This is the ninth edition of Hope for the Hopeless, where we will take a look at the first ten fourteen teams in the league eliminated from playoff contention, and examine what their fans can be optimistic about after a disappointing 2013 season. Next up: the Minnesota Twins.
Well Twins fans, the Justin Morneau era is over. The former AL MVP, due to be a free agent after the season, was dealt to the Pirates in August after another miserable season in Minnesota began to wind down.
But while the Morneau era is over, the Joe Mauer era is still going strong. Mauer remains the face of the franchise and had another nice year in 2013, though it was cut short by lingering effects from a concussion. If the aftereffects of that concussion don't linger like they did with Morneau, Mauer will continue to be a part of Minnesota's future going forth.
However, sometime next season, Mauer is going to lose his role as the most talented Twins player thanks to the presence of a pair of dynamic young prospects that are soaring through the minors: Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. As a 20-year old this year, Sano split the season between high-A Fort Myers and AA New Britain. Between the two levels, Sano hit 35 homers while walking at a double digit rate. His strikeouts were a problem, as he tallied 142 in 519 plate appearances, but remember: he's still just 20-years old, and his high walk rate helps negate that strikeout rate a bit.
Buxton is a completely different animal, though. The second overall pick in the 2012 Draft, the 19-year old Buxton was named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year, and joined Sano on the publication's Minor League All-Star team. Between low-A Cedar Rapids and high-A Fort Myers, Buxton hit .334/.424/.520, homering 12 times, walking 76 times, and stealing 55 bases at a 74% clip. He'll likely end up as baseball's top prospect heading into 2014, and Sano will likely rank in the top ten as well.
Past those two, Minnesota's strong farm system is already showing fruits in the majors. 24-year old catcher Josmil Pinto also made BA's Minor League All-Star Team thanks to a .309/.400/.489 line between AA New Britain and AAA Rochester, and in a September audition in the majors, Pinto is hitting .412/.459/.647 in ten games. Obviously, he won't hit .400 in a full year in the majors next year, but his presence allows the Twins to be more careful with Mauer and feel secure in doing it. Remember - since Mauer took over behind the plate in 2005, the Twins' best-hitting backup catcher has been Mike Redmond, who hit .297/.339/.359 with Minnesota. Having Pinto in the fold partially makes up for the silly trade of Wilson Ramos to the Nationals for Matt Capps in 2010, something that the team wishes they could take back with Mauer's frailty as of late.
Minnesota also got some solid production in the majors from another pair of players up the middle - shortstop Pedro Florimon and second baseman Bryan Dozier. Dozier has blasted 17 homers in his second year in the majors and has been a solid defender according to DRS, while Florimon has an absolute behemoth with the glove at shortstop. In the outfield, Oswaldo Arcia has struggled with the glove but held his own offensively, while Aaron Hicks started his season slowly before improving dramatically, yet still earning a trip back to AAA. It's a decent enough core of players that will only be bolstered by Sano and Buxton, and potentially by trades of veterans Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit, both of whom are affordable yet heading into their walk year.
But really, it's the pitching that has been Minnesota's weakness. Their best starting pitcher has been 30-year old Samuel Deduno, whose future is a question thanks to shoulder surgery. The Twins' strategy of going with cheap, pitch to contact veterans failed, as Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia has been predictably bad. You can get away with one of those guys as a fifth starter, but two of them as anchors? No thanks. The luck bubbles also burst for starters Scott Diamond and Vance Worley, while youngsters Liam Hendriks, Kyle Gibson, and Pedro Hernandez struggled.
The good news for the Twins is that their bullpen was really good, headed by closer Glen Perkins. None of their relievers will hit the free agent market next year, and the team should at least try to dangle one or two for help in the rotation, especially after the struggles of guys like Gibson, Hendriks, Hernandez, Cole de Vries, and Trevor May. In fact, Minnesota's most promising starter this year Andrew Albers, who will turn 28 in October but has struck out 136 while walking just 35 in 178 innings between AAA and the majors.
2014 will be another trying year for the Twins, but at least the team can put runs on the board and hold leads. The issues will come with not burning out the bullpen from overuse and actually getting leads for the bullpen to protect. Expect a lot more high-scoring games next year, but at the very least, things will be exciting once Sano and Buxton hit the majors.