If Ricky Nolasco applies himself, he’s got a chance to be a pretty good fifth starter on a pretty good team.
Here are the four ways the 2014 Twins are beginning to resemble the early-century Twins, who broke an eight-year losing streak and set the franchise up to win for a decade without spending $50 million on a free-agent pitcher with a 5.52 ERA:
1. Pitching depth
Everyone wants an ace. Everyone should want an ace. When the Twins had Johan Santana at the top of their rotation, they entered every season with a clear advantage.
But pitching depth is more important than the presence of one star, at least during the regular season. The Twins went to the ALCS in 2002 when Rick Reed led the staff with 15 wins. They won because of depth in the rotation and the bullpen.
The current Twins have built an impressive lineup of productive and promising starters.
Last year, the Twins at time had to consider Sam Deduno their de facto ace. Now he can’t keep a job in the rotation. Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson have thrived. Alex Meyer and Trevor May are dominating Triple-A. Jose Berrios is dominating high-Class A.
The lower minors are filled with power arms, including former first-round pick Kohl Stewart.
By the beginning of next season, the rotation should be: Meyer, Hughes, Gibson, May and Nolasco, if Nolasco pitches well enough to make the team.
Those of us who love baseball sometimes fall into the trap of overanalyzing the craft of the game. A pitcher changes his slider grip, and finds success. We love that story.
More often, baseball players succeed because they are exceptional athletes. For every unathletic-looking player like Greg Maddux and Tony Gwynn in the Hall of Fame, there are a dozen guys who look like Mike Schmidt or Rickey Henderson — bigger, faster or stronger than their peers.
Danny Santana’s arrival in the majors is a reminder that physical skills are paramount. He’s a fast, strong player with a powerful arm and the agility to be a quality big-league shortstop. Suddenly, with Santana and Brian Dozier, another quality athlete, in the middle of the infield, the Twins are turning more grounders and bloops into outs.
Byron Buxton will be one of the five best athletes in baseball. Miguel Sano will be one of the five best power hitters. Oswaldo Arcia and Josmil Pinto are powerful young players. Meyer and Gibson are tall pitchers with power arms.
In recent years, the Twins have altered their approach in the draft, seeking athletic ability and power arms more than polished skills. The major league team is beginning to see the results.
The Twins began winning in the early 2000s because athletes like Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie and Cristian Guzman entered their prime. The arrival of Danny Santana signals the start of another transformation.
3. Underappreciated pickups
Terry Ryan’s strength as a general manager during his first stint was finding underappreciated prospects in the trade market. Now he’s trying to find underappreciated free agents.
Nolasco is threatening to become an epic bust. Otherwise, Ryan has done well. Josh Willingham, when healthy, has proved a remarkable bargain. Kurt Suzuki might be this team’s MVP. Hughes has been dominant since April. Kevin Correia has given them, in sum, what they expected.
Ryan probably will never again be able to trade in the Rule V draft for someone like Santana. But the Twins are drafting better now than they did in the 1990s and 2000s, and the signings of Nolasco, Hughes and Kendrys Morales signal a new willingness to spend significant money on the free-agent market.
After years of tolerating young players nicknamed “The Fun Bunch,” the Twins are welcoming young players with a competitive edge.
Dozier has it. Santana has it. Arcia, despite his recent struggles, has it. Gibson has it. Twins minor league staffers rave about the competitiveness of Buxton and Sano.
Injuries to Buxton and Sano have slowed the Twins’ recovery, but help is on the way. Even better for the Twins, some of the help is already here.