There is no question the Twins are going to be in a much better position heading into spring training in 2016 than they were coming into this season, after firing manager Ron Gardenhire and coming off four consecutive 90-loss seasons.

There was a lot of uncertainty for the Twins, including how new manager Paul Molitor would perform in his first year. By the end of the season, only Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, Trevor Plouffe and Kurt Suzuki still would be regularly contributing from their Opening Day lineup, and a bunch of prospects changed the course of the season and the Twins’ future.

The biggest plus for next season is the Twins will get a full season from rookie sensation Miguel Sano, who coming into spring training this year still was a question mark after missing all of 2014 because of Tommy John elbow surgery.

Sano went to Class AA Chattanooga to start the year and hit .274 with 15 home runs, 18 doubles, 48 RBI and 55 runs scored. After he was called up to the Twins on July 2, Sano hit .269 with a .530 slugging percentage, 18 home runs, 17 doubles, 46 runs scored and 52 RBI. Sano is by far the best power prospect the Twins have had since Justin Morneau, and next year Sano will be with the team from Game 1.

Then you have left fielder Eddie Rosario, who hadn’t taken a major league at-bat until May 6 but then proceeded to have a great rookie season by hitting .267 with a .459 slugging percentage and leading all of baseball in triples with 15. Rosario, like Sano, struck out a lot, but he also displayed a tremendous arm and led the team with 16 outfield assists.

Center fielder Aaron Hicks hit only .247 in his first 28 games and was sent down to Class AAA Rochester, but after being called up, Hicks finally showed the promise that made him a first-round draft choice (14th overall) in 2008. He hit .256 for the season with a career-high .398 slugging percentage.

The Twins also seem to finally have solved their shortstop dilemma with Eduardo Escobar. His .445 slugging percentage was the highest of any American League shortstop with at least 400 at-bats. Over the past two years, Escobar has combined to hit .268 with 18 home runs, 66 doubles, 100 runs scored and 95 RBI. He will be the Twins’ starting shortstop next season.

Then there is the case of Hunter, who outperformed expectations offensively by finishing second on the team in RBI (81), tied for second in home runs (22) and fourth in hits (125) and runs scored (67). Hunter hit only .240, and there’s no question he needed a break in the middle of the season when even he admitted he badly slumped.

But if he and Molitor can agree on a decreased workload, there is no question Hunter has value for this club and should be back next season. He could fill a role similar to that which Kevin Garnett is filling for the young Timberwolves as they try to return to relevance.

Pitchers improved

Perhaps the biggest change for the Twins was in the pitching staff.

The team had a staff ERA this season of 4.07, compared with last year’s league-worst 4.57 ERA. That half-a-run difference was vital in finishing second in the AL Central.

Next year the Twins hope to get a full season from Ervin Santana, who was suspended for 81 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Santana went 4-1 with a 1.88 ERA and 37 strikeouts over 43 innings during the final month of the season and should be an ace next year.

The Twins also will get Phil Hughes back. While he struggled early, over his final 12 starts he went 7-3 with a 3.96 ERA while allowing only seven walks in 72 ⅔ innings, which was similar to his performance in 2014.

Tyler Duffey started the year at Chattanooga, moved up to Rochester and reached the Twins in August. He went 5-1 and posted a 3.10 ERA. The most important stat about Duffey was that he allowed more than four runs only once, in his first major league start.

The Twins also might have stumbled into a great bullpen with Trevor May, Kevin Jepsen and Glen Perkins. If those three pitchers are healthy, the Twins could have one of the best bullpens in baseball.

There still are a lot of areas for improvement heading into spring training, but with a number of new stars on offense, the return of an improved pitching staff and a second season for Molitor, next year should be a much smoother start for the Twins.

Vikings shine

Pro Football Focus, which does advanced football stats, has a lot of good things to say about the Vikings.

It ranks Harrison Smith as the best safety in the NFL. Smith has the third-most tackles of any free safety in the NFC with 26, and also has three pass deflections and an interception.

It ranked the much-criticized offensive line 15th best in the NFL, writing, “Given the injuries they’ve had, this can be considered something of a win. Matt Kalil is playing better, Michael Harris looks like a different player at guard, and there’s [injured center John] Sullivan’s return to look forward to.”

Teddy Bridgewater is ranked as the 10th-best quarterback. PFF wrote: “Facing a fierce Denver Broncos pass rush, Bridgewater held his own, though he had a costly fumble that sealed the game for Denver. Still, Bridgewater continues his quietly efficient ways that keep him lingering around the top 10.”

Jottings

• To buy a Packers ticket to the Vikings game at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 22 this year, you have to buy a corresponding ticket to the Rams, Bears or Giants game. It’s a big surprise the Bears game is in that package.

• Gophers wide receiver KJ Maye talking about the Gophers’ offensive difficulties: “I’ve been a little frustrated the way we’ve been going on, but I’m a senior on the team and feel like people are going to follow my lead. I’m going to stay positive and have faith in our team. I know what we can do. I see what we do day in and day out at practice. We just have to execute in games, that is the biggest thing.”

• Defensive back Adekunle Ayinde on the Gophers’ mood after losing 27-0 to Northwestern on Saturday: “Everybody is down. It’s a team we knew we could beat. When that happens, we just have to get back in the film room and do our best throughout the week. Coach [Jerry Kill] was telling us we just have to go through every practice like it is a game and treat every practice seriously. Play every rep seriously so you can get better.”

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com