Reeling Twins look to buck 90-loss trend

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The number is staggering. In the past three years, the Minnesota Twins have lost 291 games. Ninety-nine in 2011. Ninety-six each of the last two seasons.

A team that was once viewed as a model for succeeding and competing with modest financial resources has been an afterthought for too long now. They have finished last in the AL Central twice and were fourth last season.

So the Twins shed their frugal ways in the offseason, shelling out $73 million to bring in Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes to bolster a lagging rotation. They also brought back manager Ron Gardenhire on a two-year deal and moved Joe Mauer from catcher to first base in an effort to protect their franchise player from injury.

“They made a statement: ‘We don’t want to see this again. We don’t want to go through this again this summer,'” Gardenhire said.

The Twins said goodbye to longtime first baseman Justin Morneau late last season when general manager Terry Ryan traded him to the Pirates in a stretch-run deal. There weren’t many other changes to an offense that has struggled to score runs, but the upgrades to the rotation have given the holdovers some peace of mind that they won’t have to score seven runs a game to have a chance to win.

“It’s night and day to be honest with you. Terry went out and spent some money on some good arms in Nolasco and Hughes,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “Hughes had a bad year last year but is an All-Star pitcher and I think moving to this park will help him a lot. I think just getting out of New York to be honest with you. … So we needed to address our pitching staff and Terry did that, and I’m happy about it.”

Here are five things to watch with the Twins this season:

MAUER’S MOVE: It took some time, but the Twins, and all the doctors Mauer visited after missing the last month and a half with a concussion, finally convinced him that moving out from behind the plate was the right move. Mauer is proud of being a catcher, proud of being able to influence the game both offensively and defensively. Playing first base will allow him to be in the lineup far more often than he would as a catcher, and the offensively-challenged Twins simply can’t afford to have his bat on the bench. “It wasn’t a tough decision, but it was just because I love to catch and I’ve put in so much work to become the catcher that I was,” Mauer said.

SCORING RUNS: The Twins spent a bunch of money to upgrade the starting pitching. But hardly a penny was spent to upgrade a woeful offense. The Twins were second in the majors in strikeouts, 25th in batting average, 25th in runs and 18th in home runs. But the only new faces they welcomed to the battery are light-hitting catcher Kurt Suzuki and former Twin Jason Kubel, who has struggled mightily in spring training.

WAITING ON BYRON: Part of the reason the Twins didn’t break the bank on a couple of big bats this winter was because of the faith they have in minor leaguers Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano to be the future stars they are projected to be. Buxton is a five-tool center fielder drawing comparisons to Mike Trout while Sano is the power-hitting third baseman the Twins have craved for years. But neither player is close to joining the big club. Buxton has yet to play higher than Single-A ball while Sano will miss this season with Tommy John surgery.

CENTER FIELD: While Buxton is groomed to join Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter as the next great Twins center fielder, there is a big hole in the middle of the outfield. Aaron Hicks, who is coming off a woeful rookie season, and Alex Presley have done little to impress this spring. But Hicks will likely get the nod, with the Twins hoping the experience he gained last season will make a difference this year.

SURE THING: There are questions pretty much everywhere in Minnesota this season, except for the back end of the bullpen. Glen Perkins is coming off an All-Star season as a closer with 36 saves, solidifying himself in the role after Joe Nathan left in 2011. The Minnesota native endeared himself even further when he approached the team for a contract extension that guarantees him $22.175 million over the next four years, a relatively modest amount for a top-shelf closer. “I wanted to be here. I grew up in Minnesota. There’s nowhere else that I’ve ever wanted to play,” Perkins said.