With TwinsFest coming this week and spring training a little more than a month away, General Manager Terry Ryan said he believes that with the free-agent signings the Twins made this offseason, along with the improvement that came from a number of their young players last season, the team can be more competitive after four consecutive losing seasons.
“On paper we’ll be better, and that paper business gets you in trouble, but looking around the diamond we’re solid at every position,” Ryan said. “We have a little bit more depth than we’ve had in recent years. We’ve added to the pitching staff. Hopefully we can get [Ricky] Nolasco to bounce back. The only concern is the inexperience of the bullpen. We added a little bit to that with adding Tim Stauffer and Blaine Boyer out of the Padres system.
“I would say we’re better off, but we have to go prove it. We’ve had a lot of difficulty in the last four years with playing accountable baseball. Everybody is tired of that, including the people that work within the confines of Target Field.”
The Twins’ two big additions were bringing back popular outfielder Torii Hunter on a one-year, $10.25 million deal, as well as signing Ervin Santana, who received the largest free-agent contract in Twins history at four years for $54 million. In addition, in December they gave Phil Hughes a $42 million extension that will keep the righthander under contract through 2019.
Ryan said one of the biggest keys will be whether Nolasco can bounce back to his past form after going 6-12 with a 5.38 ERA in 159 innings last year. Before Santana, it was Nolasco who was the highest-paid Twins free agent ever, at four years for $49 million.
“He was injured some, he was disappointing for much of the time that he was healthy,” Ryan said. “He did pitch better and with some conviction in September [2.93 ERA, 26 strikeouts in 30⅔ innings], which was encouraging.
“But we need six months out of him. We have a lot of investment in him. He’s a veteran. I supposed the change of leagues and the change of cities and those types of things contributed. But now that he has been here for a year, I’m hoping we can get him going because he is certainly capable of helping us.”
Another area that Ryan said is unsettled is the infield, where Danny Santana, Eduardo Escobar and Eduardo Nunez could all battle for time at shortstop.
“That’s still a little debate and [manager] Paul [Molitor] and the coaching staff will sort it out, but we have the capability of having a couple people play there, and Santana is one of them and Escobar is another,” he said. “If both of those guys are injured we can play Nunez over there, so we have enough depth. We’re going to sort that out in spring training, exactly who is going to play center and shortstop, but we have numbers to work with.”
Praise for Escobar
Ryan agreed when it was said that Escobar, a career .228 hitter entering 2014, was easily one of the biggest surprises for the Twins last year after hitting .275 with 35 doubles and 119 hits in 133 games.
“He was one of the better-hitting shortstops in the American League,” Ryan said. “That is one of those things that you’re looking for. He’s a switch hitter, he can really run, and he has enough strength to keep a defense honest. … There’s a lot of attributes that he brings to a club and a lineup, and his defense is no slouch either. He can really throw. His makeup is one of those that’s infectious on a team. He’s a good teammate. There’s a lot of things we like about Escobar.”
Could Escobar play in the outfield?
“We tried him out there a little bit, and it didn’t work out so well,” Ryan said. “I think if we give him a little bit of exposure in spring training that would increase. He’s a good athlete. … He can play third, short, second and in a pinch the outfield.
“His best position seems to be short. He made all the plays that he should have last year. He had  doubles, and that’s impressive. He’s only  years old and doing well down in Venezuela. He’s a piece of this thing and he probably is going to put some pressure on people. It will be hard for Santana to put him out of work.”
The Gophers football team has 18 commitments for the Class of 2015, and it could sign eight more players.
While the Gophers have dealt with three of their players transferring, two of their biggest recruits will honor their commitments in Demry Croft, a quarterback from Illinois, and running back Jonathan Femi-Cole from Ontario. Both had great showings in postseason high school all-star games.
Croft shined at the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Jan. 2, one day after the Gophers’ loss to Missouri. Croft completed 12 of 15 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns, including a 79-yarder, in a 34-17 victory for his team.
Femi-Cole ran for 136 yards on 26 carries in the National Underclassmen Combine All-American Senior Game on Dec. 30 in Myrtle Beach, S.C., as his team won 9-0.
That’s good news for Jerry Kill and his coaching staff, as these two players could be a big part of the Gophers’ future and will sign Feb. 4.
• Jose Mendez, a Gophers sophomore golfer who was the 2014 Big Ten co-medalist, finished in a tie for 13th in the Latin American Amateur Championship on Sunday, shooting even par over three rounds at Pilar Golf Club in Buenos Aires. Mendez, from Costa Rica, would have gotten into to the Masters had he won.
• At the Timberwolves Shootout last weekend, Gary Trent Jr., the son of the former Timberwolves forward, had 26 points and nine rebounds in Apple Valley’s 79-49 victory over Omaha Central. Trent Jr., a sophomore, told GopherIllustrated he has stayed in close contact with the Gophers since being offered a scholarship. … Henry Ellenson, the brother of former Gophers player Wally Ellenson, had 39 points and 18 rebounds for Rice Lake (Wis.) in a 75-71 loss to Champlin Park. Both brothers will play for Marquette next season.
• The Wolves traded swingman Gerald Green to Houston for Kirk Snyder, a second-round pick and cash in 2008. Now the 28-year-old Green, who disappeared from the NBA for a few years, destroys the Wolves whenever he faces them. Last season for Phoenix he hit a winning jumper at the buzzer in a 104-103 victory. This season in two close Suns victories he has averaged 14 points on 10-for-18 shooting, including 6-for-10 on three-pointers in the fourth quarter alone against his former squad.
• The Vikings aren’t the only NFL team interested in Duron Carter, the son of Cris Carter. The Cleveland Browns worked out the former Ohio State and Canadian Football League receiver last week.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40, 8:40 and 9:20 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org