After being a surprise contender and just missing the playoffs in 2015, the 2016 Minnesota Twins were the worst team in baseball, losing a Twins-record 103 games (the franchise record is technically 113, but that was the Washington Senators). Obviously, a lot went south for the ballclub and it resulted in the firing of general manager Terry Ryan. 

The good news is that the new brass, including chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine come from very well-run organizations and that means the franchise is in great hands to get a turnaround. 

More good news is that the Twins have the first overall pick in the 2017 draft. The last time they had the top pick, it worked out exceptionally well with Joe Mauer in 2001. Say what you will about him the past three years, but he won an MVP, finished in the top 10 of MVP voting three other times and led the team to three AL Central titles earlier in his career. He has a .308/.391/.446 career line. If they nail the pick like that again, it’s the next franchise centerpiece. That is, unless they already have one or two of those. 

The vitals

Will 2017 be better? Lord, let’s hope. No fan base deserves to go through two nightmares in a row. Just how much better will it be? That will be determined by several factors. 

Are the kids alright? 

The Twins have high-upside talent both in the majors and the minors, so we need to see how that talent develops or continues to develop in 2017. 

We’ll start with Byron Buxton. Formerly ranked as the top prospect in baseball, Buxton had several bad stints in the majors in 2015 and 2016. BUT ...

In his September callup last year, Buxton was great. He hit .287/.357/.653 with six doubles, two triples, nine homers, 22 RBI and 24 runs. Even if we only calculated that pace out to 145 games, that’s 30 doubles, 10 triples, 45 homers, 110 RBI and 120 runs. Yowza. With that .357 OBP, that’s also loads of stolen base opportunities for a speedster over the course of the year, though he only attempted two steals in September. Given that Buxton is only 23 and has five-tool superstar potential, there’s reason for great excitement, but we need to see it for more than a month. 

A good reminder of this fact is that Miguel Sano was a stud for a half-season in 2015, but fell backward in 2016. He ended up with 25 homers in only 437 at-bats, but he hit .236 with a .319 on-base percentage. He needs to be back up in the range he was as a rookie (.269/.385/.530) to be the offensive anchor this team can use moving forward. We’ll see if he can in 2017. 

Are these two the future backbone of a championship team? USATSI

Those two could be the superstar leaders of a championship team, should they reach their potential by their mid-to-late 20s, but they aren’t alone. 

Baseball America had Max Kepler as its 30th-ranked prospect before last season and he collected 20 doubles and 17 homers in 113 games in the majors. In 2015, between High-A and Double-A, he hit .318/.410/.520 with 19 steals, too, so he has the ability to be a major offensive contributor.

A consensus top-30 prospect in baseball entering last season, Jose Berrios went 10-5 with a 2.51 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 125 strikeouts in 111 1/3 innings in Triple-A. The flip-side to that was he posted an incredibly ugly line (8.02 ERA, 1.87 WHIP, 35 walks, 12 home runs in 58 1/3 innings) in the majors. In his last three starts, he had a 3.95 ERA (progress!), but still only struck out seven while walking seven in 13 2/3 innings. All year, he gave up too much hard contact while not missing enough bats. If he can get better with experience this season and show strides forward, there’s reason for optimism that he reaches his upside in the future. 

Jorge Polanco was also a top-100 prospect before last season, per several outlets. He got the call and appeared in 69 games for the big-league Twins, hitting .282/.332/.424. In the lower levels of the minors, he flashed decent-to-good on-base chops and could steal some bases while providing gap power. In the majors, he needs to cut down on the errors and show better range, but there’s potential here to be a good shortstop on a good team eventually. 

These guys are all either 23 or 24 this season. 

Maybe we see Adalberto Mejia (LHP) or Stephen Gonsalves (LHP) in the bigs this season. The continued development of top prospects Nick Gordon (SS), Tyler Jay (LHP), Fernando Romero (RHP) and Alex Kirilloff (OF), among others, is of course paramount for the overall good of the organization as well. We can also throw whoever the number one overall pick in the draft is, along with any high-upside prospects coming back in trades. 

The biggest key to this season for the Twins is cementing the foundation to the future. It starts with Buxton, Sano, Kepler and Berrios. 

What else needs to go right? 

The health of the big-name veterans

Joe Mauer is never going to be an MVP candidate again, but he’s a quality contributor when he’s going well. He’s also 34 and has been relatively injury-prone for a bit, though the last two seasons -- now that he’s no longer a catcher -- have been encouraging on that front.  

Can Joe Mauer avoid the DL this season? USATSI

The bigger questions than Mauer are pitchers, one in the rotation and one who used to be an All-Star closer. 

Phil Hughes is coming off thoracic outlet syndrome surgery and some pitchers are never the same after the procedure. Glen Perkins is also coming off a major procedure, that re-attached the labrum in his left (throwing) shoulder to the bone. 

Perkins and Hughes are major question marks. If those are answered in the positive and the Twins get something like a .290/.375 AVG/OBP from Mauer, they will provide an excellent supplement to all the developing young talent here. 

Trade season? 

If the Twins aren’t in contention come July, there’s a good chance they’ll be dealing some veterans. It’s the reality of any team in a build toward the future. And while the Twins are only one year removed from contending, the future nucleus of this club -- as noted above -- is all in the 23-24 range or still in the minors. So that base needs to be supplemented with more prospect types in the short run. 

Brian Dozier drew lots of interest in the winter and figures to again come this summer. He hits free agency after the 2018 season, so marketing him with a season and a half left of control would be plenty attractive to suitors. 

Ervin Santana is signed through 2018 with a team option for 2019, so his name could come up -- though innings eating from a veteran is very valuable for building teams. Hector Santiago is a free agent after this season, so if he’s having a much better year than last, it’s possible he could go, but the same line of thinking goes as Santana in terms of the innings. 

Closer Brandon Kintzler is a free agent after this season, so a big first half could pay huge dividends to the Twins in the relief pitching market that is all the rage right now. 

Will Brandon Kintzler land the Twins a huge return in July? USATSI

And, oh by the way, Joe Mauer’s ridiculous (now, in hindsight) contract is up after 2018. You never know ...

Overall, it’s hard for me to see the Twins are contenders this season, but I do think they’ll be better. Also, there are ways for this to be a successful season without contention. I said as much about the Cubs and Astros prior to the 2014 season. The Astros improved by 19 wins in 2014 and then 16 more in 2015, getting to within one game of their first-ever ALCS. The Cubs improved by seven games, though they were above .500 in the final two months of 2014 before a 24-game leap in 2015 that came with a trip to the NLCS and then a World Series championship followed in 2016. 

Of course, I offered up similar sentiment about the Phillies last year and they improved by eight games, though they didn’t see quite as much growth from their young backbone as the previous Cubs and Astros teams did. 

The bottom line here is that the Twins will have a wildly successful season if we see moderate growth at the big-league level from the likes of Buxton, Sano and Berrios while the younger prospects continue to progress in the minors. That’s how a 73-win season sends the fans into ecstasy for the offseason. Take it from this Cubs fan. I’ve never been as excited about a 73-win team as I was after 2014. It’s because the true excitement is for what is coming next. 

Probable lineup

  1. Brian Dozier, 2B
  2. Jorge Polanco, SS
  3. Joe Mauer, 1B
  4. Miguel Sano, 3B
  5. Max Kepler, RF
  6. Kennys Vargas, DH
  7. Jason Castro, C
  8. Bryron Buxton, CF
  9. Eddie Rosario, LF

I’d swap Dozier and Mauer, but it’s difficult for people to get over the “1B” and “2B.” In fact, the more likely switch is Buxton hitting leadoff at some point if he gets off to a good start because he’s fast and plays center field. That’s just how it goes in the minds of old school baseball, of which Paul Molitor seems to be one.

Robbie Grossman likely platoons with Rosario and he has a great leadoff skill set, for what it’s worth. Also, John Ryan Murphy will split time with Castro behind the plate.  

Probable rotation 

  1. Ervin Santana (R)
  2. Hector Santiago (L)
  3. Kyle Gibson (R)
  4. Phil Hughes (R)
  5. Jose Berrios (R)

ALT: Tyler Duffey (R), Ryan Vogelsong (R)

Probable bullpen

Closer: Brandon Kintzler
Setup: Ryan Pressly (R), Matt Belisle (R)
Lefty: Taylor Rogers, Craig Breslow
The rest: Michael Tonkin (R), Justin Haley (R)

Perkins could knock everyone down a notch and that would be a big win for the Twins. 

SportsLine projection: 72-90, fifth place in AL Central

That might sound bad, but it would be significant progress after the disaster that was last season.