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Updated: March 31st, 2013 7:28pm
Mackey: Twins need a lot of help to avoid another last-place finish

Mackey: Twins need a lot of help to avoid another last-place finish

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Most forecasters feel the same way about the Minnesota Twins' chances in 2013.

Bovada's latest World Series odds have the Twins at 100-to-1.

Baseball Prospectus projects the Twins to finish 64-98.

ESPN.com's ZiPS projection system says the Twins will go 66-96 again.

Even our "realistic" -- if not optimistic -- projection at 1500ESPN.com last week sees the Twins finishing with no more than 75 or 80 wins.

Nobody in the organization will admit it, nor would they necessarily even agree with this notion -- but the upcoming season is more about 2014 than 2013 for the Twins.

General manager Terry Ryan said as much through his actions this winter, trading away two viable starting outfielders, Denard Span and Ben Revere, for young pitching. And the franchise, as a whole, said as much by scaling back the payroll to $81 million -- not because they are "cheap," as many fans still believe, but because overspending on second-tier free agent starting pitchers just for the sake of spending money would be foolish.

Coming off two seasons in which the Twins lost a combined 195 games, certain steps need to be taken in order to become relevant once again. That's not to say Ryan and company aren't focused on getting better and surprising people in 2013. And that's not to say a lineup that includes two former MVPs, a Silver Slugger and multiple former first-round draft picks is going to just roll over.

After all, if the Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs last year, just about anything is possible.

If the Twins happen to expedite the rebuilding process like the A's and Orioles did, so be it. If not, they must build a crescendo into 2014, where it's likely they'll have young fireballers such as Alex Meyer, Trevor May and Kyle Gibson (who should be up sooner) ready to hurl.

This year's team is at the mercy of a groundball-heavy pitching staff that includes three men coming off minor arm surgeries and one coming off Tommy John, a bullpen with only three established arms, and a lineup with question marks at third base, shortstop, second base and perhaps in the outfield.

For the Twins to finish anywhere but last place in the American League Central, a lot of things must break right.

The division

The Twins will get an immediate, close-up look at the clear-cut AL Central favorites when Justin Verlander and Detroit Tigers take the field in Minneapolis on Monday.

Detroit's rotation is as good as any in baseball. Verlander will be joined by strikeout artist Max Scherzer and one of the most underrated pitchers in the game, Doug Fister. Also, Anibal Sanchez re-signed with Detroit for $88 million over five years. Anything Rick Porcello can add will be a bonus. Sure, Detroit needs to figure out what their bullpen will look like, but that can always be addressed via trade.

Offensively, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson will be joined by free agent acquisition Torii Hunter and also Victor Martinez, who missed all of last season due to injury.

Behind Detroit, the Central is filled with potential.

The Cleveland Indians are now led by one of the best managers in the game, Terry Francona, and they are rich with young talent offensively. Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley and Drew Stubs are all in or near their primes -- all of them still potentially trending upward. Combine those youngsters with veteran additions Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher and the Indians could have something interesting brewing. But the pitching staff is in such turmoil that Scott Kazmir -- mostly a mess since 2008 -- cracked the starting rotation. A little pitching will go a long ways for the Indians, who should flirt with one of the two wild card slots.

Chris Sale and Jake Peavy were one of the better top-of-the-rotation duos in baseball last year, and if John Danks can rejoin the rotation with a strengthened shoulder at some point, Chicago's staff becomes even more dangerous. Yes, the White Sox lost A.J. Pierzynski to Texas, but they should still have a formidable lineup with Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, Alejandro De Aza, Jeff Kepinger and Dayan Viciedo.

Most people are probably overrating the Kansas City Royals, who won only 72 games last season. Yes, they did add a legitimate No. 1 starter in James Shields, but he, alone, won't bridge the gap between 72 and 92 wins. The rest of the rotation? No pitcher allowed more home runs than Ervin Santana last year. Wade Davis owns a 4.22 career ERA as a starter, but pitched out of the bullpen last year. Jeremy Guthrie posted a 4.76 ERA and allowed 30 home runs in just 181 2/3 innings last year. The bullpen is one of the best in baseball, but the Royals will need young hitters like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain to take the next step offensively if they want to fulfill the expectations set by many around the baseball world.

Key factors for Twins in 2013

If the Twins want to climb out of the bottom of the American League Central, these things must happen:

Durability from starting pitching: Aside from Scott Diamond, no Twins pitcher threw more than 109 innings last season. Too often relievers were being stretched thin, and too often the Twins were relying on pitchers who had no business making multiple big-league starts. Diamond, once he returns in mid-April, and Vance Worley should give the Twins a solid 180-plus innings. The Twins are hoping Mike Pelfrey can do the same. The jury is out on everyone else.

Solid infield defense: One silver lining from last season is the Twins' improved infield defense -- a unit that ranked among the American League's best at shortstop, second base and first base thanks to Pedro Florimon, Jamey Carroll and Justin Morneau. Trevor Plouffe, according to plus/minus data, was among the worst defensive third baseman in the game. He will need to improve, as will Brian Dozier at second base, because the Twins -- with Pelfrey, Diamond and Kevin Correia -- are expected to induce more groundballs than almost any staff in baseball. Eduardo Escobar might be the best defensive infielder on the team, so keep an eye on him as well.

Multiple youngsters must have breakout seasons: The Twins already project to have an above-average offense, but that unit could explode if multiple players from the Dozier, Plouffe, Chris Parmelee, Aaron Hicks group break out.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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