Updated: February 12th, 2013 8:10pm
Zulgad: Twins might be a year away but at least there is now a clear plan

Zulgad: Twins might be a year away but at least there is now a clear plan

by Judd Zulgad

FORT MYERS, Fla. - The Minnesota Vikings opened training camp last summer with expectations at a near all-time low. Coming off a 3-13 season in 2011, owners Zygi and Mark Wilf had shaken up things right after the season.

Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager, giving him final say over the 53-man roster. That took some of the official personnel say away from Leslie Frazier and left him with the ability to focus on coaching.

In the months following the transition, Spielman's plan for the Vikings became clear. He wanted to purge the roster of some of its older players and focus on building through the draft, not free agency.

This plan was nothing new -- Ted Thompson had used the same approach upon taking over as general manager in Green Bay after the 2004 season - but it also gave Vikings followers the feeling that there was now a reason to be optimistic about the future.

That hadn't been the case when washed up quarterback Donovan McNabb was brought in after the NFL lockout in 2011 to guide a franchise that had no direction.

Spielman's plan paid dividends far sooner than anyone expected. The Vikings went 10-6 in 2012 and qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2009.

If the Minnesota Twins are smart, they will spend this spring pointing to the Vikings and saying, "Look, see how quickly a turnaround can take place."

The thought from this corner entering the Vikings season was that Frazier would win about four games. That thought obviously turned out to be very wrong.

Nonetheless, we aren't going to stop taking the cautious, OK, some will say pessimistic, view because of what the local NFL team accomplished. The Twins have lost 99 and 96 games in the past two seasons and given that general manager Terry Ryan spent the offseason making deals with an eye toward the future, there is little reason to assume there will be dramatic improvement in 2013.

But as was the case with the Vikings, the nice thing is that Ryan clearly has set into place a plan that gives one hope things should improve in a big way around Target Field starting in 2014. That should make everyone much happier Wednesday as pitchers and catchers begin workouts in Fort Myers.

Part of the reason there was frustration from the Twins fan base last winter was because the patrons looked at the signing of veteran pitcher Jason Marquis and said, "This is the answer? A $3 million investment in Jason Marquis?"

When Marquis struggled and was subsequently released in late May, the frustration grew, given that on a first guess many had said the signing made little sense.

Worse there was nothing to point at in the minor leagues in order to offer reassurances that things would get better.

This offseason Ryan made a signing that compared to the Marquis move by giving pitcher Kevin Correia a two-year, $10 million deal. Just do a Google search for Kevin Correia and "underwhelming" and you will see what many think of the righthander.

But while Correia isn't going to sell any tickets this summer, Ryan offset much of the negative reaction by making two earlier moves that showed he now had determined what needed to be done to attempt to get his team competitive again.

Ryan's first major decision came in late November when he shipped center fielder Denard Span to the Washington Nationals for righthanded pitching prospect Alex Meyer. Meyer has big-time potential to equal his 6-foot-9 frame.

The 23rd overall pick in the 2011 draft, Meyer was the second-rated prospect in the Nationals' farm system. His fastball has hit 97 miles per hour and his slider has been clocked in the mid-to-high 80s. We are not talking about a pitch-to-contact guy here.

If Meyer was the only arm Ryan had added to a farm system that needed help that would have been considered a positive.

But Ryan, who returned to the general manager's role after the 2011 season, wasn't done. At the Winter Meetings, Ryan found out there was interest in Ben Revere.

This presented an interesting dilemma.

It was good that teams were willing to make offers for Revere, but did Ryan really want to trade the guy that manager Ron Gardenhire was counting on to take Span's place? It was expected that Span would be moved. Revere was considered part of the Twins' plan for 2013.

This is the type of trade that Bill Smith, the name who replaced Ryan and then was replaced by Ryan, would never have made.

But Ryan looked at the 195 losses over two seasons, considered the lack of pitching depth in his organization and decided to make a rather difficult call to Gardenhire to inform the manager that his starting center fielder was headed to Philadelphia.

The return was major league righty Vance Worley and another big-time prospect in 6-5, 215-pound righthander Trevor May.

If all goes as planned, Worley will open the season in the rotation and May might find his way to Target Field at some point this season. May was the Phillies' 2011 minor league pitcher of the year and MLB.com had him ranked as the second-best prospect in that organization. His fastball hits the low to mid-90s and he also has a slider, changeup and curveball.

The Twins added Meyer and May to the top pitching prospect in their organization, 6-foot-6 righthander Kyle Gibson. Gibson had Tommy John surgery in November 2011, but there are still high hopes for him. Gibson will be watched very closely this season but that should not be a problem.

By next spring, the Twins should be in a position to be taking serious looks at Meyer, May, Gibson and Worley for their starting rotation. Talk of building a staff around pitch to contact should be long gone.

The Twins already are a competent team offensively and Ryan did a good job of rebuilding the bullpen before the 2012 season. Starting pitching is the hardest thing to find and Ryan knows the best way to go about obtaining it isn't to dip into an expensive free-agent market.

If you can't grow pitching in your system, then getting young arms from others is the best course to take.

This approach means the Twins are almost certain to have to preach patience well into this summer, but at least it is easy to see there is now a reason to buy into what they're selling. 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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