MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Twins are on the right path back to contention

Minnesota restocked rotation in offseson and has elite prospects on the way

Twins are on the right path back to contention

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- On the first day of full-squad workouts, all of the Minnesota Twins wore "Stand Up to Cancer" shirts.

The Twins did this in support of their general manager, Terry Ryan, who is recovering at home after undergoing skin cancer surgery.

This was a gesture that was so pure, so essentially decent, so heartwarming that you were grateful just to be on hand to witness it. Terry Ryan never would have asked for anything like this, but the shirts showed the genuine respect and affection he has generated among the rest of the organization.

"It was a good idea by Dustin [Morse, Twins director of baseball communications and player relations]," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "For Terry, and for everybody else who is going through this.

"I've always said the Twins try to do the right things. It's another circumstance here that presented itself, and Dustin rose to the occasion. I thought that was pretty cool. It says a lot."

Ryan was the general manager responsible for the organizational success when the Twins rose above small-market adversity and won six division titles in nine years. He stepped aside into an advisory capacity after the 2007 season, but was asked to return to the general manager role four years later.

The Twins, in the meantime, have suffered through three straight losing seasons. There is an argument to be made now that the corner is being turned, that Minnesota's next steps will be on the road back to success. The Twins have some of baseball's best prospects coming through their system. They don't figure to contend head-to-head with the Tigers for the American League Central title this year, but this season could function as a building block for Minnesota.

MLB.com's No. 1 prospect for 2014 is outfielder Byron Buxton, 20. The No. 3 prospect is third baseman Miguel Sano, also 20. Alex Meyer, a 6-foot-9 power pitcher, is ranked No. 32. Kohl Stewart, 19, drafted last year as a high school pitcher, is No. 61.

The core problem for the 2013 Twins was the starting pitching. Minnesota starters compiled the worst ERA in the Majors at 5.26. In an attempt to become more competitive in a hurry, the Twins committed $84 million to three veteran starters -- Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey.

All three have had notable success in the Major Leagues, although in the cases of Hughes and Pelfrey, that success did not occur in 2013. Pelfrey was pitching in his first year following Tommy John surgery.

One way or the other, the Twins will have more proven Major League pitching in the rotation with the addition of Nolasco and Hughes. And they will have more Major League level rotation depth. Significant improvement could fairly be expected.

"I sure hope so," Gardenhire said with a small smile. "I'm not saying we hit rock bottom last year, because you can always lose more, but it felt like rock bottom. I think everybody involved -- myself, my coaches, the fans, the press -- didn't feel very good. I hope that was as low as you want to go. We felt pretty bad about ourselves.

"So we definitely had better be better than that. I believe we will be. I'm pretty confident about that. I'm excited about it, to tell you the truth."

So Minnesota may find reasons for genuine optimism this spring. What hasn't been lost with this organization is the sense that it stands for something, that playing for it and representing it has value and care must be taken to preserve that value.

When Gardenhire talks to his players on the first day of full-squad workouts, as he did Saturday, it is not a baseball-only address.

"One thing we touch on is this community, how much it means to us. Taking care of yourself, on and off the field," the manager said. "We don't need any distractions, so it's always important for us to handle ourselves well.

"And the fans, they come out here to see us, they're Twins fans. We always touch on that -- how important it is for you to always take the time to say hello to somebody. You never know, you might make their day.

"And that's what baseball is really all about. We're playing a kids' game, and we should share that with the people who are out there watching. [Those kids] want to be on that field. They're hoping some day to get there, so I want our players to treat them with respect. I think our players do a nice job."

When you saw the Twins wearing "Stand Up To Cancer" shirts in place of uniform jerseys Saturday, you got the picture. The AL Central standings have not been kind the last three seasons, but this remains an organization headed in the right direction.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.