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.