Recharged with Molitor, Twins need starting pitching spike

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Paul Molitor was hired as Minnesota’s new manager, bringing Hall of Fame membership and renowned intelligence and intuition to a team seeking a fresh start.

The Twins brought back one of their most popular players ever, Torii Hunter, to help solidify an unsettled outfield, mentor a fledgling team and hit a few home runs. They have collected plenty of promising young hitters, either slated for the opening day lineup or waiting in the minor league wings.

None of that will matter much if the starting pitching continues to wobble the way it has the last four seasons.

Phil Hughes had by most measures a career year, his first away from the New York Yankees, but his ability to match that is low on the list of 2015 goals. Ricky Nolasco needs to rebound from a terrible first season with the Twins. Ervin Santana must show he’s worth that $55 million, four-year contract. Kyle Gibson has to reduce the times (five of 31 starts in 2014) he goes three innings or less and gives up six runs or more. The fifth spot winner, Trevor May, Tommy Milone or Mike Pelfrey, needs to keep it.

“We’d put up a couple good starts and somebody would get hurt or we’d take a step backward,” said Hughes, whose 2014 season has been one of the few true success stories of the rotation since it unraveled in 2011. “Every good team I’ve been on, it seems like the rotation gets on a roll.”

New pitching coach Neil Allen will have more impact on the staff than Molitor, but after 13 years under manager Ron Gardenhire the clubhouse has been naturally buzzing with excitement about the new boss.

“He’s one of the smartest baseball people I’ve ever been around,” first baseman Joe Mauer said.

As for Hunter? His presence was desired for more energy and stronger camaraderie.

“If there’s no tension between players and you’re comfortable with everyone, you’re going to play better,” closer Glen Perkins said. “So that’s chemistry, I guess. I think we’ve held it together as much as we can, as much as we’ve struggled.”

Here are some key angles to know about the Twins in 2015:

MAUER IMPROVEMENT

Mauer, soon to turn 32, will make $23 million each of the next four years. Injuries have limited him to an average of 116 games from 2011-14. His batting average hit a career-low .277 last season, and he had a career-most 96 strikeouts despite time lost to an oblique muscle injury.

The Twins haven’t lost faith in their franchise player, the homegrown guy who was the first overall draft pick in 2001. Playing for Molitor, whom he grew up admiring as an alumnus of the same St. Paul high school, ought to help.

“He’s healthy. I think he’s anxious to prove that last year was just an aberration,” general manager Terry Ryan said.

LINEUP FLEXIBILITY

Molitor has been touting his options at the top and in the middle of the order, with a team that quietly scored the third-most runs in the majors after the All-Star break last year and added an accomplished hitter in Hunter.

One decision is whether to bat Mauer third, where he was most of his career until Gardenhire began to bat him second often over the last two seasons.

With Hunter, Kennys Vargas, Trevor Plouffe and Oswaldo Arcia, Molitor has power to play with in the heart of the order. The downsides are Arcia’s inconsistency, leadoff man Danny Santana being the only player with a 2014 average above .290 and an unsettled situation in center field.

“It’s a small sample, our track record from last year, but it’s something you can use as a foundation to see potentially how your offense can work. We’re going to have depth, I think, all the way down to the bottom,” Molitor said.

BULLPEN SHUFFLE

The Twins could return as few as three relievers to their roles from last season: Perkins, Casey Fien and Brian Duensing. Blaine Boyer and Tim Stauffer, from San Diego, were signed. At least one of the losers in the fifth starter competition was headed for the seven-man bullpen. Rule 5 draft pick J.R. Graham, who must be returned to Atlanta if he’s not on the 25-man roster, has been pushing for a spot, too.

Reliever use will be one area in which Molitor’s strategy could differ from that of Gardenhire.

“I want to get them out of a one-inning mentality. Not that they all have it, or don’t want to pitch more. But we’ve talked a lot about some of those guys, trying to get two innings out of them here, if we can,” Molitor said.

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