(SportsNetwork.com) - The Minnesota Twins have finished no better than fourth in the American League Central the last three years after winning the division six times in the previous nine seasons.
Not much is expected once again for the Twins in 2014, but they should win more than 66 games, the exact total in each of the previous two years. And by winning more than 66 games means about 70.
"We've gotten beaten up for three years now," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "You know you need pitching. We're trying to get pitching. We've done a pretty good job at this point. We're looking at position players. We said we were going to get better, and that's our goal is to get better."
Gardenhire and the Twins agreed on a two-year contract extension back in September and his entire coaching staff will return for 2014. The Twins lost 20 of 25 games to close out 2013 and have gone 195-291 with three straight 95- plus losing seasons since Gardenhire was named 2010 AL Manager of the Year.
"I'm just happy the Twins have given me an opportunity to come back and kind of right the ship and fix it," Gardenhire said. "I've been through the good times, and I've been through some bad ones. I'm just happy I'm getting this opportunity to kind of turn this thing back the right way and move forward from there."
Gardenhire, who is two wins shy of 1,000 with the organization, expressed his interest in more pitching and his wish was granted with the additions of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. Nolasco will be Minnesota's Opening Day starter and is treating it like an ordinary assignment.
"It's just another game," Nolasco said. "You don't make too much about it. You go out there and do what you got to do. Set the tempo for your team early, get them back in the dugout and try to score some runs. I don't put too much thought into it, just go out there and keep doing what I need to do."
Nolasco and Hughes come with high price tags and high expectations. But their presence in the rotation makes the Twins that much better than in years past.
Offensively, the Twins struggled last season and added a few bats in outfielder Jason Kubel and catcher Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki behind the plate made the choice to send All-Star Joe Mauer to first base that much easier.
There wasn't too many significant departures except when Justin Morneau was traded to Pittsburgh at the end of last season. Now the Twins are relying on what they have in the bigs and in the minor leagues.
2013 FINISH (66-96) - Fourth Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Ricky Nolasco (RHP), Phil Hughes (RHP), Matt Guerrier (RHP), Sean Gilmartin (LHP), Kris Johnson (LHP), Jason Kubel (OF), Kurt Suzuki (C)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Jamey Carroll (3B), Ryan Doumit (C), Duke Welker (RHP), Andrew Albers (LHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Alex Presley (CF), Brian Dozier (2B), Joe Mauer (1B), Josh Willingham (LF), Oswaldo Arcia (RF), Trevor Plouffe (3B), Jason Kubel (DH), Kurt Suzuki (C), Pedro Florimon (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Ricky Nolasco (RHP), Kevin Correia (RHP), Phil Hughes (RHP), Mike Pelfrey (RHP), Vance Worley (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Glen Perkins (LHP)
MANAGER: Ron Gardenhire
CAN MAUER ADJUST AT FIRST BASE?
In order to prolong the career of the talented Mauer, both he and the Twins agreed that moving him to first base full-time would be the best option for his health and the team. He has made more than 50 starts at first base over the previous three seasons and suffered a season-ending concussion last August when he took a foul ball off his catcher's mask. It was then decided in November to give up backstop duties for good, which is why Suzuki was added in the offseason.
"It wasn't a tough decision, but it was just because I love to catch and I've put in so much work to become the catcher that I was," Mauer, a six-time All- Star said. "I think I kept visiting different doctors hoping that somebody would tell that it was OK to get back behind there."
Mauer is also a new father and staying healthy for his children's future is important. He picked the brain of friend and former teammate Justin Morneau, who sustained a season-ending concussion in July 2010. The Twins are hoping Mauer will play more games now that he is at first base and will put his body through less of a grind. He also will be helpful for advice to Suzuki and young catching prospect Josmil Pinto.
PITCHING HAS IMPROVED, BUT WILL IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Minnesota has had one of the worst rotations statistically the last few years, but made some adjustments this offseason in bringing in Nolasco and Hughes. Nolasco earned the Opening Day starter nod and signed a four-year, $49 million deal to come over. Nolasco has solid pitch control and was a coveted arm on the market before the Twins lured him away from possible suitors. His contract would be the largest free-agent signing in the club's history, surpassing Josh Willingham's three-year, $21 million deal signed before the 2012 season.
Perhaps a change of scenery is what Hughes needed and he signed immediately after Nolasco. Hughes struggled at times with the New York Yankees and inked a three-year, $24 million contract. The righty spent his first seven MLB seasons with the Yankees, who drafted him in the first round in 2004, and he compiled a 56-50 record with a 4.54 ERA and 656 strikeouts in 182 games for the Yankees, including 132 starts.
"If Phil had his normal year I don't think we'd be sitting here today," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "This is a classic change-of-scenery situation. ... Ultimately, we think he's got huge upside. He's in the prime of his career, there's no doubt about that."
Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey and Vance Worley are expected to complete the Twins' rotation, which is expected to make a sizeable improvement from years past. Kyle Gibson, Trevor May and Alex Meyer could see action in the fifth spot. Twins starters went 39-74 last season.
IS BRIAN DOZIER THE NEXT FACE OF THE FRANCHISE?
Let's not get too excited yet over Brian Dozier because the Twins still have a guy named Mauer on the roster. But Dozier is a nice young piece to a puzzle that is slowly coming together. Dozier had a sensational sophomore season in 2013, when he played a career-high 147 games and compiled 18 homers and 66 RBI to go along with a .244 batting. His average and on-base skills has plenty of room to improve and the Twins have something special brewing at second base.
Working with Hall of Famer Paul Molitor is something Dozier can benefit from.
"Molitor will be doing the positioning and defense and all that, but he's so knowledgeable on the base paths and has little tidbits on timing and reads on pitchers," Dozier said. "Having him in the dugout to pick up on all that stuff will be good."
The middle infield of Dozier and shortstop Pedro Florimon could be a mainstay in the Twin Cities over the next few seasons.
X-FACTOR: BYRON BUXTON: Minnesota may have to wait a bit on bringing outfielder Byron Buxton on board full-time. Still, he's the Twins' top prospect with plenty of potential. Buxton is what experts call a five-tool player and saw some action with the big league club in spring training. Gardenhire wanted to see some at-bats for Buxton before the dust settles. He batted .344 with 12 homers, 77 RBI and 55 stolen bases with two Class A affiliates last season and was the second overall pick of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. He is expected to start the season at Double-A and Twins fans may not get a glimpse of Buxton until September. By then the Twins will most likely be out of contention and Buxton can get some steady reps. But that also could be the reason why the Twins may wait on getting Buxton up the system.
The Twins are not quite there yet to resume competing for the AL Central, and they're making slow and steady steps. Ryan upgraded the rotation with Nolasco and Hughes, but it's still not better than Detroit and possibly Cleveland. Until the younger prospects arrive and make some kind of an impact, which may not be until 2015, another losing season is in store for Minnesota.