Fort Myers, Fla. – The Twins’ spring training complex is filled with construction trucks.
That’s not a tortured metaphor. The place is crawling with workers. What has always been a quaint and friendly place to watch workouts and games is being transformed into a one-stop spring baseball mecca.
There’s a new grass berm beyond the left field fence, outfield seating and a couple of bars that may be related to the adjective “Tiki.’’ They’re building a dorm for minor league players near the minor league complex. The place is on its way to looking great.
OK, let’s try one tortured metaphor: Everybody wants to see green grass; few want to watch guys in hard hats laying down sod.
The Twins will hold their first official workout of the spring on Monday. Even for a franchise that has gone from last place to a World Series title, this is a unique juncture in Twins history. Perhaps never before have they been so wretched and so promising at the same time.
The last three seasons, while enjoying the benefits of playing in Target Field, the Twins have lost 99, 96 and 96 games. Never before has a Twins team lost 96 or more games three seasons in a row. Even the previous version of the franchise, the oft-ridiculed Washington Senators, never accomplished that.
When they expected to be at their best, they have been at their worst; a frequently unwatchable team in a beautiful new park.
They have also never before built a farm system with so much exceptional talent.
This spring, Byron Buxton, the consensus top prospect in baseball, and Miguel Sano, who is somewhere near the top, will be in big-league camp for the first time, along with top pitching prospect Alex Meyer.
Sano and Meyer should debut in the big leagues this year. Buxton, who has never played above Class A, could make it by the end of this season or early in 2015. With a franchise desperate to win before its fan base goes in search of other summer entertainment options, 2014 feels like the transition season that 2013 was supposed to be.
The overriding question this spring is: Can the Twins become more competitive while they wait on their kids?
The key will be the rebuilt rotation.
Last year, the Twins used 11 starting pitchers. Ten of them started eight or more games. In retrospect, Kevin Correia, who finished 9-13 with a 4.18 ERA and 185 innings pitched, was easily their de facto ace.
Their five top starters in terms of workload combined for 637 innings and 350 strikeouts. Those are horrific numbers. The team the Twins are chasing, the Detroit Tigers, saw their top five starters produce 1,000⅓ innings and 960 strikeouts.
The Twins have won before without exceptional pitching depth (like in ’87) and without exceptional front-of-the-rotation talent (the 2002 team won 94 games without having a full-time starter produce more than 188 innings or 124 strikeouts, and while calling soft-throwing Brad Radke its ace).
The Twins are hoping to upgrade their rotation from amateurish to competent. Two seasons ago, Phil Hughes produced 191⅓ innings and 165 strikeouts. Last year, Ricky Nolasco produced 199⅓ innings and 165 strikeouts.
Last year, on the strength of four strong months in 2012, Scott Diamond entered spring training as the Twins’ ace. This year, if everyone stays healthy, Diamond will have to pitch well in March just to have a chance to compete for the fifth starter’s job.
The projected rotation is Nolasco, Hughes, Correia and Mike Pelfrey, with Diamond, Sam Deduno, Kyle Gibson and Meyer competing for the fifth spot.
The Twins’ dream scenario is this: Dramatically improved starting pitching keeps them competitive while Sano and Buxton make their way to the big leagues; players such as Oswaldo Arcia, Aaron Hicks, Chris Parmelee and Josmil Pinto develop into quality big-leaguers; and Josh Willingham and Jason Kubel regain their health and power.
What’s frightening about 2014 for the Twins is that they could improve dramatically and still be mediocre.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org