain to produce if healthy, but he's one of just a few players on the roster without any major "ifs" in front of his name. So Gardenhire is ready to see what kind of club he has and whether the Twins can take a step forward with several highly regarded prospects on the way to help in the near future.

"Now, it's got to get done on the field," Gardenhire said. "The one thing we've seen before is you can talk about it all you want to, but guys have to go out and perform. The one thing we've done is we've brought in people that have a little bit of track records, and we believe can do those things and get over the hump here, as far as getting to the second half of the game. We still have to do it on the field."

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.