After the back-slapping is done at Twins Way, the general manager should have time to take a long, hard look at the season that just played out. The Twins won 83 games and were competitive. The season was highlighted by one fine month (May) and a pluckiness that kept them from sinking too far when times got tough. The Twins pitching improved more than their metrics indicated while offensively the team scored more runs than their numbers indicated.
The Twins scored 695 runs, while the league averaged 710. In 2014, the club scored 715 runs, ranking in the top half of most offensive statistics except for home runs. What changed? Plenty. In 2014, the Twins had better than average performance from a player at all nine positions. In 2015, they managed to have players with an OPS+ above 100 at three positions, and only one player (Miguel Sano) whose numbers could be classified as well above average. The team was dead last in on-base percentage and their top hitter had a batting average of .265. The 2014 had more than 100 more walks than the 2015 team, while accumulating 65 more strikeouts. Somehow the 2015 group finished in the middle of the pack in runs scored, but overall offense took a severe downturn. Part of that can be explained by personnel--the Twins got more than 450 at-bats from Eddie Rosario, who provided first-rate defense in the outfield corners instead of playing lumbering DHs and first basemen in the outfield. Regression hit the Twins hard as well. 2014 newcomers Santana and Vargas along with Oswaldo Arcia all struggled and were banished to the minor leagues, with Arcia not even being recalled when rosters were expanded. Full-time regulars Dozier and Plouffe saw their seasons fall off after seeing career bests in 2014. 2014 All-Star Kurt Suzuki came back to earth with a BA 40 points lower and his OPS+ falling from 104 to 67.
Pitching was more of a mixed bag. The Twins' rotation wasn't great, but wasn't the embarrassment that previous editions had been. Only Kyle Gibson made it through the season without missing a start, but every starter had good moments. The bullpen, which all along seemed to be a weak link, was aided by the addition of a couple of guys via trade and one guy via demotion from the starting rotation. Also assisting in the staff's improvement was better, more athletic defense, particularly in the outfield. Still, the Twins still ranked last in strikeouts and first in hits allowed while yielding the second-fewest walks, a continuation of the much-maligned "pitch-to-contact" meme from previous seasons.
Looking at the roster, it is a combination of veterans and young players with a couple (Dozier and Plouffe) in between. Suzuki, Mauer, and Hunter are all in the second half of their careers, while youngsters handle the other positions. The pitching staff had many over-30 guys pitching, including almost all of the bullpen.
In general, the offense needs to improve by getting on base more. Too much of the team's power is concentrated in right handed hitters, and more speed would help. On the mound, more power arms are needed. There are specific questions that need to be answered, as well. Here are five questions that need to be answered in the off-season and my takes on each one:
1) What will Trevor May's role be for the 2016 Twins? May is one of the top arms on the Twins. While he wants to start and profiles to be a good one, I think he should be in the bullpen as the eighth inning guy, and perhaps as the closer. His stuff "played up" in the bullpen and he had several outings that were dominant.
2) How can the Twins augment the catcher position? Kurt Suzuki had a 67 OPS+ and his backups were dreadful at the plate. Suzuki was among the worst at throwing out base stealers (his pitchers didn't help much) and there were too many unblocked pitches. I think there are two options--acquire a backup from outside the organization or get a starting replacement also from outside the organization. I don't know who that player is, but I think a lefty hitter who is respectable defensively. Ideally, Suzuki should either share time or be the backup.
3) What of Torii Hunter? Hunter was a valuable presence who provided 22 homers, but he hit .242 with a .701 OPS at a premium offensive position. Hunter has stated that he doesn't want to be a part-time player and the Twins have top prospect Byron Buxton and minor league Player of the Year Max Kepler perhaps ready to help next year. Oswaldo Arcia also figures in here.
4) Is it time for Trevor Plouffe to be traded? He has led the club in RBIs the last two years, provided steady and improved defense and has become a team leader. However, Miguel Sano looks the part of a superstar and shouldn't be a DH at 22 years of age. I think that it is in fact time. Plouffe is a good player, but he shouldn't stand in the way of Sano. The Twins could perhaps fill the catcher gap by trading Plouffe.
5) Rick Nolasco is still under contract for two more years. He's been a total disappointment for the first two years of his contract. Can the Twins get out from under his contract? It would be great if Terry Ryan could slough off the contract, but I doubt it. I think Nolasco enters the 2016 season as one of the guys in the Twins rotation. That, in my opinion, seals the deal that May starts in the bullpen. It also indicates that JO Berrios and Tyler Duffey will have a mountain to climb in order to make the rotation to start the season. While it seems silly not to have the best arms starting the season, every rotation goes through changes over the course of the season. I see only eight guys on the short list of starters in the Twins' organization, including May. That isn't too much depth and might not be enough.