Twins have a new spin on the starting rotation

The Twins should get more strikeouts and longer starts after signing Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes.

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Twins pitcher Phil Hughes got a lite workout Sunday Feb 16. 2014 in Fort Myers, Florida Lee County Sports Complex.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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– Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson has directed starting rotations that have dominated and some recent ones that have been disasters.

With spring training opening Monday, Anderson said he believes he’ll have a starting five that will embrace a different ‘D’ word: dependable.

“This is the first time in about three years that we come to spring training with a little bit of an idea of what you have,” Anderson said.

Anderson appears particularly upbeat this year. Two reasons are because Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes are now Twins.

The club committed $73 million in salary to the two starters in an effort to improve a staff that has posted a 5.08 ERA over the past three season — the worst in baseball during that period. Nolasco, 31, was 13-11 with a 3.70 ERA last season with the Marlins and Dodgers but 8-3 with a 3.52 ERA in 16 games (15 starts) with playoff-bound Los Angeles following a midseason trade. Hughes was 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA with the Yankees — ugly, indeed. But the Twins believe Hughes, who won 18 games in 2010 and 16 in 2012, can return to that form. After all, he’s still only 27.

Who can blame the Twins for feeling optimistic? It’s spring training, where hope is in full bloom and every team is 0-0.

The Twins have learned from the past couple of seasons that nothing is worse for a team than starting pitchers who often had them trailing 3-0 after two innings. And nothing gives a team more confidence than starters who regularly can pitch deep into games.

The Twins offense might be under reconstruction well into the regular season, but teams can still contend with good pitching and a little run support. The Twins, after three consecutive seasons of between 96 and 99 losses, are willing to embrace that formula this season.

“We believe we have done a good job of addressing that with Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes,” Twins assistant GM Rob Antony said, “and with Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia. We wanted to get back to having five starters who give us a chance to stay in the game, not give us situations when we are down 3-0, 4-0 sometimes in the first inning. That demoralizes a team.”

Knowing he was wanted

The Twins locked in on Nolasco early in the offseason and never ended the courtship. He was 81-72 in seven-plus seasons with the Marlins, and the Twins have been impressed at how he has matured in recent seasons. It doesn’t hurt that Nolasco thrived under the Hollywood lights with the Dodgers, where Zack Greinke, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp and rookie Yasiel Puig made headlines.

“It seemed like [Nolasco] was very confident,” Antony said. “It wasn’t a false confidence, it was the confidence of a guy who had gotten it done before, knows what he needs to do and knows what he brings. He’s a guy we expect to solidify and bolster a rotation that wasn’t good last year.”

So the Twins made Nolasco their most expensive free-agent signing ever, giving him $49 million over four years with an option for 2018.

Anderson did his homework as well, calling Marlins manager and former Twins catcher Mike Redmond. The two Washington state natives reveled in Seattle’s Super Bowl shellacking of Denver before Anderson asked what to expect from Nolasco.

“He said, ‘Andy, you are going to love him,’ ” Anderson said. “He works his tail off. He’s a gamer. And he battles.”

Nolasco, who should be a candidate to take the ball on Opening Day, has accepted the challenge the Twins have laid out for him.

“They reached out on Day 1 and they never stopped,” Nolasco said. “That’s a good feeling to have someone come after you like that and make you feel wanted. I’m happy for the change of a new city in Minnesota, definitely happy to try to help this team try to turn things around and get back to winning.”

Leaving the Big Apple

Hughes reported to camp Sunday and has already thrown two bullpen sessions. Sitting in the Hammond Stadium clubhouse Friday, words like rebirth, recovery and rebound were thrown his way. He feels any of them could apply as the once-heralded prospect embarks on a new season with a new team, trying to distance himself from the 4-14 blowup of a year ago.

He can throw a fastball 95 miles per hour, but sometimes it’s too straight and he leaves it up in the strike zone. He likes his curveball and will spend spring training trying to perfect a No. 3 pitch, whether it’s a changeup, slider, cutter or something else.

“That’s the whole idea, to bounce back as well as I can,” Hughes said. “Last year was a disaster and not the way I wanted things to go. I feel like this is a fresh start for me, an opportunity to come in and help a staff that has struggled at times. I think the organization is going in the right route. I’m excited about that.”

Hughes was 1-10 at Yankee Stadium in 2013, giving up 17 home runs in 16 starts. He was 3-4 on the road, giving up seven homers in 13 starts. So, yes, he scouted ballparks as he looked at teams to join. Target Field yielded 1.75 homers per game, the second-fewest in the American League.

It will take more than a change of venue for Hughes to pitch up to the lofty expectations once placed on him. The three-year, $24 million deal the Twins offered obviously had a lot to do with his decision, but he also asked around about Anderson and is excited about working with him. The two chatted for a while Wednesday after one of his bullpen sessions.

“I got reports on him and I talked to him after he threw in the bullpen,” Anderson said. “His makeup is through the roof. Great guy.”

Together, Hughes and Nolasco give the Twins something they haven’t had in recent years — pitchers who can strike out batters. The Twins staff struck out 6.11 batters per nine innings last season, 5.90 in 2012 and 5.95 in 2011 — the worst in baseball each season. Hughes has averaged 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings in his career; Nolasco has averaged 7.4.

No more running out five pitch-to-contact guys for the Twins.

Battle for No. 5

The Twins have four spots in the rotation nailed down — Nolasco, Hughes, Correia and Pelfrey. Pelfrey was re-signed to a two-year, $11 million deal after going 5-13 with a 5.19 ERA in his comeback year following Tommy John surgery in 2012. The Twins wanted to try to reap the benefits, after Pelfrey endured that recovery year, rather than watch him go elsewhere and possibly thrive.

“We don’t want to be a rehab system for someone else,” Antony said.

The Twins would have looked harder at signing Bronson Arroyo if they hadn’t brought Pelfrey back. Either way, they have created a massive competition for the fifth starter’s spot between Scott Diamond. Samuel Deduno, Vance Worley and Kyle Gibson. Prospects Alex Meyer and Trevor May will be in camp as well. It will be one of the more interesting battles in camp, with Diamond, Worley and Deduno all out of minor league options.

That’s the way the Twins wanted it — to upgrade the rotation and not hand out jobs like scholarships. They will get to see how their offseason moves look beginning Monday, when pitchers and catchers take the field for the first time this spring.

“That’s the confidence you are looking for,” Antony said. “That’s the stability you are looking for. We have not had an ace of the staff since we had Johan Santana, but we were still effective and won the division because we had five starters who gave us a chance. And that is what we are trying to do here.”

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