When the Minnesota Twins take their annual winter caravan around the region, each stop is met with positive energy, even in a year with modest or low expectations for success.
A glimpse of the big leagues in a small town plus the promise of spring during the cold, dark days is a recipe for a warm welcome. This year's edition really brought out the good vibes from the fan base, as groups of selected Twins players and staff toured the state and beyond.
"A lot of people out there who were excited for Twins baseball again. I think some of that comes from the success we had last year," right-hander Kyle Gibson said. "I don't feel like they think a 90-loss season is imminent maybe like they did the last couple years. I think maybe more so they're looking for a 90-win season."
Following an 83-79 finish in manager Paul Molitor's first season, during which they stayed in the American League wild-card race until the second-to-last day on the schedule, the Twins have naturally returned for 2016 with higher hopes.
"I think everybody feels the same excitement that the locker room feels, where we're pretty close to being on the verge of something pretty special," Gibson said.
The better-than-anticipated performance in 2015 is part of that, but the potential created by the collection of prized 25-and-under players is the biggest driver of the buzz.
There's the outfield of Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Miguel Sano, with Max Kepler and Adam Walker waiting behind them. There's starting pitcher Tyler Duffey, one of the true surprises of last season, with Jose Berrios and Taylor Rogers lurking as not-too-distant-future candidates for the rotation. Recently acquired catcher John Ryan Murphy is highly thought of.
Here are five key angles to know about the Twins this spring:
Miguel Sano received the team's MVP award for a half-season of work, compiling a .916 on-base-plus-slugging percentage as a rookie designated hitter. With Korean slugger Byung Ho Park now in the fold as the preferred DH, the Twins need a spot in the field for Sano. He'll start in right field.
"He's an athlete. An athlete can play anywhere you put him on the field," said Buxton, whose speed in center field ought to help make up for some of the limitations his friend might have in his new spot.
The team's only significant offseason move was to sign Byung Ho Park, who hit 105 home runs over the last two years in the Korean Baseball Organization. The 29-year-old will face a challenging an adjustment period, but the Twins committed nearly $25 million on the belief that his skills will translate to major league success.
No room for Ricky
Halfway into his four-year, $49 million contract, right-hander Ricky Nolasco has fallen far down the list for the rotation after an injury-ruined 2015. In two seasons, he has made only 35 starts and has a 5.64 ERA.
With Gibson, Duffey, a slimmed-down Phil Hughes and a suspension-free Ervin Santana, the starting five is almost set. Tommy Milone has the inside track for the other spot, with Berrios closing in on his major league debut. With more depth in the rotation than in the bullpen, Trevor May could be headed for another late-inning role.
That means Nolasco will likely be a $12 million long reliever.
"That's not all that bad to have in the inventory just in case somebody falters," general manager Terry Ryan said.
After an All-Star season in 2014, catcher Kurt Suzuki struggled last season. The Twins, not coincidentally, traded Aaron Hicks from their surplus of young outfielders to the New York Yankees for Murphy, a 24-year-old who has shown hitting and throwing ability in limited major league action.
Even if three-time All-Star Glen Perkins returns to form after back and neck trouble contributed to a rough second half of last season, the Twins have several unsettled spots in the bullpen. Kevin Jepsen, who thrived as the closer after Perkins was hurt, will be again be a key piece. May will probably be counted on for a lot of important outs. Then there's a group including Casey Fien, Ryan Pressly, J.R. Graham, Ryan O'Rourke, Michael Tonkin and a number of unproven prospects warranting consideration.