Rick Anderson, Ron Gardenhire

2013 Preview: Minnesota Twins

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Today: the Minnesota Twins.

The Big Question: Did the Twins do enough to improve their AL-worst rotation?

After a decade-long run as a consistent winner in the AL Central the Twins fell apart in 2011, losing 99 games and firing general manager Bill Smith while replacing him with the man he replaced, Terry Ryan. Things were supposed to be better last season and I suppose technically they were, but the Twins lost 96 games despite a far healthier team and some strong individual performances because they simply couldn’t pitch.

Twins starting pitchers had the worst ERA in baseball among teams that don’t call Coors Field home and the pitching staff as a whole recorded the fewest strikeouts in baseball for the second straight season. At the beginning of the offseason Ryan spoke of big plans for addressing the terrible rotation, but when the dust settled the only moves were trading for Vance Worley and signing Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey as free agents.

Worley was a sound pickup who should be a solid mid-rotation starter long term and Pelfrey is a reasonable enough reclamation project with mid-rotation potential as he comes back from Tommy John elbow surgery, but giving a two-year, $10 million deal to Correia made little sense when similar or better pitchers were agreeing to one-year deals all winter.  Of the 91 pitchers to throw at least 400 innings as starters since 2010 he ranked 88th in ERA, 81st in strikeout rate, and 80th in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

And that was it. That was the full extent of the Twins addressing their awful rotation.

Would-be Opening Day starter Scott Diamond will begin the season on the disabled list following a setback with what the team called minor elbow surgery in December and former first-round pick Kyle Gibson isn’t ready for the majors after Tommy John surgery in late 2011, so the Twins will likely turn to Samuel Deduno and/or Cole DeVries to fill out the rotation. It’s not a good sign when the same career minor leaguers who joined the rotation as emergency options during a miserable season are already back in the mix before Opening Day.

What else is going on?

• As dark as things look for the Twins now the future is extremely bright. Thanks to the combination of shrewd international signings, high draft picks, and veteran-for-prospect trades the Twins have built one of the best farm systems in baseball. They placed six prospects on Baseball America‘s top-100 list, including Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton in the top 10, and will add the No. 4 overall pick in the draft to the farm system in June. I’ve been writing about the Twins on my personal blog for 11 years and this is the best, deepest farm system they’ve had in that time.

• Sano and Buxton are still teenagers and years away from the majors, but the Twins look likely to get an immediate impact from the farm system by naming Aaron Hicks their Opening Day center fielder. Hicks has yet to play above Double-A, but the former first-round pick is a standout defender with an elite arm and improved significantly at the plate last season by adding power to his already strong patience. Delaying the start of his service time clock by sending him to Triple-A for a month or so would seemingly make sense, but all signs point to the Twins handing Hicks the job now.

• Ron Gardenhire enters his 13th season as Twins manager without a contract beyond this year and most of his coaching staff was fired or reassigned during the offseason, leading to speculation that another 90-loss season would lead to his exit. He’s the second-longest tenured manager in MLB behind Mike Scioscia.

• If the Twins get off to another bad start it’ll be interesting to see if they begin shopping veterans. In the past they’ve largely shied away from that, choosing to let guys like Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel leave via free agency, but Justin Morneau will be a free agent after the season and Josh Willingham isn’t exactly part of the long-term plans at age 34.

• Joe Mauer took an incredible amount of heat locally for an injury wrecked 2011 season, which tends to happen when you miss half the year after signing a $184 million contract. He bounced back in a huge way last season, setting career-highs in games and plate appearances while hitting .319 with the highest on-base percentage in the league. Mauer was paid $23 million last season and Fan Graphs calculated his on-field value at … $23 million. Joe Mauer ain’t the problem.

• Target Field is an amazing place to watch a game and easily one of MLB’s best ballparks, but as the Twins enter Year 4 there they’ve already squandered much of the new ballpark excitement by putting out a terrible product. Only the Astros had a bigger attendance drop last year as Minnesota fell into the middle of the pack, and 20 percent of season ticket holders did not renew. And that becomes a chicken-or-egg situation, because the Twins have sliced payroll from $115 million in 2010 to $80 million this year in part due to decreased revenue, but the lack of spending has also helped turn the team into something no one wants to watch.

Prediction: Fifth place, American League Central

Mets Syndergaard ejected after throwing behind Utley

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NEW YORK — In a scene that has seemed inevitable since October, New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard has been ejected for throwing a 99 mph fastball behind Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since his late takeout slide in last year’s playoffs broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada.

New York was incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules on slides at bases this season. But the Mets had not attempted to retaliate until Saturday night.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard’s first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman’s back by a considerable margin.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting irate Mets manager Terry Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected.

Indians’ Brantley unsure of return from shoulder injury

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CLEVELAND — Indians outfielder Michael Brantley has no timetable for his return from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him for the second time this season.

Brantley spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since being placed on the 15-day disabled list on May 14. He began the season on the DL following surgery for a torn right labrum in November. Brantley hit .231 with seven RBIs in 11 games before being shut down again.

“I wasn’t bouncing back quick enough to keep playing back-to-back games, which is very important,” he said. “I want to be healthy each and every day and I have to play at a high level. This is the major leagues. You have to be at the best of your ability and the highest health-wise you can be.”

Brantley, who received an anti-inflammatory shot in the shoulder two weeks ago, doesn’t think he returned from the surgery too soon.

“I was ready,” he said. “We talked about it. We had a great process laid out. Everything went smoothly. It was just a bump in the road.”

Brantley has been hitting off a tee but isn’t sure when he will begin taking swings in the batting cage. He is playing catch since he throws left-handed but wants to be cautious about resuming a hitting program.

“Surgery is nothing to play with,” he said. “You have to be smart and understand your body.”

Brantley visited Dr. Craig Morgan, who performed the surgery, in Wilmington, Delaware after he returned to the DL. An MRI showed no changes in the shoulder.

“He said everything checks out good, just make sure to take your time and we’ll see what happens from there,” Brantley said.

Brantley finished third in the AL MVP voting in 2014 when he hit .327 with 20 homers and 97 RBIs. He batted .310 with 15 homers and 84 RBIs last season.

Blue Jays walk off Red Sox, 10-9, as Travis scores Martin

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TORONTO (AP) Devon Travis drove home Russell Martin with two out in the bottom of the ninth as the Toronto Blue Jays rallied to beat the Boston Red Sox 10-9 on Saturday.

With the Blue Jays trailing 9-8 on a David Ortiz home run in the top of the inning, Boston closer Craig Kimbrel retired Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Saunders. But Justin Smoak singled on a line drive to center, and with Ezequiel Carrera pinch running for Smoak, Martin drove in his third run of the day on a double to tie the game.

After Martin advanced to third on a wild pitch, Travis forced third baseman Travis Shaw to stretch to corral a shot, and though he tried to throw Travis out at first, his throw was dropped by Hanley Ramirez and Martin scored.

The walk-off win was Toronto’s second of the season, the first coming against Texas on May 3, and completes the series win over the Red Sox, snapping a two-series home losing skid.

Martin hit his third home run in four games with a solo shot over the right-field wall in the sixth inning, while Xander Bogaerts and Shaw both had home runs for the Red Sox.

Ortiz’s 13th home run of the season and league-leading 46 RBI had seemed to be enough for the Red Sox, who watched an 8-4 lead disintegrate in the eighth inning as the Blue Jays rallied to tie the score.

Reliever Gavin Floyd (2-3), who gave up Ortiz’s shot, got the win, while Kimbrel (0-2), on his 28th birthday, was tagged with the loss.

Bogaerts, who went 3-for-5 with three runs, extended his hitting streak to a career-high 21 games with a homer off the top of the left-center-field wall in the fourth inning. The streak is the second longest in the majors this year, behind teammate Jackie Bradley Jr.’s 29-game run, which ended Thursday.

Ramirez drove in three runs, while Dustin Pedroia had a pair of doubles and two RBIs as he extended his hitting streak against Toronto to 22 games.

Boston starter Rick Porcello gave up four runs on seven hits while striking out five over 6 2/3 innings.

Marcus Stroman tied his shortest outing of the season, also against Boston, surrendering seven runs on 11 hits while striking out five. He was chased in the fifth inning with one out.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: SS Troy Tulowitzki (right quad) was placed on the 15-day DL. Tulowitzki, who is batting just .204 this season with eight home runs and 23 RBIs, had sat out two games this week with the injury. Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney are expected to split time at shortstop until the veteran returns. Toronto activated left-handed reliever Aaron Loup from the 15-day DL to take Tulowitzki’s place. Loup, who has yet to play this season, has been recovering from a forearm strain and just completed a rehab assignment with Triple-A Buffalo.

UP NEXT

Red Sox: LHP David Price (7-1, 5.34) returns to a happy hunting ground Sunday. The former Blue Jay makes his first start of the season at Rogers Centre, where he is 11-1 in 15 career starts with a 3.34 ERA.

Blue Jays: RHP R.A. Dickey (2-6, 4.60) is 0-5 in his last eight starts against the Red Sox. He is looking for his first win against them since going 4-0 in 2014.

Hendricks pitches 5-hitter, Cubs beat Phillies 4-1

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CHICAGO (AP) Kyle Hendricks pitched a five-hitter for his second career complete game, Dexter Fowler hit a leadoff homer and the Chicago Cubs beat the Philadelphia Phillies 4-1 on Saturday.

Hendricks (3-4) struck out seven and walked none. He was in line for his second career shutout before giving up a run in the ninth.

Fowler sparked a two-run first against Jerad Eickhoff (2-7) with his sixth home run.

Jason Heyward had two doubles for Chicago, which has won four in a row. Ben Zobrist had two hits, including an RBI double, to extend his streak to 14 games.

The Phillies lost for the sixth time in eight games.

Philadelphia had just four hits before right fielder Heyward and second baseman Zobrist allowed Freddy Galvis‘ fly to drop between them for a leadoff double in the ninth.

Galvis scored from third when Ryan Howard struck out swinging on a pitch in the dirt. The Cubs had a shift on with the lefty at the plate, allowing the runner to take a huge lead.

Catcher Miguel Montero looked him back, but Galvis took off for home as he threw to first on the strikeout, spoiling the shutout and drawing boos from the crowd. Hendricks then retired Cameron Rupp on a groundout.

Dominant in a rare win over struggling Atlanta in his previous start, Eickhoff came up short against the team with the best record in the majors. The right-hander went six innings, allowing four runs and eight hits while striking out seven and walking one.

The Cubs, tops in the majors in run differential, wasted no time grabbing the lead.

Fowler drove a 3-1 fastball just over the wall in left-center for his second leadoff homer this season and the 16th of his career. Heyward followed with a double and scored on a two-out double by Zobrist, who came in on a 22-for-50 tear.

The Cubs made it 3-0 in the third on back-to-back singles by Addison Russell and Hendricks and a double by Heyward. Hendricks got thrown out trying to score to end the inning, but the way he was pitching, it didn’t matter.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Phillies: Galvis came up limping in the sixth inning after Hendricks hit him in the right leg with a pitch. He walked gingerly to first and stayed in the game after being tended to by a trainer.

UP NEXT

RHP John Lackey (4-2, 3.38 ERA) goes for his first win in more than three weeks for Chicago while RHP Vince Velasquez (5-1, 2.75 ERA) tries to shake off his shortest outing of the season for Philadelphia. Lackey is 0-1 in his past three outings, although he has lowered his ERA from 4.02 to 3.38. Velasquez lasted four innings against Detroit on Monday, allowing three runs and nine hits.