This year's Twins are better than the 2012 edition, who thankfully were better than the 2011 edition (well, it was hardly possible to be any worse). All signs indicate that the 2014 edition will continue on that track of improvement. The trend is slow. Painfully slow. But the direction is undoubtedly positive.
I've been thinking a lot recently about when the Twins can next win the AL Central -- not just "compete for it" -- and what their roster might look like. My opinions are mostly based on watching several of the Twins prospects in New Britain: Chris Parmelee, Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia, Chris Colabello, and even "new guys" like Alex Meyer and Trevor May. In the coming months, I'll watch Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario. My best guess for the division-winning year is 2016, and what follows is a bunch of crazy roster projections.
Miguel Sano: Probably a cornerstone to the 2016 Twins
Keep in mind, many, many prospects don't pan out. Even guys that dominate all levels of the minors routinely fail when they get to the majors. Also keep in mind that my projections don't take into account front office moves that may (I'm cringing typing this) move a few of our best prospects in coming years. I hope Terry Ryan & Company are still in a mindset of collecting, not dealing, prospects, but you never know. With those caveats in mind, here's a position-by-position look at how the Twins are going to win the AL Central in 2016.
Catcher: Joe Mauer: He's still under contract, still catching some, and is now playing some combination of first base/DH/right field in the 50 percent of games he doesn't catch. He can still hit .300, by the way, because he's awesome at the game of baseball and his knees are getting very routine rest.
Josmil Pinto: I hope he continues to produce and grow as a catcher. There's no reason he can't be catching half the Twins' games in 2016 and batting .280 with some power while doing so. I've watched him play probably a dozen or so games, and he is a professional hitter.
Chris Herrmann: He can, at the very least, be a third catcher/outfielder. I have every confidence that he can, in time, be a .270 hitter with a good eye at the plate. An all-star -- probably not. But an affordable back-up that can call a good game, absolutely.
Third Base: Miguel Sano: He's not a gold glover, but we don't need that. He plays adequate defense and is a force to be reckoned with at the plate. As I'm writing this post, he was just promoted to AA New Britain, so rest assured the Twins are not going to let their top prospects languish in the minors. If Sano cannot hack it at third base, he can always play first. But here's a question -- when was the last time that you heard a legitimate source claim that Sano was a serious question at third? Probably the very beginning of this season or the end of last season. Clearly there has been improvement!
Centerfield: Aaron Hicks. He will continue to improve, just as he did in 2012 with the Rock Cats, and just as he is slowly doing in Minnesota.
Byron Buxton: He might be one of the top 2 prospects in baseball right now. It's crazy to type that, but legitimate writers claim that as the truth. Buxton has a long way to go before he pans out, but I have yet to read any report suggesting that he does not have the skill set to become a solid major league player.
Corner Outfield: Oswaldo Arcia. He's already gotten a taste in Minnesota this year, and I was pretty impressed. Although he slumped at the end, he didn't look in over his head, and he demonstrated why he was named the Twins' minor league hitter of the year last season. He's good now, but he'll be great in a few years.
Aaron Hicks: If Byron Buxton becomes the player we hope he becomes, he will eventually win the centerfield job, pushing Hicks to a corner position.
Angel Morales: I honestly don't know much about him, but am looking forward to finding out more. He's 23 and now is in AA.
Joe Mauer: The guy has a cannon, and is just an all-around great athlete. I predict he'll get a 20-30 games in left field or right field.
Danny Ortiz: I've really like what I've seen from him in New Britain. I'm not sure what the scouting reports say, but I saw a good arm, and his batting stats have been impressive.
Middle Infield: Eddie Rosario. Rosario is young, and is still learning to play second, but has demonstrated that he is up to the challenge. By the way, he's probably one of the best offensive second base prospects we have had since Chuck Knoblauch. As with Sano, the reports of Rosario's difficulty learning the position have subsided this season.
Brian Dozier: 2013 is a little better than 2012. His glove is better, anyway. Will he get it together? Time will tell. In any event, if he does, he'll be an affordable option in 2016.
Levi Michael: I have yet to see Michael play, so I'm hesitant to judge. I'd love to see him have a breakout second half of 2013 and turn some heads.
James Beresford: He was just promoted to AAA today. Congratulations, James! He's not a first-tier prospect, but he has an excellent glove. Can he continue to hit .300? We'll see. Beresford, however, could be a great utility infielder, as shortstop is his natural position. If he was called up to the Twins today, the bat would be an issue, but I'd put his glove right up there with anyone in this organization.
Pitching: In short, pick 5 starters from this list:
Now, add a bullpen out of guys that didn't quite make it.
This list of players, of course, is conjecture. Archives of this post will live on in 2016, and some parts will undoubtedly be laughable. Others, however, I'm willing to bet will be very accurate.
Here's the best part about this list: Every position player on it is home-grown. Every player on it will be under team control in 2016. In fact, with the exception of Joe Mauer's $23 million, there are few players on this list that would command more than a couple million dollars per season. In short, there's ample room to spend on free agents in an area of weakness. Otherwise stated, there's TONS of money on the table if the Twins want to add an extra power bat as a DH, a top-of-the-line shortstop, or an "ace pitcher" to lead our young rotation.
The other reason that I listed 2016 as the year to win the AL Central is because of the learning curve of major league baseball. If we can learn anything from watching Aaron Hicks this season, it's that there is a gigantic difference from the minors to the majors. Sano, Rosario, and even Meyer might all have tough rookie seasons. Picking 2016 gives these young guys a chance to make it through the league a couple times, learn from mistakes, and learn to succeed.
So you've heard it here first: Don't count on the Twins the next couple seasons, but by 2016 this is going to be a dominating team.