For the Minnesota Twins, Spring Training has officially begun. Friday afternoon the Twins took down the defending World Series Champion Red Sox, 8-2 in their spring opener. Baseball is back, and the 2014 MLB season is just around the corner. Minnesota is anxious to get things underway, and showcase a series of new free agent signings and young talent. Coming off three consecutive seasons with less than 67 wins, the Twins will look to right the ship behind a revamped starting rotation that includes Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. Minnesota’s effort to increase productivity this offseason was visibly significant, but the team’s 2014 chances may have improved even further by simply doing nothing.
In 2013 the AL Central looked as good as it has in quite a while. The Twins and White Sox finished in the cellar, but Kansas City, Cleveland and Detroit all fought for playoff spots, and had three of the best pitching rotations in all of baseball. In 76 games against division opponents last season, the Twins finished 29-47.
While Minnesota was stocking up on arms this offseason, the rest of its divisional opponents were bleeding pitchers. Trades and free agency claimed the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, Doug Fister, Hector Santiago and soon will take Ervin Santana from the AL Central as well. Jake Peavy swapped his White Sox for Red Sox last season, and will continue pitching for Boston in 2014. These six pitchers made a total of 17 starts against the Twins in 2013, and were a combined 10-3, with a 2.26 ERA, 1.132 WHIP, 9.9 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9. Minnesota finished 5-12 in those 17 games.
In the upcoming season, the Twins again play 76 games against AL Central opponents. This time around, however, the aforementioned 17 games will be pitched by replacement names, rather than potential All-Stars.
Kansas City will replace Santana with Jason Vargas, who in one start against Minnesota last season was shelled for five earned runs on nine hits and three walks, and never finished the fourth inning.
Cleveland will likely replace Jimenez and Kazmir with Shaun Marcum and Danny Salazar. Marcum carried a 5.29 ERA last season, and was 1-10 in 14 appearances. Salazar, in his only start against the Twins, failed to reach the fifth inning, giving up three earned runs on three hits and three walks.
The White Sox’ rotation solutions are unknown, and they will likely look to prospects to fill the void. Chicago figures to be a non-factor in the AL Central this season.
Detroit’s rotation will still be extremely solid, but their bullpen could continue to underperform. Joe Nathan will become the Tigers’ new closer, but Drew Smyly’s move to the rotation, in order to replace Fister, will leave the team without its best left-handed reliever in 2014. Nathan is one of the best closers to ever play the game, but he can’t pitch the seventh and eighth innings for Detroit too. Much more than their pitching staff, Detroit’s lineup will take a hit in 2014. The Tigers gained Ian Kinsler at second base, but gave away Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante. In more than 1,500 combined plate appearances in 2013, they totaled 442 hits, 46 home runs, 139 extra-base hits, 212 RBI, 186 runs and produced a collective .297/.356/.462 line. These numbers will be visibly absent from Detroit’s lineup in the upcoming season.
Wins will be much easier to come by this year in a down AL Central that could possibly give its crown to an 85-win team by season’s end. The Twins are really the only divisional team that made improvements, and have a realistic opportunity to be in the playoff hunt come October.