Mackey: For Twins to surprise us, these 5 things need to happen
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Call me a sap, but I still get irrationally excited for MLB Opening Day, even when the hometown club projects to lose a lot of games.
The emergence of spring weather (ignore Tuesday's forecast), games on TV every night, the soothing tones of Vin Scully... I mean, come on...
But I do understand the elephant in the room for Minnesota Twins fans who are largely apathetic about Monday's season opener against the Chicago White Sox. Pretty much every credible baseball projection system says the Twins are going to lose at least 90 games again, which, if correct, means another long death march to October.
Baseball is awesome, but it's also the toughest sport to stomach when your favorite team is a lifeless disaster by July.
Before negativity runs rampant, let's take a look at what the best-case scenario could look like for the Twins -- say, hanging around .500, or even flirting with a Wild Card spot - and five things that need to happen for this surprise to unfold:
1.) Aaron Hicks needs to break out
Prior to last season, many pundits were forecasting Hicks as American League Rookie of the Year. If we just watched his defensive highlights, that notion wouldn't be far-fetched, but his .192/.259/.338 batting line in 313 trips made him one of the least-valuable hitters in baseball.
On the bright side, Hicks has almost always taken time to adjust to each new level as he climbed the minor league ladder, and he made his MLB debut last season without ever playing above Double-A. It's entirely possible he just needed to take some lumps before morphing into the .270/.350/.420ish, 12-HR, 20-steals hitter the Twins hope he can be in the majors.
Hicks worked with Rod Carew during the winter, which can't hurt. And fortunately for him, he doesn't need to feel pressure to be the savior of the franchise. Joe Mauer remains on the roster, and Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Alex Meyer are all on the way. Hicks just needs to be good, not great.
2.) Trevor Plouffe needs to hit like 25 bombs
Remember that six-week stretch in 2012 when Miguel Cabrera inhabited Plouffe's body before the All-Star break? From May 16 to July 3, Plouffe hit 18 home runs in 39 games, including a .295 batting average.
Since then, Plouffe has hit 19 home runs in 187 games.
Carriage, pumpkin, etc.
Not to mention, over the past two seasons, Plouffe ranks as one of the five worst defensive third basemen in baseball according to Ultimate Zone Rating (which has its flaws, but the eye test doesn't help Plouffe much either).
And aside from home runs, Plouffe never has been an on-base machine (see: Mauer) or a speedster on the base paths. Power is his main asset.
With Sano out for the season, Plouffe doesn't have much competition, but we're not talking about what Plouffe needs to do to maintain his starting job on a 96-loss team. We're talking about what Plouffe needs to do if the Twins are going to surprise us, and that means doing one of two things (or, preferably, both):
A.) Fix his defense and become league-average instead of bottom-five, which means getting to more groundballs in the hole near shortstop.
3.) Kyle Gibson must be really good
A number of different circumstances have prevented Gibson from reaching his full potential in the big leagues, namely Tommy John surgery. But Gibson is 26 years old now. It's time to get going.
The Twins decided to cut bait on Vance Worley (and expose Scott Diamond to waivers) in order to give Gibson a spot in the rotation. This is a major vote of confidence for a guy who mostly struggled in his first stint in the majors last season.
People in the Twins organization believe Gibson struggled so much last summer in large part because of fatigue. He simply hadn't thrown that many innings since before surgery in 2010.
At this point, any hope of Gibson becoming a true ace is probably out the window, but if he can establish himself as a solid mid-rotation guy in 2014, that would slot nicely behind Meyer - who is projected as a top-of-the-rotation guy - for years to come.
4.) The bullpen must be one of the best (say, top 10) in baseball
And really, this isn't that far-fetched, considering Twins relievers posted a collective 3.50 ERA last year, good for 14th in baseball.
Glen Perkins is one of the better closers in baseball. Jared Burton and Casey Fien get strikeouts. Anthony Swarzak is a good long guy. Brian Duensing and Caleb Thielbar are capable lefties. I would have liked to have seen Michael Tonkin earn a permanent roster spot (not just the temporary one this week for Duensing being on paternity leave), but he'll probably be back up soon enough.
In talking with Perkins in Fort Myers last week - a notable advanced stat-head himself - he explained why Wins Above Replacement doesn't always properly quantify a starting pitcher's value.
"Overall, yeah, you want starters who are valuable, starters who have a high WAR," Perkins said. "But to a team, and to a bullpen, it's about keeping us in the game in the sixth and seventh innings. If it's 3-2 in the sixth inning, we've got a shot."
This leads us to...
5.) Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes must be worth the money
Nolasco completed at least five innings in all but two of his 34 starts last season. He allowed three earned runs or fewer in 26 of those 34 starts. This is what the Twins need.
Of course, Nolasco is also coming over from the National League, which will be an adjustment. And he also has traditionally fared much worse in the ERA department (4.37 career) than his peripheral numbers suggest (3.75 career xFIP).
The Twins need Hughes to do two things: Stay healthy, which he has mostly done over the last two seasons, and pitch just like he did away from Yankee Stadium.
Away from the Bronx, Hughes owns a 4.07 ERA with 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He also gave up twice as many home runs in the Yankee Stadium bandbox than on the road.
What are the chances of all of the above happening? In all likelihood, pretty slim. But hey, it's opening day. New life for everyone, right?