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MLB preview: The Minnesota Twins

How are things shaping up for last season's basement dwellers?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This week we're going to take a look at each of the Tribe's AL Central rivals, getting help from our SB Nation cousins. Today, a Q&A with Jesse Lund, managing editor at Twinkie Town.

After being the class of the division during the first decade of this century, the Twins have fallen on hard times, losing more games (383) over the last four seasons than any team in the American League. That's the worst four-year stretch the team has had since the 1950s, when they were still the Washington Senators. The farm system has a lot of talent, topped by Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, but they've both had some injuries to deal with (Buxton especially).

They did seem to be starting to turn a corner last year though. Will 2015 see that trend continue?

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For the first decade of the 2000s, the Twins were the class of the AL Central, winning six division titles in the span of nine seasons. Over the last four seasons though, they've averaged 96 losses a year. How frustrating has that been? Has the team been mismanaged in recent years or is this just part of being a small market team?

I've been quite vocal about saying that the Twins had been rotting from the inside out for years. There were a string of drafts in the mid-2000s where the team drafted virtually nothing of value, and when they did (Matt Garza) they dealt it away in trades that look even worse in hindsight than they did in the heat of the moment. As a result, for a team that was as stacked with plus-level talent as the Twins (that still really only had two or three legitimate stars at the team's peak), it meant that the existing players got more expensive and there was no one to replace them internally. The more expensive payroll meant the organization was as free-agent averse as ever, meaning there was no new blood coming up through the system or coming in via free agency. Trading away pieces for non-commensurate value (Wilson Ramos, Garza, and J.J. Hardy are great examples) didn't help, either.

If you're still reading through that depressing paragraph, or whether you've skipped it because it's just too awful, I can put you out of your misery succinctly: mismanagement and a string of bad baseball decisions led to the implosion of the franchise.

The Twins signed two pitchers to sizable contracts last offseason. Ricky Nolasco's 2014 seems to have been something of a disaster, while Phil Hughes did very well. What do you expect from those two this year? Hughes was already under contract through 2017, but the Twins chose to guarantee him another $42 million to extend him through 2020. How wise a gamble is that?

Peripherals for Hughes seem to indicate that his 2014 performance was mostly legitimate, and the return of his cutter played a large role in that transformation. I don't expect him to be a dark horse candidate for the Cy Young again, but I think there's an expectation that he continues to be the best pitcher in the rotation. He's obviously very comfortable in Minnesota, which was a big part of why the extension came together. They actually approached the Twins with the idea.

How wise of a gamble is it? If he puts together another good campaign - not even as great as 2014, just a good campaign - he'd have been a year away from free agency. He'd be on schedule to hit the market at age 30 with some pretty good numbers under his belt in Minnesota, and in that situation it would net him a massive contract that the Twins would wisely want no part of. It's easy to see it turning into a five/six/seven year bidding war where teams who are hoping to pay less than $20 million a year won't even make it to the bargaining table. In that situation, the Twins have made a great decision. And in light of Hughes' underlying performance metrics, I'm more apt to buy into that scenario than I am the scenario where he turns into the guy who left New York.

I do think that if the extension hadn't happened, and if Hughes had come out and pitched really well in 2015, he'd have been gone after 2016. Maybe it'll all prove to be premature, but for an organization that has been (fairly or unfairly) criticized for how it spends its money (or not), I think it's a wise investment in the future. If it plays out like we hope it will, Hughes will be leading the rotation for a team that should be ready to contend in the near future.
Another way to look at it is this: if there were a 28 year old free agent starter on the market that had the season that Hughes just had at age 27, what kind of a contract do you think he'd have garnered on the open market?

As for Nolasco, well... it'll be hard to be worse than he was last year. I think he'll bounce back a bit. He might be hard pressed to be worth his contract, but I do think he'll be better. That's about as confident as I am in Nolasco until he proves otherwise.

Joe Mauer is coming off a very disappointing 2014, and is still owed another $96 million over the next four seasons. What sort of production do you expect from him this year? How much does his contract concern you?

I'm more concerned about Mauer's longetivity than I am his contract. The Twins have enough money to field a good team even when they're paying $23 million a year to Joe, especially with the long list of prospects that will be debuting over the next two or three years. Man will it be nice to have young, inexpensive talent on this team again.
Production-wise, I'd love to believe that Mauer would be able to come out and return to the .320/.410/.470 hitter he was over the course of his career. Realistically, I'd expect something closer to .295/.390/.430. It'll be disappointing to some people, especially those fans who love to disparage the guy for his contract and for playing first base as though either of those things should change what kind of a hitter he's always been, but in truth it's still a very good triple slash and Mauer needs to hit at or near the top of the batting order. He's really gotten a bad rap from a rather vocal sector of Twins fans over the years, and it's a shame. He's a generational talent, so I hope he can string together a few more good years yet. I'm betting there's more left in the tank than he's given credit for.

The Twins have had one of the highest rated farm systems in baseball in recent years, but Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano have been plagued by injuries. What's the status of those two entering the 2015 season? When do you expect them to arrive in Minnesota?

They're both healthy and looking to shake off a little rust - Buxton in particular, who last year had a run of bad luck with injuries like you wouldn't believe. He and Sano need to get back on track and it was fun to see them in spring training, but we always knew that neither player would be ready to break camp with the club. Both will start 2015 at Double-A, and unless something unexpected happens we should see them anytime between post-All-Star break and September.

Which player on the Twins might not be especially well known outside Minnesota, but should be?

This is a great question. Quite possibly a depressing one. I'm not sure there's a guy I can name here, since most of the players with potential value that you haven't heard of are in the minor leagues. Everyone else on the Twins roster who has any chance of being good you've probably heard of.

I do think Oswaldo Arcia has a chance to break out this season, and to turn into the legitimate middle-of-the-order threat he looked like he'd be in the minor leagues. But you've seen him around the last year couple of years. Kyle Gibson could be a better pitcher than he's shown, but you'll be familiar with his name. Oh, I know one! Torii Hunter! Since it's 1999, I can tell you that this guy might end up having one hell of a career.

Is there anyone one the Indians you particularly admire? Anyone who particularly drives you nuts?

Nick Swisher is really easy to dislike. Could he be anymore bro-tastic? I admire Terry Francona for the way he handled his departure from Boston. I was living there at the time and it was a bad situation - he got a bad rap and had to shoulder too much of the blame after getting stuck with some real asshole players. He's a good manager, and as far as I'm concerned he's a great fit for a team like Cleveland with a lot of talent that the media at large may not appreciate. The Indians will surprise some people this year, and Francona is a great option to have at the helm for such a season.

Otherwise - Jason Kipnis has really been letting me down in my fantasy leagues. But I still ended up with him on one of my rosters this year, so tell him to step it up a notch if you have the chance.

The Twins are the consensus pick to finish last in the division this year. Do you think they'll surprise people with a winning season? What do you expect to happen in the AL Central year?

I do think the Twins will surprise some people this year - by winning 77 or 78 games. I think FanGraphs has Minnesota pegged at 74 but I'm a bit more bullish, because the front office shaved a lot of flotsam off the roster over the winter and as a result raised the talent floor of the team. Raising the talent ceiling will fall on the prospects quite a bit, but it's unrealistic to expect them to be major players this year.

Overall in the Central it's hard to pick against Detroit, but as I said in my Twins season preview - if I'm the Tigers, it's not the Royals that I'm looking for in my rearview mirror. It's the Indians. Cleveland could have one of the best all-around pitching staffs in baseball this season as far as I'm concerned. I think the crux of the Indians' success this season will be based on the success of that pitching, but if it works out it feels like there's just enough offense to be a threat. If things go well I could see the Indians winning the central this year.

I'm unimpressed by what the Royals have done this winter, and I'll be surprised if they finish better than third place in the AL Central. Chicago made a praise-worthy effort to take advantage of a division without a clear leader with a couple of the moves they made, but ultimately I don't think they have enough offense and won't take the steps forward that they hoped they would.

Spitballing AL Central standings for 2015, let's roll with Detroit (89 wins), Cleveland (88), Kansas City (81), Minnesota (77), and Chicago (75). Feel free to point out how wrong I was in about six months.

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A big thank you to Jesse for taking the time to answer my questions, and to do so with such great depth. We're now two-for-two on our guests predicting strong seasons for the Tribe, so that's nice.