Craig Calcaterra

Minnesota Twins' Miguel Sano follows through on a solo home run swing on a pitch from Boston Red Sox's Joe Kelly in the first inning of a spring training baseball game, Tuesday, March 29, 2016, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Associated Press

2016 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 2016 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.

You look at the Twins and you see all kinds of young talent emerging and you think “in a year or two they’re gonna be scary.” Then you realize that the past couple of teams which fit that profile — here I’m thinking Astros and Cubs — were scary at least a year and maybe two years earlier than most people thought and you think . . . hmmmm . . .

OK, I’m not gonna go that far. I was burned on how early some other teams got good, and I really do like the talent the Twins are assembling, but I’m still going to say that they’re a year or two off.

In the meantime, though, there’s a lot to love here. Miguel Sano hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 home runs in only 335 plate appearances last season and they’ll have him all year. Likewise here to stay is Byron Buxton, one of the top prospects in the game. He didn’t do particularly well in his 2015 cup of coffee, but cups of coffee are not the measure of top prospects. He could really be something special. The Twins likewise picked up 29-year-old South Korean slugger Byung-ho Park. That will move Sano from DH to the outfield, which, OK, that might be scary, but the Twins offense was a horror show outside of Sano last year and putting a guy who hit .343/.436/.714 with 53 homers in the KBO last season in the lineup can’t hurt at all, even if he doesn’t adjust to the majors like, say, Jung-ho Kang did.

Beyond the excitement of those young faces, there could be marginal improvement elsewhere. J.R. Murphy is no one’s idea of a great catcher, but Kurt Suzuki stunk on ice last year, so that situation is probably a tad better. Joe Mauer hit a mere .265/.338/.380 in 158 games. His MVP days are a distant memory, but he has more left in the tank than that line suggests and a better year is a reasonable expectation.

On the pitching side of things there is some reason for hope. Having Ervin Santana back for more than the half a season he had last year due to a drug suspension is good news. Phil Hughes is not as good as his 2014 suggested but he only made 25 starts last year and might be a bit more reliable this year. Putting Ricky Nolasco in the rotation was not anything Twins fans wanted to see, especially since it pushed Tyler Duffey down to the minors. Duffey was 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA (134 ERA+) and 1.31 WHIP last year while Nolasco was an expensive train wreck, but the Twins front office is apparently unfamiliar with the concept of sunk costs. Worth watching is top prospect Jose Berrios, who was 14-5 with a 2.87 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 175 strikeouts in 166 1/3 innings in 27 starts between Double-A and Triple-A last year. If the season is promising early, he could come up to help solidify the rotation. If not, expect the Twins to keep him down due to service time considerations.

In the pen is Glen Perkins will close and Kevin Jepsen who will setup. That’s a nice combo.

Overall, there’s a lot to like here. The Twins won 83 games and were in the wild card hunt for most of the year after an excellent May catapulted them into the conversation. They’re not as good as that May was but they may be better constructed for the six month slog. Part of me thinks that the Twins will be one of those teams we look back on in September and say “man, no one saw them coming.” For now though I’m going to be a bit bearish and say that they’re a year away from being super exciting.

Prediction: Third place, A.L. Central.

2016 Preview: Cleveland Indians

Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona smiles before a spring training baseball game against the Oakland Athletics in Mesa, Ariz., Monday, March 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Terry Francona
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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 2016 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.

We normally start with lineups in these things because people like hitting better and we always tend to think about offense first. With the Indians, though, it begins — and maybe ends, but more on that in a bit — with the rotation. It’s a good one. It returns all of the key pieces which allowed them to rank fourth in starter ERA in the AL last season, first in strikeouts and third in innings pitched. And that was considered by some to be a bit of an underachievement.

Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are the top three and it’s hard to find a better top three in the game. Kluber, the 2014 Cy Young Award winner, needs no introduction. His record last year was a mere 9-16 and overall he took a big step down from the year before, but 2014 was probably an outlier year for him in terms of the results of balls he allowed to be put in play. In 2015 he still struck out a lot, didn’t walk too many and was as durable as he had been the year before. He’s a fine number one starter.

Many, based on peripherals and some bad luck last year, think Carrasco is due for a major breakout. We’ve certainly seen him go on tears before. He’s totally capable of it. Salazar has a similar profile in a lot of ways, and he’s three years younger. Behind them: Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin. Which was a bit of a surprise, as most assumed Trevor Bauer would be in the rotation once again. Both Anderson and Tomlin were excellent in limited starts last year.Bauer will, instead, go to the pen. If someone falters, Terry Francona has the ability to shuffle things. Whatever the case, expect a lot of innings and a lot of strikeouts for the top three and some solid production from the back end of one baseball’s best rotations.

The bullpen too, though not as heralded as the Royals or Yankees, was a strength last year. Cody Allen is one of the most solid closers around and his supporting cast, while not eye-opening, was solid as well. Such things vary from year to year, but at the moment anyway the pen doesn’t seem like a big problem.

After that is where things get dicey. Up the middle the Tribe is fantastic, with Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, each of whom have been and likely will continue to be in postseason awards conversations for the foreseeable future. Beyond them is a lot of trouble. Michael Brantley is good, but he’ll start the year on the disabled list. Marlon Byrd will be the Opening Day left fielder. I’m sure he’s a nice man and he has had a nice career, but Marlon Byrd can’t really be a starter for a contending team. There are likewise questions about Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana, each of whom are on the decline. Everyone loves Juan Uribe, but he’s not an impact player. Tyler Naquin could be good and he’ll get a chance in the outfield now, but he’s not exactly a bluechip prospect.

The Indians have been loathe to spend much money but this is a club which should absolutely be willing to take on some salary in order to bolster an offense which looks shaky at the moment. If they do — or if the parts they have in place manage to put together seasons that are closer to the top-end of their reasonable projections than the mid-range — this could be a frisky as all get-out Indians club. A rotation this good is, after all, a great foundation upon which to build some friskiness. I think they’re a playoff contender as-is, but if things break right or if they bring on some offensive talent, they could be something special.

Prediction: Second place, AL Central.

Rockies’ Matzek back after treatment for performance anxiety

Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Tyler Matzek throws during spring training baseball practice in Scottsdale, Ariz., Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Associated Press
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) Colorado Rockies left-hander Tyler Matzek has returned to spring training after spending two weeks taking brain tests and undergoing coaching for performance anxiety.

Matzek started the Rockies’ home opener last year but ended up in the low minors due to control and confidence issues. He failed to get anybody out in his first spring appearance on March 2, was scratched from his next start and then left camp on March 14.

Matzek spent the past two weeks in Denver with the Rockies’ new mental skills coach, former NFL linebacker and psychologist Dr. Rick Perea. Matzek said Thursday he took neurotherapy tests twice a day for two weeks while being coached about handling brain wave imbalances.

Matzek is uncertain when he’ll throw next. He’ll likely begin the season in the minors.