Mauer looks to the future. (Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)

Can the Twins Compete in 2014? 2015?

I’ve gone on record to say that I feel the Twins will be competitive in 2014 and become contenders in 2015. I seem to fall strongly in the minority as most people seem to believe I am at least a year early on both projections.  So let’s take a closer look and see if I might be right.

As bad as The Twins have been this year, they are on pace to win 73 and lose 89 games. Winning just 8 more games out of 162 would put them at .500 next year. And in the AL Central, and with the added Wild Card, a .500 team usually is at least in fringe contention until the final couple weeks to a month of the season.  73 wins would be a seven win improvement over 2012. A similar improvement next year puts them just below that .500 record.

Obviously the Twins’ biggest obstacle to being competitive is starting pitching. That’s not something they are going to be able to fix overnight. But as bad as they have been, at least now there is some hope in the wings, unlike the past couple seasons. Kyle Gibson has struggled in the Majors but put up very good numbers in AAA and looks nearly recovered from Tommy John surgery. With his age, stuff, and maturity level, he’s a strong candidate to step up and be a solid number 3 or four starter next year. There is still a chance that Liam Hendriks develops as a serviceable Major League starter. And though Alex Meyer and Trevor May have not had quite the seasons in the minors as The Twins may have hoped due to injuries and late season struggles, both have shown the kind of stuff that could lead them to be good starting pitchers at the next level. Both will be expected to reach The Twins in 2014. Notably, as good as The Twins’ bullpen is and should again be next year, the team’s starting pitching only needs to be slightly below average for the team to have a legit shot at a .500 record. The talent in the rotation is getting stronger. Now they just need to perform.

As for the offense, Oswaldo Arcia is showing that he should be a force to reckon with in the years to come. Joe Mauer is still in his prime. Brian Dozier is playing like one of the best 2B in baseball over the past couple months. And Miguel Sano is knocking on the door. The Twins’ offense almost can’t be as bad next year as they’ve been this year. Even just performing as well as they were expected to this year might have put this current team just a sniff below .500 at this point. Justin Morneau‘s bad first half makes it more likely he comes back next year at a team friendly contract, and I’d be all for that. I still think he’s got another big season or a couple left in him. His concussions have saved a bit of wear and tear on his body and he plays a fairly non-physically demanding position so it’s entirely possible that the further he gets from his post-concussion symptoms, the better he’ll get. I thought he was ready this year, but maybe next year is the year he comes back and hits .280 with 25 homeruns. I believe Sano will start in AAA but spend most of the season at the ML level. He probably won’t hit for average at first but he should put up big HR numbers right away. Trevor Plouffe probably becomes a utility guy. Aaron Hicks will be much better. You can bank on that. He might never be a star, but if he keeps playing Gold Glove caliber defense and can hit .250 with a little pop and a little speed, that’a very valuable center fielder. And Willingham will be back and looking to bounce back in a contract year.

On paper, that looks to me like a team that will be fun to watch next year, probably fringe contend for a bit, and settle in around .500 with a chance for much bigger things the following year. The biggest thing that people who doubt this timeline fail to recognize is how far a strong bullpen can carry a team. They will be better on offense, and starting pitching. As long as the bullpen stays strong, I’ll be telling you “I told you so” next year.

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