2017 MLB Preview: AL Central-Minnesota Twins

2016 Record: 59-103 (5th Place)

Manager: Paul MolitorScreen Shot 2017-03-22 at 1.15.22 PM

The Twins finished with the worst record in baseball by a good margin last season, becoming the first team to lose over 100 games since 2013. Their biggest weakness was in their starting rotation, as their 5.08 team ERA was the highest in the American League.

They didn’t add any arms to their rotation this offseason, entering 2017 with the same starting pitching depth they ended with last season. The staff will be led off Ervin Santana, who was much better for Minnesota in his second season with the club, posting a 3.38 ERA over 181.1 innings pitched. The 34-year-old is by no stretch an ace, but is certainly the most formidable arm in that rotation. Hector Santiago also returns to the rotation, who was acquired from the Angels at last year’s trade deadline. The left-handed Santiago wasn’t nearly as effective after being traded to Minnesota, but you have to imagine that the hitter-friendly Target Field will eventually begin to show benefits for the former All-Star.

Phil Hughes’ 2016 season was cut short in June due to a knee fracture, and would eventually receive shoulder surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Even when Hughes was healthy he struggled mightily, ending his season with a 1-7 record and a soaring 5.95 ERA. Hughes claims that his shoulder had been bothering him since 2015, which may explain his struggles in the past two seasons after a stellar 2014 campaign. The recovery for the procedure Hughes received is notoriously difficult, yet if he can find his control again the 30-year-old will be a much-needed presence in the middle of that rotation. Kyle Gibson also had a down-year in 2016, finishing with a 6-11 record with a 5.07 ERA in 25 starts. The Twins haven’t given up hope on their former first round pick, as Gibson showed he could have success in the major leagues with his 2015 performance.

Jose Berrios will likely beat out Tyler Duffey for the final rotation spot, who dominated in Triple-A last season but struggled in his 14 major league starts. Still just 22 years old, Berrios could very well find himself back in Triple-A if he doesn’t show improvement. Glen Perkins has saved 120 games for the Twins throughout his career with the club, yet appeared in just two games last season after injuring his shoulder in early April. Perkins is still experiencing shoulder soreness and will likely miss the start of the season, as Brandon Kintzler will hold down the closer role until his return.

The common theme in the Twins lineup is youth, with the talented 23-year-old Miguel Sano at the heart of the order. Sano demonstrated his power last season with 25 home runs in 116 games, yet struggled with consistency with a .236 batting average. He will now be the team’s full time third baseman with Trevor Plouffe out of the picture, and is bound for a breakout year in what will be his third season in the bigs.The Twins hope that Byron Buxton will break out in 2017, whose biggest struggle has simply been getting on base. Buxton hit .225 with 118 strikeouts in just 298 at bats last season, in a year where he was demoted to Triple-A on two separate occasions. Formerly considered the top prospect in baseball, the 23-year-old Buxton still possesses the skill set to be a five-tool player in center field. Left fielder Max Kepler was a pleasant surprise after being recalled in late April last season, showing that he has 30-HR potential with a full season under his belt.

Brian Dozier exploded last season with 42 home runs, establishing himself as the premier power-hitting second baseman in baseball. Dozier has been involved in trade rumors throughout the whole offseason, and will likely find himself dealt by the end of the season as the Twins continue to rebuild. The 2009 MVP winner Joe Mauer won’t be going anywhere thanks to his enormous contract, as the 33-year-old looks to be well past his glory days. Mauer hasn’t hit over 11 home runs since the opening of Target Field in 2010, and has not hit over .300 since 2013.

Eddie Rosario didn’t show much improvement in his sophomore season, hitting .269 with 10 HR and 32 RBI’s in just 92 games. Even at 25-years-old, Rosario will need to do a lot more at the plate if he wants to be part of Minnesota’s long-term plans. The same goes for Kennys Vargas, who has spent the past three years up and down between the majors and Triple-A. Vargas will start the season as the team’s DH, as the Twins see him as a potential 30-HR hitter if he can cut down on his strikeouts.

23-year-old Jorge Polanco will get the first crack at the shortstop gig, who finished 2016 with a solid .282 average with 4 HR in 245 at bats. Polanco will have to maintain this success to hold onto his job, with shortstops Eduardo Escobar and Danny Santana still on the roster. Newly signed catcher Jason Castro will also be under pressure to perform, with 25-year-old John Ryan Murphy slated to be his backup. Castro has not hit above .230 since his strong 2013 campaign, in addition to never appearing in more than 126 games in a season. If his struggles continue, the Twins may give the younger Murphy, once a promising prospect for the Yankees, more chances behind the plate.*

Bottom Line: Just about everything that can go right for this team, must go right for the Twins if they want to finish over .500 this season. They may not be the worst team in the league next season, but they will certainly be in the mix as they continue to rebuild.

*Stats and Info from Baseball Reference