Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have an uphill climb when it comes to remaking the Twins after five 90-loss seasons in a six-year span — including a bottoming-out at 103 losses in 2016. Included in their long-term vision will be plenty of major decisions — including whether to trade second baseman Brian Dozier. Contending teams, though, often thrive because of a combination of good fortune and smart decisions on minor details. To that end, here are five things that would help the Twins — and their new bosses — improve immediately in 2017:
1 Stability in center field: The Twins traded Denard Span and Ben Revere after the 2012 season. Since then, center field has primarily been a mess. Aaron Hicks wasn't the answer. A variety of short-term fill-ins were collectively inadequate. Byron Buxton has been up and down.
Buxton's final month of 2016 — in which he posted an OPS of 1.011 while clubbing nine homers — offers hope that he is here to stay, while his age (turning 23 next month) is a reminder of his potential. But one good month isn't enough to be counting on anything yet (remember, Chris Parmelee posted a 1.035 OPS for the Twins in September 2011, and look where that got everyone). That said, if Falvey and Levine managed to time their arrival just as Buxton is ready to claim center field for good, everyone's job will be easier.
2 Upgrade at catcher: Kurt Suzuki was a decent hitter, below league average at throwing out would-be base-stealers and a subpar pitch framer. The Twins tried to upgrade at catcher last season by trading for John Ryan Murphy, but that experiment stalled after Murphy was sent back to the minors following an awful April. The Twins don't need an All-Star here, but they need a defensive upgrade. A guy like Astros free agent Jason Castro — an excellent pitch framer, which could help the staff — might be a good target.
3 Return to health of Phil Hughes: Hughes pitched like a top-of-the-rotation starter in his first year with the Twins in 2014, logging 200-plus innings and winning 16 games. His average fastball velocity that year was 92 mph. The next season, it dipped to 90.7 and his production dipped. Last year, it dropped again, to 90.4, and he threw it just 49 percent of the time — compared to 64 percent in 2014.
If surgery in July helps Hughes — who is owed $40 million over the next three years — regain his velocity and helps him return closer to his 2014 form, it would be a huge boost to the 2017 rotation.
4 Get the bullpen right: Twins relievers threw the fourth-most innings in the majors last season with the fifth-worst ERA. That's a terrible combination.
This is where shrewdness on the part of Falvey and Levine could really come into play. It's generally regarded as easier to upgrade a bullpen than to upgrade a starting staff, at least when time is of the essence. If the Twins don't think they can upgrade the rotation significantly, they could still stock the bullpen with more good arms to compensate.
5 Expanded baseball staff: As Twins beat writer Phil Miller wrote recently, "the most important free agent the Twins add this offseason may be a data analyst, not a starting pitcher." Minnesota has lagged behind the rest of the AL Central in terms of bodies and modern thinking. Getting a more robust evaluation team in place quickly should pay dividends in both the short term and long term.