The Minnesota Twins have agreed to a 4-year, $49 million deal with starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco, and a 3-year, $24 million deal with starting pitcher Phil Hughes. Now they're also said to be making progress in negotiations with catcher A.J. Pierzynski to take over as the team's catcher now that Joe Mauer is officially moving to first base.
Are they a team for Indians fans to be worried about?
The Twins have won an average of just 65 games over the last three seasons, better than only the Houston Astros over that time (and the 2011-2013 Astros have the worst three-year record of any team in almost 50 years). So, if the question were "Are the Twins likely to win 90 games and make the playoffs in 2014?" this shopping spree wouldn't change the answer, they're not.
Their 2014 roster is already improved though, and even if they're not yet contenders, that's bad news for the Indians.
Nolasco and Hughes will be joined in the rotation by some combination of Kevin Correia, Samuel Deduno, Vance Worley, Andrew Albers, and Kyle Gibson. Here are the Steamer FIP projections for their various options:
That's not particularly impressive, but the American League average for starting pitchers was 4.08, and if the Twins can get 30+ starts from Nolasco and Hughes, have Gibson develop, and get projected production from the rest of the guys over the remaining 70-80 starts, they could have a league-average rotation.
The Twins should also have the key pieces of their bullpen back from 2013, when they were an above-average group (by ERA, FIP, and WAR). Closer Glen Perkins doesn't get as much attention as some other relief pitchers around the league, but he's one of the best.
Here are the projected starting position players if Pierzynski agrees to a deal:
|Player||Position||2013 wRC+||2014 Steamer wRC+|
Like the pitchers, the hitters are not an especially impressive bunch, but they look to be improved from 2013, when they ranked 11th among the 15 American League teams with a collective wRC+ of 92. They'll likely be a bit below average, but only a bit.
They look like a worse than average defensive team though, due to their outfielders being a poor bunch.
All told, I would guess the Twins project to win 76 games or so, a substantial improvement, but not enough to make them legitimate contenders in 2014. A contract for Pierzynski and arbitration raises for others on the roster would likely push the Twins' 2014 payroll to ~$90 million. That's more than they spent in 2013, but less than in 2010, '11, or '12. Is it possible the Twins could add Nolasco, Hughes, Pierzysnki, and another notable player?
Either way, when considering the Twins, and their place in the AL Central, the more concerning aspect is a bit further down the road. Minnesota has arguably the strongest collection of minor league talent in all of baseball, including consensus #1 overall prospect Byron Buxton (a 19-year-old outfielder likely to make it to Minnesota in 2015), top ten overall prospect Miguel Sano (a 20-year-old third baseman who could arrive late in 2014), and pitchers Alex Meyer and Kohl Stewart, both of whom have ace-caliber stuff (Meyer could be called up in 2014, while Stewart is still a couple years away).
This week's shopping spree seems a bit premature to me, because I don't see the Twins other big pieces being ready to really help until 2016. Buxton and Sano certainly aren't going to be major contributors in 2014, and if they both proved ready to produce for 2015, Minnesota could have spent this money a year from now. Still, Nolasco and Hughes will be around in 2015 and 2016 too, and you can't argue that Minnesota hasn't made itself better for next season.
Even if they aren't playoff contenders, the Twins are likely to win 10-12 games more than they did in 2013. Anything that improves an AL Central rival hurts the Indians, as the math says a couple of Minnesota's additional wins will come at the Tribe's expense. The Indians remain unlikely to finish ahead of Detroit, and will need every win they can get if they're going to win another Wild Card spot.