Minnesota Twins season opener: Arms look good, but bats still a big question

Baseball's worst starting rotation, after a $73 million infusion of new talent in the right arms of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, should be much improved.

Josmil Pinto
Twins catcher Josmil Pinto connects for a three-run home run against the Boston Red Sox Saturday, March 29, 2014, in Fort Myers, Fla. (Steve Mitchell / USA TODAY Sports)

Baseball’s worst starting rotation, after a $73 million infusion of new talent in the right arms of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, should be much improved.
One of the sport’s least-efficient defenses, despite questions on the corners, at least should be strong up the middle, even with Joe Mauer giving way to Kurt Suzuki behind the plate.
The Twins’ offense? That’s a harder sell when it comes to Opening Day optimism.
Even Twins manager Ron Gardenhire admitted late in spring training that he was “a little leery” of the team’s run-scoring ability.
“Right now, if you look at our offense ... we just don’t have the feel we’re going to be able to dominate teams with total offense,” Gardenhire said.
“We’ve got people that can do it, and hopefully when they start swinging good, maybe we will. But all the little things, the way it’s shaping up right now, we have to do very, very well.”
The Twins will take their first swing at that today as they open the regular season in Chicago against the White Sox. Game time is 3:10 p.m.
After finishing 29th in the majors in batting average with runners in scoring position (.225) a year ago - and dead last in RISP on-base percentage (.304) - the same troubles in the clutch kept cropping up for the Twins this spring.
This spring they hit just .227 with runners in scoring position. That included 16 games in which their offense produced one or zero hits with RISP; in those games, the Twins went a combined 10 for 103 (.097) in the clutch.
That fed into a troubling trend in which the Twins scored three runs or fewer in 15 of their 28 spring games.
“Again, it’s the same old story,” Gardenhire said. “You can’t leave opportunities out there at third base. You just can’t. You have to get them in when they’re out there. Hopefully, we’re going to do better.”


For all the offseason talk about increased spending and newfound aggressiveness in the free-agent market, the Twins seemingly neglected their offense.
Although they set a franchise record with the four-year, $49 million free-agent deal for Nolasco and further fortified the rotation with the signings of Hughes and holdover right-hander Mike Pelfrey, their secondary efforts to bolster the offense came up short.
Oh, they managed to stage successful reunions with the two Jasons, Kubel and Bartlett, bringing them back on minor league deals that totaled just $3 million combined this season. And they signed the light-hitting Suzuki for one year at
$2.75 million, but that was as much about rookie catcher Josmil Pinto’s defense still needing some polishing.
They tried to bring back veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski on a two-year deal, actually outbidding the Boston Red Sox, but Pierzynski, playing the back nine of his career, opted for a one-year,
$8.25 million deal with the defending World Series champions.
Lesser bids for other players went nowhere.
“We were trying to give money away,” Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said as spring training waned.
As a result, heading into Opening Day in Chicago, 51 percent of the Twins’ $84.96 million payroll has been committed to the 12-man pitching staff.
Of the remaining $41.7 million spent on the 13 position players, all but $18.7 million will go to Mauer, the six-time all-star now playing first base full-time.
Six of the Twins’ top eight salaries belong to pitchers, with 35-year-old left fielder Josh Willingham, making $7 million as he closes out a three-year deal, the only other hitter within hailing distance of Mauer ($23 million).
That breakdown stands in stark contrast to the way the Twins apportioned their $82 million Opening Day payroll just a year ago. As they opened 2013, first baseman Justin Morneau ($14 million) owned the team’s second-highest annual salary, with five of the top eight salaries going to position players.
In all, the 2013 Twins committed $51.25 million of their $82 million Opening Day payroll to five hitters. That represented 62.5 percent of their total outlay.
This year, their top six hitters will make a combined $38.1 million, or 44.8 percent of their total payroll.


Can the Twins’ overlooked offense do its part then to keep a revamped pitching staff from suing for nonsupport?
For openers, that would require Willingham, the team’s cleanup hitter, to shake off a lost spring that saw him manage just two hits (with 14 strikeouts) in his first 41 at-bats.
“You won’t know until the season starts,” said Willingham, who hit his first spring home run Saturday. “We’ve got guys that are very capable in the lineup, but it’s not about talking about it. It’s about going out and doing it.”
His left knee healthy again, Willingham believes it’s just a matter of regaining his timing at the plate for him to return to the production levels he set from 2006 through 2012.
A full season from Mauer should greatly help a Twins offense coming off its worst full-season scoring output since 1968, the year before the pitcher’s mound was lowered to its current height of 10 inches.
So would a rebound season from Kubel, just a year removed from a 30-homer debut in Arizona. His legs felt great all spring, and the Twins have seen what it can mean to their lineup when his professional hitting approach is on daily display.
They’re also counting on further growth from young hitters such as second baseman Brian Dozier and right fielder Oswaldo Arcia, along with major steps forward from third baseman Trevor Plouffe and 24-year-old center fielder Aaron Hicks, who reclaimed the starting job he fumbled away by hitting .192 with a .256 on-base percentage as a rookie last season.
“We’ve had so many inconsistent performances,” Gardenhire said. “We can’t just be a team that says, ‘He’s our right-handed bat off the bench.’ We don’t have that luxury. We don’t have a good enough offense right now that I can see being able to do that. We have to interchange pieces and move people around, game to game.”
Pinto’s powerful bat could be one of those pieces. So, too, Bartlett’s veteran approach and ability to hit lefties might take some of the burden off switch-hitting shortstop Pedro Florimon, who struggled terribly from the right side a year ago.
“We struggled last year, but that’s normal for young guys coming up, trying to adapt and adjust,” Plouffe said. “You have an extra year of at-bats under your belt, and I think we’ll be able to step up to the challenge. We have guys that need to step up, including myself.”
After hitting 24 homers in a breakout 2012 season, Plouffe posted a combined on-base/slugging percentage of just .549 in 144 plate appearances with runners in scoring position last year.
“I need to drive in runs,” Plouffe said. “I don’t have to hit a bunch of home runs. I just have to drive in runs. I know that’s my job.”
The good news is that, with Nolasco and Hughes taking the ball every fifth day, young hitters such as Plouffe won’t feel the need to do something dramatic just to keep the Twins from getting blown out again.
“We don’t have to put a lot of pressure on the offense like we have the past couple years, getting down early,” Plouffe said. “Having to score three or four runs is a lot different than one or two runs. It does take the pressure off, but it’s about us doing our job.”
In all situations.
“We’re probably not a team that’s going to hit a bunch of three-run homers,” Plouffe said, “but we have to be able to execute, moving a guy over and getting him in from second base. That’s the Twins Way.”



Season preview: Brewers see brighter future with strength up middle


Minnesota Twins (Nolasco 0-0) at Chicago White Sox (Sale 0-0) 3:10 p.m. / TV: FSN / Radio: WMOZ-FM 106.9, KDAL-AM 610
Atlanta Braves (Teheran 0-0) at Milwaukee Brewers (Gallardo 0-0) 1:10 p.m. / TV: FSN-Wis. / Radio: WNXR-FM 107.3

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