I was going to do a radio show on Friday morning to preview the Twins season, and it's a pretty good thing we decided to postpone it until Opening Day. I know I would have been asked for things about which to be optimistic and I was 100 percent prepared to tout the signing of Ervin Santana as the best thing that happened over the winter.
So much for that, huh?
Welcome back to Section 219. For those who are returning readers, it's good to have you back. For those of you new to my blog, I covered the Twins long ago and now tend to the sports part of the startribune.com web site. On good days, I think I write from the perspective of a knowledgeable fan who can cut through some of the cliches. On other says, I can be cranky, although I like to think my crankiness is on your behalf.
OK, on with it.
In the past few years, I've tried to imagine scenarios at the start of the season in which the Twins could matter as the season unfolds: "Here's how much improvement is needed to be on the edge of the Wlld Card race and here's how it could happen." It was a lowered expectation from the previous decade, when the Twins usually came into the season with as good a chance as anyone to win their division, even if it almost always meant being set up for a quick postseason exit.
This year, I will bring you no such hope. There's been some progress, I think, but I'm not going to build something that won't pass a sniff test. Much of the progress is thin soup: The Twins aren't starting 2015 with the bad jokes of Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett on the roster. The three-catcher-on-the-roster silliness is gone and so is Aaron Hicks. I know there are a batch of guys that many of you want to see in the majors soon, if not now (Sano, May, Meyer, Buxton and Rosario, to name five), but I believe the management line that they just aren't ready. In fact, I'd bet against going 5-for-5 on everyone in that group eventually playing significant roles for the Twins.
Here's the two-part case for improvement that I'll make right now:
**I think Paul Molitor is setting higher expectations than have been set in the past. I'm hoping that Neil Allen is a difference-maker as pitching coach.I'm also aware that when your list starts with two guys who won't get a hit or throw an innings, you're not exactly inspiring confidence.
**With the exception of Danny Santana, Eduardo Escobar, Kurt Suzuki, Phil Hughes and Torii Hunter, everyone in the lineup and starting rotation can be expected to be better. Some improvements would be modest: Seeing what would happen to Brian Dozier's offensive production if he hit .262 instead of .242. Some would be dramatic: Expecting Joe Mauer to have the kind of season where we shouldn't have to cite seasons gone by as proof of his worth. Some baselines are pretty low: Ricky Nolasco and Mike Pelfrey own two of those. In other words, it would be hard for them to be worse.
However, that's set against concerns and flaws. I understand the Twins really, really want Santana to be their shortstop. But his move to center field last year, made out of necessity, masked the troubles he was having playing shortstop in the majors. I won't be surprised if he struggles in the field this season and I'm just hoping that any of those struggles don't have much impact on the offense he provided as a rookie. We've seen solid rookie years followed by much, much less. (See: Valencia, Danny.)
I don't have faith in the bullpen beyond Glen Perkins. Terry Ryan has said that concerns about the bullpen are overblown, but I'm still concerned -- and concerned all the more because there's no way you can look at the Twins outfield defense and see anything other than trouble looming. I'd be less concerned if the Twins had made a priority of acquiring strikeout pitchers for their 2015 bullpen, but that didn't happen.
Twins pitchers struck out fewer batters than anyone in baseball last season, and 27 of the 29 other MLB teams had from 100 to 400 strikeouts more. And more balls in play equals more chances for bad outcomes, especially with Hunter in right field and Oswaldo Arcia in left.
There are other reasons for concern, but I'll spare you because it's Opening Day and I'm willing to give the Twins a chance to prove me wrong. I'm not wired for anger and frustration on Opening Day. If you are, I get it.
So here's how I'm entering the season: I'm intrigued to see how Molitor's Twins are different than Ron Gardenhire's Twins. A few good weeks at the start of the season won't prove anything. Instead, a sense that something is being built, instead of managing to keep things from falling apart, is what I'll be hoping to see as the season progresses. I want the second half of the season to matter instead of feeling like a countdown to football season.
Yes, that feels more like playing for a certificate of participation instead of competing for a big trophy. What I'd really like is to look at things in a couple of months and see some stuff that I can't envision right now. That's my best shot at hope springing eternal. Put in this way: You think you know how this thing is going to play out, and you're hoping that somehow you're wrong.
We can either make the best of it or walk away ... and walking away isn't allowed on Opening Day.