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The Sports Xchange, Published October 01 2013

Rebuilding process going slow for Twins

It felt like deja vu all over again for the Minnesota Twins in 2013. They finished the season 66-96, their third consecutive year with at least 90 losses. For a team that's been rebuilding, the improvements are not happening quickly.

Like happened much of the season, the Twins limped into the month of September. as their best player, Joe Mauer, finished the year on the DL with a concussion. Although they worked hard at the role of spoiler, the late season lineup just didn't include enough firepower to do any damage.

Injuries certainly played a big part of the Twins 2013 season. The team's top two catchers (Mauer and Ryan Doumit) spent little time behind the plate since mid-August because of concussions. The good news is that those injuries identified some depth at the position as five different players started behind the plate this season.

"When you've got some depth in spots, you aren't exactly going to be worrying about it," general manager Terry Ryan said in assessing some needs going forward. "If something (free agency opportunity) presents itself, you should be prepared. (But) there are some positions that we've got a lot more confidence in and are in pretty good shape moving forward more than others. We've got a little catching depth."

Josh Willingham, who in 2012 had the season the team was looking for when they signed him as a free agent, had a 2013 season he'd like to quickly forget. He missed 33 games with a knee injury and couldn't come close to his 2012 numbers. Couple Willingham's season with the early struggles and ultimate trade of Justin Morneau, and the middle of the Twins lineup suffered a huge power outage for much of the campaign.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness on the team has been the starting pitching. It began with opening day starter Vance Worley compiling a 1-5 record (with a 7.21 ERA) in April and May, being sent down to the minors and never getting back up to the big club. Worley was part of a triumvirate of starting pitchers acquired in the offseason (along with Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia) designed to bolster the rotation -- but generating only marginal results.

Pelfrey, who was coming off May 1, 2102, Tommy John surgery, had an uneven season as he worked his way back. By the end of the season, he was pitching stronger and even earned a $100K bonus by crossing the 150-inning threshold in his final start. He has expressed interest in returning to the team, but his 5-13 record and a 5.19 ERA may give management pause.

In many ways, free-agent pickup Correia exceeded expectations and ate up innings all season long. His 9-13 record with a 4.18 ERA may not be anything to write home about, but at least it gets rave reviews from his manager.

"Kevin had a heck of a year for us this year," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said after his final start of the season against Detroit. "He gave us a chance pretty much all year. He stood up there and battled toe-to-toe with those guys today. So I tipped my hat to the guy, he's pitched very well for us, he's been a great pick up."

Perhaps Scott Diamond, who started the season late due to elbow surgery and never really got going, was the biggest disappointment. He was seen by many as the ace of the staff coming in, but struggled all year, spent time in the minors and didn't recover in September.

Younger arms such as Samuel Deduno (who finished the season on the DL following shoulder surgery) and Andrew Albers (who started the season on fire but regressed to the mean somewhat) both give the team hope for possible improvement in 2014. Albers was named the Twins Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

Team offense was certainly a problem in 2013, as the Twins finished sixth from the bottom in the league in team batting average. Losing the big sticks of Mauer, Morneau and Willingham for a time hurt, but numerous rookies and second-year players did not step up and get the job done at the plate. The team endured an epidemic of poor at bats with RISP and team-record-setting strike outs (they struck 10-plus times in a game 66 times -- beating the record of 26 times).

"We aren't doing too well on offense," Ryan said. "We've had trouble scoring runs. We are striking out at an alarming rate. Is that going to be just a one-year thing or a trend? It seems like there are a lot of strike outs in the game and we're contributing to that. I am not quite sure what the heck is going on.

"I don't how many times I have said, all we sometimes have to do is take a walk or tough the ball and we are probably going to score. But we've had a bit of trouble doing that. It's been a little bit of a frustrating offensive year to say the least."

Ryan said the defense up the middle has been "pretty good," but it is the offense from those positions that will dictate things going forward. Second-year player Brian Dozier at second base has had a breakout season on offense and defense, while shortstop Pedro Florimon is coming along. Center field is still a concern offensively, but defensively, Aaron Hicks was a highlight reel staple early in the season.

For two seasons now, the Twins bullpen has been a team strength, and the unit may have gotten even better in 2013. Closer Glen Perkins set a season high in saves (36), Casey Fien had a standout season, middle reliever Brian Duensing may get a starting role consideration and newcomer Caleb Thielbar caught many by surprise, including the Twins' personnel department.

The team has plenty to do in the offseason -- Ryan said he expects 15-18 new faces. They will have to identify an everyday center fielder, determine whether Mauer will catch or play first base, get more offense out of their corner outfielders and infielders and most importantly, improve a stagnating starting rotation.

There is help in the minors in both pitching and offense, but the best of those prospects may still be another season away.

One constant will remain in 2014: Gardenhire agreed to a new two-year contract the day after the season ended.

"We offered Ron the extension, and he accepted," general manager Terry Ryan said. "We're happy for that. He's a very good manager."

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MLB Team Report - Minnesota Twins - NOTES, QUOTES

RECORD: 66-96, fourth place in AL Central

TEAM MVP: Joe Mauer didn't play for the last month-and-half of the season and is still the team's MVP. He finished the season on the DL with a concussion, but left another season of decent numbers behind: .324/.404/.476. Behind the plate, he caught 17 base runners stealing and made only two errors. The team's record took a precipitous deep without him in the lineup, which proved exactly how valuable he is to the team.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: There was plenty of disappointment to go around on this team (a failed experiment in center with rookie Aaron Hicks; Chris Parmelee's difficulties at the plate; and preseason ace Scott Diamond struggling on the mound among them). But Josh Willingham's lack of production may have been the biggest disappointment. Coming off a season of 35 homers, 110 RBI and .260 average, the Hammer struggled mightily to match those numbers in the second year of his free-agent contract: 14 homers, 48 RBI and a .208 batting average. Granted, Willingham had arthroscopic knee surgery mid-season, but the overall drop-off has been dramatic.

TOP PROSPECT: It doesn't take much analysis to decide that Byron Buxton, age 19, is the Twins top prospect as he held that distinction for all of baseball much of the season -- and it was warranted. Moving between minor leagues, Buxton hit a cumulative .334/.424/.520 with 49 extra-base hits, 55 stolen bases and a 76-to-105 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 125 games. He led the minors with 18 triples, finished second with 109 runs scored and 12th in stolen bases. The only questions about Buxton, who finished the season in Fort Myers Advance Single-A, will be how soon before he makes the big leagues. The Twins rushed Aaron Hicks up from Double-A in 2013 to troublesome results, and they don't want to repeat that mistake.

PLAYER NOTES:

• RHP Mike Pelfrey slowly returned from May 2012 Tommy John surgery to, by season's end, become the pitcher the Twins hoped for when they signed him in the offseason. Pelfrey will be a free agent, but he has made it known that he is interested in returning to the team. After going through his post-surgery season, the team may well try to sign him and potentially experience what they were looking for in 2013.

• C Joe Mauer never made it back from an Aug. 19 concussion, but he is expected to be healthy for spring training. The biggest question surrounding him is whether or not he will return behind the plate, where he originally got the concussion. There is strong speculation, given the team's catching depth, that he could start transitioning to 1B/DH in order to extend his career. Mauer has given no indication yet that he wants to do anything but catch.

• LF Josh Willingham will be in the third year of the 3-year, $21 million free agent contract he signed in 2012 (purportedly the biggest one in team history). He has had one good year (2012) and one bad one (2013) thus far, and before his injury, his name came up often in trade rumors. That is likely to be the case in 2014.

• 2B Brian Dozier had a breakout year both offensively and defensively and is one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal forecast for the Twins. He showed versatility at the plate batting leadoff, second or third. He even showed some power, knocking out a team-leading 18 home runs. When he wasn't making SportsCenter's Top 10 plays, he was assisting in double plays that helped make the Twin a leader in that category all season. The job of second base is secure for 2014.

• RHP Kyle Gibson had been the object of much anticipation as fans clamored all season for him to be called up. It finally happened in late June and played to mixed results. He came up on June 29, compiled a 2-4 record with 6.53 ERA and was back down in the minors by Aug. 20. Gibson is a big part of the Twins future, and certainly he benefitted from the experience, but he will need to pitch better next season to become reliable fixture in the rotation.

• LHP Glen Perkins grabbed the closer role with both hands and made it his own this season. He had 36 saves, which doubled his entire career output. He became coveted around the trade deadline, but the Twins never showed an inkling of interest in trying to deal their closer of the future. Perkins was an anchor for a bullpen that has been one of the best in the league the past two seasons. Signed through 2015, he won't be going anywhere soon.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I would like to think that I am going to be able to get Gardy some people here. But I am not sure exactly what it (the starting rotation) is going to look like in spring training." -- General manager Terry Ryan, on what he expects the roster to look like next year.

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MLB Team Report - Minnesota Twins - ROSTER REPORT

With the mid-season trade of Justin Morneau and his contract coming off the books, the Twins should have plenty of money to play with in the free agent market this offseason. That doesn't guarantee they will dive in deep, however. While they spent some money the last two seasons, general manager Terry Ryan believes building should happen from within -- and he has a loaded farm system to back him up. The Twins need to do both, bring up some hot prospects and sign some veteran leadership who can help them win next season, or there will be no one in the seats to watch those young players when they finally do make it to the big leagues.

BIGGEST NEEDS: Starting pitching is the biggest need for Minnesota, as it has been for several seasons. The team should start by signing their own free agent Mike Pelfrey and then head outside the organization to bolster a staff that is young and underachieved in 2013. The Twins could also use an established leadoff hitter (they struggled all season to find one) and add some power to the middle of the order in the absence of Justin Morneau and struggles of Josh Willingham.

FREE AGENTS: RHP Nick Blackburn and RHP Mike Pelfrey

Pelfrey should be a priority signing for the Twins since he will be a season removed from Tommy John surgery, he got stronger as the season went on and he wants to return to Minnesota. He may want a multi-year deal, which might be tough to swallow for the rebuilding Twins, but they will need his veteran leadership. Blackburn spent the entire season in minor leagues recovering from a couple injuries. If he comes back it will have to be at a significantly reduced price from his previous deal ($3.5 million per season). Blackburn's time as a Twin may be done.

ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: 3B Trevor Plouffe, LHP Brian Duensing, RHP Josh Roenicke and RHP Anthony Swarzak

Plouffe should be back for his bat, but needs to be looking over his shoulder at top prospect Miguel Sano this spring. Plouffe's offense rebounded in September, but his defense at third is still a question mark. Middle relievers Duensing and Swarzak performed well this season (as did the bullpen as a whole), but they may not be satisfied with more of the same role next season. The Twins may take a look at them as starters, but they should both be back. Roenicke, meanwhile, had an okay season, and ultimately did his job when called upon. The Twins aren't going to be eager to lose anyone from a bullpen staff that has been a team strength for the past few seasons.

IN LIMBO: LF Josh Willingham, LHP Glen Perkins

Willingham has one year left on his three-year, $21 million deal. His name was mentioned in trade talks until he injured his knee. If he rebounds after a down season, the trade talk could start up again. Plenty of teams called about Perkins (who is signed through 2015) before the trade deadline, but the Twins weren't interested in parting with him them and won't be going forward. A big season in 2013 might warrant a raise for Perkins, so keeping an eye on his situation is advised.

MEDICAL WATCH:

• C Joe Mauer (concussion) missed the season's final six weeks. The hope is that the offseason will bring a full recovery from Mauer's concussion with the only question being what position he will play next spring -- catcher or first base (out of harm's way).

• RHP Samuel Deduno (arthroscopic right shoulder in September 2013) faces a recovery time of a few months, but he should be good to go for spring training.

• RF Wilkin Ramirez (fractured left tibia) missed the final month of the season.

• INF Doug Bernier (sore right elbow) was scheduled to undergo minor surgery Sept. 30.