hughespicEven the more pessimistic among Twins fans — after badmouthing an outfield defense and bullpen that look worrisome, at best — generally concedes that the starting rotation, an eyesore for much of the past four season, should be better than it was last year (mild praise) and downright functional if some things go right.

Most of the true optimism is saved for an offense that finished 7th in MLB in runs scored in 2014 and could keep the team in games, but the rotation is emerging in conversations as a strength — partly by default, and partly because Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco and Kyle Gibson all have the potential to be above-average, while Tommy Milone as the fifth starter is better than Milone or (fill in the blank) as a No. 3 starter, as the pecking order has gone in recent years.

Here’s the problem, though: even if the Twins’ rotation is upgraded, there are still a lot of questions. Can Hughes — very good in 2010, 2012 and 2014, not so good in 2011 and 2013 — avoid the every-other-year swoon? Will Santana, at age 32, avoid a decline? Will Nolasco, who looked better this spring by all accounts, put an ugly 2014 behind him? Can Gibson take another step? Can Milone be effective outside of Oakland?

There is enough skepticism from the outside to make us wonder if the rotation is truly a strength or if it merely looks better by comparison to previous years. The Washington Post ranked the Twins’ rotation 28th out of 30 in MLB, though admittedly didn’t offer much by way of explanation beyond doubting it has been upgraded enough beyond last year’s MLB-worst 5.06 ERA.

If the second-best thing about your team — better than the defense, better than the bullpen, not as good as the offense — is still bad enough that a major publication ranks it among baseball’s worst, it’s enough to make us wonder if it is really a strength.

One thing is for certain: the Twins will need it to be a true strength if they are going to come anywhere close to .500 this year.

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