MLB Team Report - Minnesota Twins - INSIDE PITCH


MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Minnesota Twins wound down their fourth consecutive 90-plus loss season, it seemed as though the end of the Ron Gardenhire-era with the Twins was becoming more and more likely.

On Monday, it became a reality as Gardenhire was relieved of his managerial duties after 13 seasons on the job.

"This is a difficult day for a lot of us," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "We've been together with Ron for a long time."

That move provides for an interesting backdrop as the Twins transition from a team on the build to a team on the rise. Despite losing 92 games in 2013, several players viewed as building blocks for the future made their debuts this season, including designated hitter/first baseman Kennys Vargas, shortstop/center fielder Danny Santana and starting pitcher Trevor May.

Right fielder Oswaldo Arcia established a career high with 20 homers despite missing a chunk of the season with a wrist injury. Brian Dozier continued trending upward, becoming the first second baseman in franchise history to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in the same season, establishing himself as a part of the future as well.

Where the Twins go in 2015, and how fast they are able to return to the postseason for the first time since 2010, will depend in large part on how quickly top-tier prospects Byron Buxton, third baseman Miguel Sano and starting pitcher Alex Meyer can, not only reach the majors, but become effective, every-day players.

Buxton and Sano battled injuries and experienced lost years. Sano had Tommy John surgery in March and missed the entire 2014 season. Buxton hurt his wrist in spring training, an injury that lingered into the middle part of the year before a concussion ended his season in August after only 31 games.

Meyer, after sitting out part of 2013 with a shoulder injury, was on an innings count in 2014. His ability is unquestioned, but the Twins need more consistency from the 6-foot-9 flamethrower before counting on him to earn a spot in the major league rotation.

Minnesota will also be looking for some of its young players to take another step in their careers. Starting pitcher Kyle Gibson won 13 games in 2014, but was wildly inconsistent. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe hit a career-high .258, including 40 doubles, but his 14 homers are 10 fewer than in 2012. Outfielder Aaron Hicks, once a top prospect, struggled for the second straight year, but showed signs of getting his career on track after hitting .250 in September.

These players, combined with a prospect cupboard ranked among the best in baseball, provide hope for whomever replaces Gardenhire in the manager's chair.

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MLB Team Report - Minnesota Twins - NOTES, QUOTES


TEAM MVP: Danny Santana only played in 101 games, but his flexibility in moving between both center field and shortstop, as well as his .321 batting average hitting out of the leadoff spot are what set him apart. Santana is viewed by many within the organization as the team's shortstop of the future, but injuries and inconsistency in center meant Santana, who hadn't played outfield regularly since the lower levels of the minors, would see more than his fair share out there. But where Santana made a big impact was at the plate. He finished the year with 27 doubles, seven triples and seven homers, which surprised even the most optimistic Santana fans. He also stole 19 bases and finished second on the team in runs scored (70), despite not making his debut in the majors until May 5.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: A month-long slump between May 17 and June 18 doomed the season of Joe Mauer, who finished with a career-low batting average of .277 and a dismal four home runs from the first-base position. During that stretch in May and June, Mauer hit only .202 with three runs driven in and an on-base percentage of .258, dropping his average from .299 at the end of the day May 16 to .254 on June 18. Two weeks later, Mauer suffered an oblique injury that cost him a month. Mauer was better in August and September, hitting .289 with an on-base of .397 much closer to his career average, but his overall numbers -- especially considering his salary ($23 million) and a position change designed to put less wear and tear on his now 31-year-old body -- make 2014 a lost year for Mauer.

TOP PROSPECT: Despite a litany of injuries, including ongoing wrist issues and a late-season concussion, Twins OF prospect Byron Buxton remains a beacon of hope for a franchise that has lost at least 90 games four years in a row. Buxton, universally ranked as one of the top two or three prospects in all of baseball, hits for average and power, steals bases and plays Gold Glove-caliber defense at a premium position, center field. Buxton, who turns 21 a week before Christmas, played in 31 games between Class A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain this season, batting only .234 with four homers and 16 RBIs. On Aug. 14, playing his first game with New Britain, Buxton raced into the right-center-field gap to chase down a fly ball. He dove and collided with the knee of right fielder Mike Kvasnicka, knocking him unconscious. A concussion was the good news for Buxton, who missed the remainder of the season but is scheduled to play in the Arizona Fall League. Buxton is expected to enter spring training as a candidate for the center-field job with the Twins, but a more likely arrival to the major league squad would likely come in July or August of 2015.

PLAYER NOTES:

--RHP Phil Hughes won 16 games and finished only one out short of completing 210 innings pitched and a $500,000 bonus in his contract. The Twins offered Hughes a chance to record the one out needed out of the bullpen to trigger the bonus, but Hughes declined. "It just wasn't meant to be," Hughes said. Regardless, it was a tremendous first year for Hughes in Minnesota, who signed with the Twins last winter for three years and $24 million, one of the biggest values in baseball this season. In addition to his wins total, which was three more than the next-best Twins pitcher, Hughes had a 3.52 ERA and established a major league record for strikeout-to-walk ratio (11.63/1), walking only 16 men (while striking out 186) in 209 2/3 innings.

--2B Brian Dozier hit his 20th home run of the season on Aug. 21, becoming the first second baseman (and sixth overall) in franchise history to record 20 homers and 20 stolen bases in the same season. Despite a pedestrian .242 batting average, Dozier finished the season with a solid on-base percentage of .345, 23 homers and 21 stolen bases. He also made a fantastic defensive play seemingly every night in establishing himself as one of the better second basemen in all of baseball. If Dozier can reach the 20/20 plateau again in 2015 -- a reasonable goal considering career trends so far -- Dozier would join Alfonso Soriano as the only second basemen in American League history to record back-to-back 20/20 seasons.