Foundation set for Twins to compete in 2016

After taking a big step this year, club looking for more next season

Foundation set for Twins to compete in 2016

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins exceeded outside expectations in 2015, getting eliminated from postseason contention on the second-to-last day of the season. Given the contributions from its young core, the club is positioned to remain competitive going forward.

Veteran Torii Hunter, who retired after the season, compared the experience to 2001, when the Twins had a surprising year that saw them come up just short of making the postseason after several down years, only to win the division in six of the next nine seasons.

"It definitely feels like '01, when we ended up losing, but guys really got a taste of winning and what it means to be a competitive Major League ballclub," Hunter said. "The next year we took off."

The Twins are certainly hoping for a similar run of success going forward, as they saw rookies like Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Tyler Duffey and Trevor May make major impacts, while still relying on a strong core that includes Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe, Kyle Gibson, Eduardo Escobar, Aaron Hicks, Joe Mauer, Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen.

• Twins surpass expectations in 2015, look ahead

Several of those stalwarts -- such as Dozier, Plouffe and Gibson -- played meaningful baseball late in the season for the first time, which first-year manager Paul Molitor said will be valuable experience going forward.

"The success is in progress," Molitor said. "The body of work was good. They left it out there, and we'll be better for it in the long run."

But like any club, the Twins still have plenty of question marks going into next season, and while Molitor was proud of his group, he noted they still have progress to make before becoming an elite team. Their 83 wins were their most since 2010 and 13 more than they won in '14, but Molitor is looking to set a higher standard.

"As much as there have a been a lot of positive things said about what we've done, and the fact we had a chance until the last weekend, I also know we won 83 games and it's a step up, but if it wasn't for the second [Wild Card] spot, our story might be a little bit different," Molitor said. "It changes the dynamic of your season because of the new format, so I try to be realistic about it. We have a ways to go."

Contract issues:

Free agents: RHP Mike Pelfrey, LHP Brian Duensing, RHP Blaine Boyer, LHP Neal Cotts.

Eligible for arbitration: 3B Plouffe, RHP Jepsen, LHP Tommy Milone, RHP Casey Fien, INF Eduardo Nunez, SS Escobar, OF Shane Robinson.

Where the 2015 roster stands going into 2016:

Catcher: Kurt Suzuki remains under contract and figures to return next season, but the Twins could look to acquire another catcher to split the duties with him. Suzuki was an All-Star in 2014, but the 32-year-old struggled offensively in '15. Chris Herrmann and Eric Fryer also didn't provide any offense as backup catchers. Josmil Pinto remains in the organization and has the bat to play in the Majors, but concussions derailed his season and he never saw time with the Twins in '15.

First base: Mauer stayed healthy for an entire season for the first time since 2012, playing in a career-high 158 games. But he had a down year offensively for a second straight season, hitting .265/.338/.380 with 10 homers and 66 RBIs. He remains under contract through 2018 and has a no-trade clause, so he'll be back at first base next season.

Second base: Dozier was an All-Star and hit a career-high 28 homers and 39 doubles in 157 games. His stats weren't as strong in the second half, but he's still one of the club's better players and is essentially a lock at second base. Infielder Jorge Polanco, ranked as the No. 75 overall prospect, split time at shortstop and second base at Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Rochester, but seems more likely to be a second baseman in the future. The Twins will have an interesting decision to make with Polanco going forward, as he could be traded if he proves unable to handle shortstop.

Shortstop: After taking over as Minnesota's regular shortstop in late July, Escobar had a strong second half and is in place to be in the same position next season. Danny Santana followed a strong rookie year with a disappointing sophomore campaign and looks more like a utility infielder going forward. Backup infielder Nunez could be back if the Twins decide to tender him a contract.

Third base: It'll be intriguing to see what the Twins decide to do in the offseason. Plouffe has become a solid all-around third baseman and is under team control through 2017, but Sano emerged as one of the best rookies in the Majors despite playing mostly as a designated hitter. The Twins could decide to trade Plouffe and put Sano at third, or decide to keep Plouffe and rotate Mauer, Plouffe and Sano at DH.

Outfield: With Hunter retiring, the Twins could look to go with a young, athletic outfield consisting of its No. 1 overall prospect Byron Buxton, Hicks and Rosario. Max Kepler, the No. 96 overall prospect, could also be in the mix, but figures to open the year at Triple-A. There's also an outside chance Sano sees time in the outfield if Plouffe is the club's everyday third baseman.

Designated hitter: Sano made a major impact when he was called up to be the club's regular DH on July 2, but he's just 22 years old. The Twins don't want to lock him into being an everyday DH at such a young age, as they believe he can handle third base. Kennys Vargas could be an option if Sano plays in the field, but he struggled in the Majors after a strong rookie year in '14.

Rotation: The Twins have plenty of options as Hughes, Santana and Ricky Nolasco remain signed to long-term contracts while Gibson has established himself as a dependable starter. Lefty Milone had a solid season, and rookies Duffey and May also showed a lot of potential, with Duffey being one of their best starters down the stretch. Right-hander Jose Berrios, the No. 20 overall prospect, also figures to be in the mix. Pelfrey is a free agent and isn't likely to return as a starter.

Bullpen: Perkins was perfect in save situations in the first half en route to being named an All-Star for a third straight year, but struggled in the second half. Jepsen turned out to be a shrewd pickup at the non-waiver Trade Deadline and filled in capably for Perkins in the second half. Fien figures to return, while Boyer expressed interest in re-signing. Ryan Pressly missed the second half with a lat strain, but is likely to be in the mix. However, the Twins are expected to upgrade the bullpen via free agency or trade.

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Bollinger Beat, follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.