It’s been a rough three years in Minnesota, as the Twins have bounced around winning 63-66 games and flirting with their first 100-loss season since 1982. But reflecting on what Terry Ryan has been up to this winter, and thinking back on the way the Indians just showed us how a team in the AL Central can sneak up on people and put itself into the postseason picture, there are a few reasons I’m beginning to wonder if the Twins aren’t a team that might not just get back into the 70s in wins, but might actually come a bit further than that. Here are my reasons:
Go, Joe! First off, there’s the question of what Joe Mauer might be capable of now that he doesn’t have to deal with the physical toil of catching. This isn’t like Jimmie Foxx or Paul Konerko moving out from behind the plate early in their careers. But can Mauer give the Twins, say, a Joe Torre ’71-style MVP-caliber explosion at the plate? There’s plenty to dream on given what Mauer has been capable of delivering despite catching.
In part because Mauer is heading into his age-31 season, I like to think of Brian Downing as a useful example of what could happen. That’s because I’m an optimist and because Downing’s commitment to his own conditioning was a big part of his ability to sustain his value in his 30s and 40s -- much like a lot of modern players. Downing had just one truly great season as a regular catcher (1979), posting a 142 OPS+ that sticks out in the 109 OPS+ career he posted through 1981. Finally ditching his catching gear for good in his age-31 season, Downing cranked out a 128 OPS+ during the next 11 years, a part of a career where a “normal” player is supposed to decline.
Allowing for the fact we don’t know the net effect of the physical toll catching has taken on Mauer -- he hasn’t had to catch 100 games since 2010 -- his career 138 OPS+ has gone up the past two years (142 OPS+ in 2012-13 combined) as more and more of the backstop duties have been spread around. He may not have another 2009, when Mauer hit .365/.444/.587, in him, but I wouldn’t bet against him having his best year since in 2014.
Add in that the Twins have Josmil Pinto in the wings after breaking out as an offensive force between Double- and Triple-A the past two years, and have Kurt Suzuki lined up to help out, as well, and it’s clear that the Twins could net runs on offense on both sides of this transition.
The revamped rotation. Admitting again to a bit of late-December optimism, I like the Twins going and getting both Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. Hang the expense -- should anyone weep for Pohlad family money being released into the market? -- and focus on the fact the Twins just shunted aside a big chunk of the rotation that put up a league-low 62 quality starts last season. Coming to Target Field’s tough environment for left-handed hitters should help both right-handers: Nolasco’s career righty/lefty OPS+ split is 90-110, while Hughes’ is 97-103 but was especially rough last year (90-108). Add in some hope that Hughes thrives outside of the media glare in the Big Apple, and you might wind up with a decent one-two punch.
Admittedly, there’s no ace, no guy you put up against Verlander or Scherzer or Shields or Sale. And the rest of the rotation is cause for concern. Kevin Correia is a decent No. 4 on a mediocre team, and comeback from Tommy John or no, I’m not really sure Mike Pelfrey’s ever going to be anything more than that himself. But there’s a benefit to having a deeper collection of guys capable of keeping games within reach into the sixth inning, and if the competition for the one open slot brings out the best in Samuel Deduno or Andrew Albers or Kyle Gibson, so much the better. If they all rise to the challenge, better still, because if there’s one guarantee with pitching, it’s that someone’s going to get hurt.
The new Twins towers? OK, so the latter-day M&M boys didn’t work so well after Mauer kept losing chunks of his career and Justin Morneau never regained his top form after his 2010 concussion. But the Twins have young talent on the way. With Pinto’s ready to replace Mauer behind the dish after putting up an .882 OPS last year, the Twins should already have a short-list Rookie of the Year candidate stepping into their Opening Day lineup. But what if he’s joined by third baseman Miguel Sano from the outset? After hitting a combined .280/.382/.610 between high Class-A and Double-A while thumping 35 homers, Sano shouldn’t need much seasoning -- he’s already the real tabasco.
The Twins may opt for a soft landing, introducing Sano and Pinto in late April or early May, after the build-up of expectations and Opening Day have already dissipated. They may even push Sano’s arrival back to show that his strained elbow is 100 percent, or to manipulate his service time since he is not yet even on the 40-man roster. But if Sano’s healthy, he’ll be in the majors in 2014. And that rookie combination is more than just tantalizing for the present, they’re two of the building blocks around Mauer primed to deliver contending Twins teams in the back half of this decade.
The old slugs getting slugly. Josh Willingham and Jason Kubel are both coming off terrible years. I’m not going to pretend there aren’t concerns about both men’s durability in their 30s, as it is open to question. But if Willingham can come back from his injury-marred 2013 and keeping in mind Kubel’s just a year removed from a 30-homer season for the Diamondbacks, it isn’t implausible that between the left field and DH slots the Twins might get 50 home runs. That’ll make up a lot of ground for low-powered lineup that put up just a .138 Isolated Power number when the AL average was .149 last year.
That’s not to say there aren’t lingering issues, especially in center field. It takes a good measure of faith in the tarnished prospect status of Aaron Hicks to think the Twins are set in center field for the time being. Resorting to journeymen like Clete Thomas and Alex Presley in the season’s final third wasn’t how things were supposed to wind up, and Presley doesn’t really have the glove to handle the job on an everyday basis.
So right now, the Twins are best off if Hicks comes to camp and quickly shows that he’s ready to bounce back from the sub-.600 OPS he put up before a demotion and injuries helped end his season early. He shouldn’t be discounted: A year ago Hicks was on top 100 prospect lists after putting up an .844 OPS in Double-A, he’s only just turned 24, and he can handle center. He’s going to be challenged to beat out Presley in camp, a classic case of putting a modest obstacle in front of a prospect with something to prove; ideally, Hicks will rise to the challenge.
Failing that, the field opens up for desperation moves, like resigning themselves to Presley, mulling the merits of someone available on the market (defensive whiz Sam Fuld is still out there), or maybe even giving a non-roster guy like former A’s prospect Jermaine Mitchell a look. And if that doesn’t work out? Twins fans are going to have to hope that blue-chipper Byron Buxton keeps making jumps up the farm system’s ladder at least two rungs at a time after tearing his way up to high Class-A in his first full season last year. Which is another way of saying that Hicks has no time to waste getting back in gear, because by 2015 the future may no longer belong to him.
Now, I admit, that’s a lot of ifs and maybes; it goes with the territory at this time of year. But a lineup that should have the benefit of adding Sano and Pinto and perhaps even a redeemed Hicks would be a radical change from the recent rut the Twins have been in.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.