Rick Anderson, Ron Gardenhire

2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.

The Big Question: Did the Twins improve their starting rotation enough?

Prior to this offseason the most money the Twins had ever spent on an outside free agent was $21 million, so dropping $49 million on Ricky Nolasco and another $24 million on Phil Hughes represented a massive shift in organizational philosophy and showed just how focused they were on improving an awful rotation. Of course, in the grand scheme of baseball those are hardly huge contracts and the Twins’ rotation has been so bad that it could improve substantially while still being terrible.

Not only did Twins starters rank dead last in baseball with a 5.26 ERA last season, no other team’s starters had an ERA worse than 4.85. And in 2012 the Twins’ rotation had a 5.40 ERA, which ranked second-worst in baseball ahead of only the Coors Field-inflated Rockies. Which brings us to the Twins’ problem, which is that their rotation’s ERA could improve by, say, a half-run–which is a huge improvement–and still be among the 2-3 worst in baseball. Or, put another way, here are the Twins starters’ projected ERAs according to Fan Graphs:

Ricky Nolasco: 4.20

Phil Hughes: 4.64

Mike Pelfrey: 5.00

Kevin Correia: 5.07

Kyle Gibson: 5.27

Obviously the Twins think all of those guys will fare better than those projections and there are relatively plausible reasons for why that might be true in each case, but it’s hard to come up with a scenario in which that isn’t still a bad rotation. It’s very short on upside and very long on veteran mediocrity, and last season those five starters had ERAs of 3.70, 4.18, 5.19, 5.19, and 6.53.

There’s some high-upside help on the way in the form of 6-foot-9 right-hander Alex Meyer, although if Gibson pitches well enough to stick in the rotation the Twins would have to trade one of their mediocre veterans just to make room for Meyer’s arrival. Minnesota devoted the offseason to making the rotation less terrible, but in doing so the Twins also locked themselves mediocrity. If their rotation is much better but still the worst in the league, was the offseason a success?

What else is going on?

  • All the talk about starting pitching has obscured the fact that the Twins’ offense was awful last season too, ranking 13th in the AL with 614 runs scored. Essentially zero additions were made during the offseason and the expected midseason arrival of stud prospect Miguel Sano has been ruined by Tommy John elbow surgery, leaving the Twins counting on Josh Willingham getting healthy, Joe Mauer being Joe Mauer, Oswaldo Arcia making The Leap, and Aaron Hicks bouncing back from a disastrous rookie season.
  • Hicks has the world’s best prospect, Byron Buxton, breathing down his neck on the center field depth chart, so his window to establish himself in the Twins’ plans is smaller than usual for a 24-year-old. Hicks was about as bad as a player can be as a rookie, hitting .192 with a .597 OPS and 84 strikeouts in 81 games, but he did have a decent power/speed combo and the Twins are hoping that the on-base skills he displayed in the minors will translate to the big leagues eventually. Presumed backup center fielder Alex Presley was lost on waivers to the Astros, so the Twins are going to let Hicks sink or swim.
  • Glen Perkins is really, really good. In his first full season as a closer Perkins saved 36 games with a 2.30 ERA and since moving into the bullpen full time in 2011 he has a 2.45 ERA and 220 strikeouts in 195 innings. During that three-year span his strikeout rate has climbed from 9.5 to 10.0 to 11.1 per nine innings and his K/BB ratio has jumped from 3.1 to 4.9 to 5.1. He’s a strike-throwing, bat-missing, tweet-sending machine.
  • Phil Hughes became sort of a punching bag for Yankees fans while struggling in recent years, but the Twins targeted him early in the offseason believing the one-time top prospect still has significant upside and as guys like Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett have shown recently struggling in New York doesn’t preclude a pitcher from thriving elsewhere. As a fly-ball pitcher Hughes was particularly ill-suited to call Yankee Stadium home, but his road ERA was 4.10 from 2011-2013 and his raw stuff simply isn’t what it once was. Hughes will be an interesting test of the Twins’ brain trust.

Prediction: Improved but still very bad starting pitching, improved but still very bad hitting, and a slightly less unwatchable overall product. Fourth place, AL Central.

Cubs extend Pedro Strop through 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  Pedro Strop #46 of the Chicago Cubs reacts during the sixth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game One of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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ESPN’s Jesse Rogers reported over the weekend that the Cubs and reliever Pedro Strop agreed to a contract extension. He’ll remain with the Cubs through 2018 and the new deal includes a club option for the 2019 season as well. Per Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune, Strop will earn $5.85 million in 2018 and the club option is worth $6.25 million with a $500,000 buyout. The two sides already avoided arbitration earlier this month, agreeing on a $5.5 million salary for the 2017 season.

Strop, 31, has been a very reliable reliever for the Cubs over the last three years. He has a combined 2.65 ERA with 212 strikeouts and 69 walks over 176 1/3 innings in that span of time.

The Cubs replaced Aroldis Chapman with Wade Davis, so Strop and Hector Rondon will be bridging the gap to Davis this coming season.

Strop joined the Cubs along with Jake Arrieta in the July 2013 trade that sent Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman to the Orioles. That trade panned out well for the Cubs.

Video: John Axford discusses 2017 Oscar picks

MILWAUKEE, WI - JUNE 08:  John Axford #61 of the Oakland Athletics throws a pitch during the seventh inning of a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on June 8, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sure, it may feel gimmicky to go around asking players to make predictions for the Academy Awards, but when it comes to the Athletics’ John Axford, he knows what he’s talking about. The right-hander has a proven track record of making near-perfect ballot predictions, getting 14 of 15 winners correct in 2013, 18 of 18 in 2014, 17 of 24 in 2015 and 17 of 24 again in 2016.

With a range of award-worthy films to choose from this year, Axford selected the crowd-pleasing (and record-breaking seven Golden Globe winner) La La Land for Best Picture, Manchester By the Sea‘s Casey Affleck for Best Actor and “the sweetheart of Hollywood,” Emma Stone, for Best Actress.

His full ballot was released to Twitter on Saturday, locking in La La Land for eight total Oscars. Going a perfect 24-for-24 might be a near-impossible feat, but if anyone can pull it off, Axford’s the one to do it.