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2017 Twins preview: What's changed, what needs to, and our fearless prediction

Getting center fielder Byron Buxton to play like he did last September will be key for the Twins.

Getting center fielder Byron Buxton to play like he did last September will be key for the Twins. Aaron Lavinsky

Here's what to expect from the 2017 Minnesota Twins, who begin their new season Monday against the Kansas City Royals at Target Field (3:10 p.m.; Fox Sports North, Go 96.3 FM). 

What's changed?

General manager Terry Ryan was fired in the middle of last season after two stints spanning more than two decades running the team.

In a pleasant surprise, the Twins actually went outside of the organization to find his replacement(s), hiring Cleveland Indians assistant general manager Derek Falvey for the newly created role of chief baseball officer and Texas Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine as GM. Ryan has worked in professional baseball for longer than Falvey has been alive, and the Falvey/Levine duo promises to bring a far more modern, new-school approach to nearly every aspect of the team.

Miguel Sano takes over at third base for Trevor Plouffe, who signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Oakland A’s after the Twins released him rather than pay an estimated $8.5 million salary. Plouffe was a fan favorite, but never improved upon his 2012 promise and finished his Twins career with a modest .247 batting average and .727 OPS.

Kurt Suzuki, whose defense behind the plate graded out very poorly, left as a free agent to sign a one-year, $1.5 million contract as a backup for the Atlanta Braves. Jason Castro replaces Suzuki, landing a three-year, $24.5 million deal on the strength of his pitch-framing and power.

What's not changed?

Castro signed in November and the Twins made no major moves for the next four months, although they did spend much of that time in Brian Dozier trade talks with the Los Angeles Dodgers. No deal was made, so Dozier returns for an encore to his 42-homer breakout.

In all, 20 of the 25 players on the Opening Day roster were on the team last season, with the newcomers being catchers Castro and Chris Gimenez, and relievers Matt Belisle, Craig Breslow, and Justin Haley. Paul Molitor also remains the manager, as owner Jim Pohlad announced that his job was safe before even beginning the search for Ryan’s replacement.

It’s not often a 103-loss team makes all of one significant personnel change, and certainly the Twins had plenty of payroll space and free agent options to improve. With that said, the front office change was the big move and the new regime opted against patching holes. They were hired to take on a far bigger job, for which there are no quick, easy fixes.

For now, that means relying on Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Jose Berrios, Eddie Rosario, and the other young talent already on hand to climb back into the realm of respectability. And another 40 homers from Dozier would help, too.

What needs to change?

Pitching, pitching, pitching.

Upgrading from Suzuki to Castro will help, as will a full season of Buxton patrolling center field, but the pitching cupboard contains mostly dented cans and dust bunnies. Last year they allowed the AL’s most runs at 889, an astounding 138 more than the second-worst staff.

Ervin Santana is a solid starter fighting above his weight class atop a rotation, and Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, and Hector Santiago are back-end arms. Glen Perkins isn’t ready to return from shoulder surgery and Trevor May is out for 2017 after elbow surgery, leaving the bullpen as a collection of low-upside middle relievers forced to take on bigger roles.

Fearless prediction 

Baseball Prospectus’ projection system, PECOTA, pegs the Twins for a 78-84 record. That would be both the biggest year-to-year improvement of any MLB team, and still leave them well short of contention. Las Vegas’ over/under betting line for the Twins is 74.5 wins, so it’s hardly just the stat-heads who envision a big turnaround in Minnesota.

My crystal ball shows a 74-88 record, 15 games better than last season and the upper limits of how far a good, young lineup can carry a team with a shaky, veteran-filled rotation and a velocity-impaired bullpen. Don’t focus on the record. Focus on Buxton, Sano, and Kepler.