I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: The Twins sent Byron Buxton back to the minor leagues, which means the clamoring for him to return will commence shortly. Buxton might be the best prospect starting 2014 in the minors, and there’s only so many singles Alex Presley can slap while Buxton goes five-tool in the minors. A year ago, Buxton hit .334, walked 76 times, slugged .520 (18 triples), stole 55 bases and played center field in Class A. Think the 66-win Twins can’t find a spot for him? If he repeats that season in AA, he might end it in the Twin Cities. Buxton was the second pick in the 2012 amateur draft, and Twins fans can only be glad they didn’t take a pitcher (the Astros took shortstop Carlos Correa No. 1, and while he’s a level behind Buxton, no less talented). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s analysis of the Twins’ first-round picks found eight pitchers since 1985 who never made the majors. Of those that did make the majors, Mark Redman’s 68 wins top the list, though closer Glenn Perkins has been the best. Buxton will probably start the season in AA, but given the Twins’ last three seasons — 63, 66 and 66 wins — there’s no reason to be any more patient than an an Aaron Hicks at-bat.
Trivia: The Twins have had 13 20-game winners (two of them did it twice) since moving to Minnesota. Who are they? Who had the most? Answer below.
What he said: Twins manager Ron Gardenhire on Kyle Gibson, Vance Worley, Scott Diamond and Sam Deduno competing for the final spot in the starting rotation: “We hope they all pitch really well and make it really, really hard to make our decisions. What he meant: “First one to the sixth inning gets it.”
Outlook: The Twins have played 53 seasons in Minnesota since moving from Washington. The last three — two 66 win-seasons preceded by a 63-win one — all rank in the top seven of worst Twins seasons ever (No. 1 is the ’82 Twins, who won just 60).
They’re better this year, in a 70-win way, but not much. The Twins paid Ricky Nolasco $49 million over the next four years to be their ace, and he’s one year removed from ERAs of 4.48, 4.67, 4.51 and 5.06. After eight seasons, his WAR is 10.8, which is about 1.35 per season or about $9 million per each share of WAR. Even by Robinson Cano standards, that’s expensive.
The Twins still have another year to pay Mike Pelfrey $5.5 million, and he can’t do much worse than he did last year: 5-13, 5.19 ERA, 184 hits in 152.2 innings. Although I’m not too sure.
The Twins were 14th in the AL in pitching last year, one spot worse than 2012 even after investing in free-agent starters Pelfrey and Kevin Correia (9-13, 4.18, 185.1 innings, 218 hits for $5 million per season). They were 13th in 2011 as well, which means short of inviting the Rockies to join the Astros as NL expatriartes, their plan isn’t working.
The Twins bumped their payroll by about $5 million this year, which means just less than a third of it goes to first baseman Joe Mauer instead of catcher Joe Mauer. Mauer’s .880 OPS last year was worth the $23 million and ranked 16th among all batters (minimum of 500 plate appearances); his 5.4 WAR ranked 23rd.
Among catchers his .880 OPS ranked first; among first baseman seventh, which is telling of the risk to Mauer’s value the Twins take by moving him to first base (given the concussion issues, they had no choice, safety wise).
Mauer is 30 and has five years left at $23 million per year. By the end of it, $23 mill may seem like $15 mill today, and the Twins will have a good team. Twins fans may even see the foundation of it this year: Josmil Pinto, a 24-year-old with .844 and .892 OPS the last two minor-league seasons, should supplant Mauer’s replacement at catcher, Kurt Suzuki, before too long; outfielder Oswaldo Arcia hit 14 homers and slugged .430 at 22 in the majors though his plate discipline, or lack thereof, needs some work (23 walks, 117 strikeouts); Aaron Hicks, 24, can play center field and had a .376 career minor-league on base percentage, though he has just a few months to improve on last year’s .192 average before Buxton shows up.
Miguel Sano will fall short of the 45 to 55 home runs he predicted for 2014, but that’s because of Tommy John surgery. Sano, Buxton, Pinto and Arcia all should be entrenched by 2015.
But the other good news is that of the Twins’ top 10 prospects as listed by Baseball America, five of the eight after Buxton and Sano are pitchers. Alex Meyer projects as an excellent return for Denard Span, and had 16 starts after rehabbing from a shoulder injury last year. His 2.91 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 78.1 innings project him as an in-season call-up. Given the Twins’ rotation, it shouldn’t take long.
Lewis Thorpe, an 18-year-old Australian, will take longer, but he fanned 64 and walked only six in 44 Rookie League innings. He may start at low Class A, but could rise quickly. There will be plenty of vacancies when he does arrive.
The Twins won’t be terribly good in 2014, but they’ll be promising. Even by Twin Cities standards, winter is ending.
The Twins’ 20-game winners: Jim Kaat, 25 (1966); Jim Perry, 24 (1970) and 20 (1969); Frank Viola, 24 (1988); Mudcat Grant, 21 (1965); Camilio Pascual, 21 (1963) and 20 (1962); Bert Blyleven, 20 (1973); Dean Chance, 20 (1967); Dave Boswell, 20 (1969); Scott Erickson, 20 (1991); Dave Goltz, 20 (1977); Jerry Koosman, 20 (1979); Brad Radke, 20 (1997); Johan Santana, 20 (2004).
Team song Ibrahim Maalouf: Waiting