How soon can the Twins contend?

I hope everyone one in Minnesota is enduring this first big blast of winter. I drove from Lutsen to Minneapolis today and counted 17 cars in the ditch and averaged about 45 MPH between Duluth and Minneapolis. It’s ugly out there and it put me a bit behind on my blogging schedule.

Speaking of being behind schedule, many Twins fans are starting to feel that the Twins are behind schedule in rebuilding this team into a contender. After an successful initial season at Target Field and with all the promises of increased revenue, many had expectations of a golden age of Twins baseball. The increased revenue would allow the Twins to keep their stars and also bring in a few free agents to augment the in-house talent, and the wins would just keep on coming. After two disastrous seasons, many fans are becoming impatient with the team for seemingly taking too long to put these new resources to work in rebuilding a winner.

The reality was, that first season’s team was sitting on top of a rapidly crumbling foundation. The minor league system which had provided a steady stream of talent throughout the 2000′s had almost completely dried up, especially in terms of pitching. The Major League team’s success led to lower draft spots in the first round of the June amateur draft which greatly diminished the amount of top end talent in the system, the team had yet to make a big impact on the international market, several bad trades by Bill Smith raided both the Major League team and the minor league system of talent without getting value in return, and there was a general systemic philosophy of over-valuing pitchers with good control at the expense of power arms that can now be deemed to be a failure . Suddenly injuries that in the past could be patched ably by reaching down into the minor leagues became gaping wounds and a perennial contender became a doormat seemingly overnight, torpedoed by one of the league’s worst starting rotations.

We should expect that to continue in 2013. While Terry Ryan has paid lip service to trying to contend in the coming year, his actions thus far this offseason point to a rebuilding year. Last offseason, Ryan did not fully commit to rebuilding, instead hoping that bringing in a slew of minor league free agents could patch enough holes and luck would hold and the team could contend. This year, he appears fully committed to a rebuild, trading two established Major League regulars to bring back two high upside minor league pitchers and a young Major League starting pitcher. Ryan surely realizes that he’s got a great core of potential impact minor league hitters a few years away. In the meantime, if he can rebuild his pitching talent and depth, the Twins could be very formidable down the road.

So how soon can Twins fans legitimately hope for another contender? 2013 is obviously out barring career years by several players, breakout years for others, and a great run of luck. Most likely instead, it will be an 85-95 loss season depending on what other moves Ryan makes this offseason. We could still potentially see Morneau, Willingham, and other core hitters leave, further weakening what was a middle of the pack offensive team. And it’s hard to predict the pitching being significantly better yet.

Most bloggers and sportswriters seem to be pointing to 2015 as the return to contention year. However, I’m going to suggest that 2014 may be this generation’s 2000 Twins – a scrappy young team that contends most of the year, fades a bit at the end, and sets the tone for another good run. The pitching will still be thin but Vance Worley is solid, Kyle Gibson’s velocity is back, Trevor May and Alex Meyer should be knocking on the door and this year’s draft brought in an excellent group of hard throwing college pitchers who should advance quickly. Chris Parmelee and Trevor Plouffe have shown power potential, Brian Dozier could still emerge as the type of player he was in the minors at 2B, and Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia are exciting young outfielders. And Joe Mauer will still be in his prime. And that revenue is still out there for Terry Ryan to dip into free agency when it makes sense.

Enjoy 2013 for what it is. A chance to get in on the ground floor to a building team. Get to know some of the new guys who will be cornerstones of the next winning era of Twins baseball. The best talent may not arrive until 2015 and beyond but if I’m right, 2014 is when we should start seeing that old spark again.

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