The Twins open their 2018 campaign Thursday at Baltimore, and there is no question this team has its sights on challenging Cleveland for the AL Central title, which they haven’t won since 2010. Last year, the Twins went 85-77 and grabbed the second AL wild card, but were still 17 games back in the standings of the Indians.

One thing to keep watch of is how this year affects the Twins’ decision-making when it comes to contracts in 2019.

The Twins begin the season with the 19th-highest payroll in baseball at $131.3 million, their highest ever. But looking at next year, they have only $37.7 million in payroll allocated because so many of their players are either on one-year deals, entering the final year of their contract or about the get big paydays in arbitration.

What you will see on the field in 2018 might be one of the Twins’ most competitive teams in a decade, but it also might be a team that doesn’t last more than one season.

Big decisions loom

Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine have done a fantastic job signing free agents this offseason and getting the 25-man roster together. The two have proved they can do this job and that whatever challenges they face, they can be patient in who they sign and at what price.

Their patience in landing free agents Lance Lynn and Logan Morrison could pay huge dividends and if they don’t, they didn’t hamstring the franchise with big contracts moving forward.

But there will be challenges coming.

The Twins roster features five key players who will be free agents after this season in Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier, Eduardo Escobar, Zach Duke and Lynn.

It has four players who are entering their first year of arbitration in Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario — those four just so happen to be the future of the offense.

Ehire Adrianza and Robbie Grossman will enter their second round of arbitration next year. Newly acquired Jake Odorizzi, fellow starter Kyle Gibson and reliever Ryan Pressly will enter their third year of arbitration before becoming unrestricted free agents heading into the 2020 season.

So while the Twins still have team control over a number of players, the only players under contract for the 2019 season at this point are catcher Jason Castro ($8 million) and pitchers Phil Hughes ($13.2 million), Addison Reed ($8.5 million) and Michael Pineda ($8 million). In addition, three players have options: designated hitter Morrison ($8 million, but potentially worth up to $9.5 million based on plate appearances this year) and pitchers Ervin Santana ($14 million) and Fernando Rodney ($4.3 million).

Hughes, Santana and Pineda will all start 2018 on the disabled list, with Pineda unlikely to pitch this season.

The Twins will have a lot of moves to make next offseason, but they will also have huge decisions on how much to offer their young stars, whether to extend them to long-term deals, and whether to bring back players such as Mauer, Dozier, Escobar and Lynn — if they have the opportunity to do so. Dozier said this spring that he intends to test the free-agent market.

Team President Dave St. Peter said Wednesday that balancing the roster and the payroll is one of the biggest challenges the team faces during this season and in forecasting the long-term future.

“I just think it is the reality of operating a baseball team in 2018,” St. Peter said. “We feel as though we’re in a great position, largely because we have flexibility. There is no question that over the course of this year we think there will be an ability to extend some of those players that are currently on one-year contracts.

“But moreover I think the key to our success is going to be the continued investment in our player development system. We’re really excited at the high number of prospects particularly at the upper levels, guys we think can graduate and ultimately help our ballclub in 2018, 2019 and 2020. I think that will be the key to our long-term success.”

Towns saves Wolves

In a game that the Timberwolves absolutely had to win, Karl-Anthony Towns put on the greatest scoring performance in franchise history with 56 points on 19-of-32 shooting in a 126-114 victory over Atlanta on Wednesday.

On top of that, Towns recorded 15 rebounds to add to his league-best 63 double-doubles on the season.

The Wolves’ terrible loss to Memphis on Monday at home dropped them to the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs and left them just one game ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers in the loss column, and after the game coach Tom Thibodeau called out Towns, without using his name, in saying the Wolves hadn’t matched the physicality of Grizzlies big man Marc Gasol, whom Towns guarded most of the night.

Well on Wednesday Towns responded.

Without Jimmy Butler, who missed his 14th consecutive game after surgery on his meniscus, the Wolves needed everyone to step up, but at the same time there is no doubt that Towns has the ability to singlehandedly change the outcome for the Wolves. He did it vs. the Hawks and made history in the process.

Going into Wednesday, the Wolves had the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA with an opponent winning percentage of .402. But they still need to win the games if they are to make the postseason for the first time since 2003-04, so no doubt they will continue to look for Towns to take over.


• Vikings GM Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer were both at the Ohio State pro day, and Spielman was spotted talking with center Billy Price, who is ranked as one of the top offensive linemen in this draft class. The Vikings struck gold with Buckeyes lineman Pat Elflein last year and might be looking to that program again.

• One thing was made clear when offensive lineman Joe Berger retired. If he was going to play anywhere in 2018, it was only going to be with the Vikings.

• The word is that Eden Prairie defensive back Benny Sapp III, who missed his senior season because of a left knee problem, is now 100 percent and will be able to take part in Gophers football practice this fall.

• The Gophers baseball team is 16-9 and ranked No. 46 in the RPI according to That ranks second in the Big Ten behind Illinois at No. 29. … Patrick Frederickson has really made an impression on the mound, as the 6-6 righthander was recently named Big Ten freshman of the week and has a 3-0 record with a 1.72 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 31⅓ innings.