Fort Myers, Fla.
Even the guys in the bullpen like the off-season moves made by the Minnesota Twins front office. They might like them the most.
With the signing of starting pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes and the re-signing of Mike Pelfrey the atmosphere around the Twins is already different, closer Glen Perkins said at spring training this week.
"A little better than the last few years," Perkins said. "We're thinking we have a better starting rotation with Nolasco and Hughes. The last couple of years we've been thinking, "What did we get? Who is going to step up?" This year I think we got some guys with track records.
"We have, for sure, four major-league starters this year and I think we'll have guys competing for that fifth spot who've have all had success in the big leagues at one time or another."
Perkins was the anchor of a relief corps that actually performed pretty well in 2013, despite the team losing 96 games. When you take into consideration pitchers like Anthony Swarzak, Jared Burton, Casey Fien and Brian Duensing were used (and abused) way too much because Minnesota's starters often exited early in games, the statistics look even better. Minnesota's bullpen had a 3.50 ERA, which ranked 16th in the majors. That's not bad considering the disastrous rotation.
Swarzak, the long reliever, was one pitcher who noticeably wore down toward the end of 2013 because of overuse.
"If I'm going out for a save -- or if I'm going out when we are up 10 -- that's fine, because I know we're winning the game and that's what we want to do. Going into to pitch when we're down runs and you're just trying to get through a game to end it just to move on, that's not very fun," Perkins said.
Given the Twins won just 66 games, Perkins' year looks even better. He had 36 saves in his first full year as closer with 77 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings. He was selected for his first All-Star game.
Making the American League All-Star game this season would be special. Perkins is a Minnesota native and pitched at the University of Minnesota. He's been with the Twins his entire 10-year professional career.
"It was a dream of mine to be selected for an All-Star team and I fulfilled that last year," he said. "I never really thought about a chance of pitching in an All-Star
Game in my hometown. I think the only thing that could top it would be winning a World Series."
A title is likely not going to happen this year. Nolasco and Hughes appear to be improvements over what the Twins had for starters last year, but this remains a team that is looking at 2015 or 2016 as a year when vast improvements are made. Those are the seasons when Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and others are expected to be playing in the big leagues together.
But, the veteran Perkins says there is hope this season for improvement.
"This is the first winter where we've gone out and tried to improve the team. In all the years I can remember of bringing guys in trying to fill holes externally, this is the most that's ever been done. That's exciting," Perkins said. "We have a long ways to go. We've dug a really big hole. It's been a tough three years. I remember '98, '99, 2000, 2001 like it was yesterday and before you know they had guys coming up to fill holes. We have guys coming up who are good players and then they went outside the organization and got some quality pitching."
Asked for a message he would send Twins fans, Perkins said:
"Stick with us. I think we're going to surprise some people this year and we're only going to get better."
Of course, it's tough to get much worse.
Funny thing about Perkins, too, is the turnaround he's experienced in his relationships with the Twins organization and in terms of public relations. Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan wrote this piece about it this week, titled: "One little chat changed Perkins' future in home state."
Essentially, Perkins was, ahem, a difficult personality for many years but has changed his persona into being a great ambassador for the Twins.
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