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The introduction you need to the Minnesota Twins' 2014 pitching staff

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Few baseball beat writers anticipate the 2014 Twins to finish above the .500 mark—let alone compete for a spot in the playoffs.

That said, most offseason observers would agree any success Minnesota enjoys this year will directly correlate with how quickly an overhauled pitching staff gels and proves itself able to maintain a semblance of cohesiveness throughout the summer.

While Kevin Correia returns this season and is expected to fill the starting rotation's No. 2 or No. 3 spot, the staff's other four billets will be filled by a still-forming combination of free agent acquisitions, unproven rookie arms and underwhelming returning veterans.

General manager Terry Ryan said going into the offseason that upgrading the pitching staff was a top priority, and the front office wasted little time in delivering not one, but two, free agent arms.

Ricky Nolasco, formerly of the Florida Marlins and most recently Los Angeles Dodgers, signed a four-year, $49 million contract (with a team option for 2018), and ex-Yankee Phil Hughes was inked to a $24 million deal that will keep him in Minnesota through 2016.

Nolasco, 31, has won 89 games in his eight big league seasons, with a career ERA licking 4.00. A No. 2 or No. 3 starter on most playoff contenting teams, Nolasco will for the first time in his career be asked to fill the role of staff ace. Hughes, who bounced back and forth between New York's bullpen and rotation for seven seasons, should slide in as Minnesota's No. 3 starter to start the year.

A good old-fashioned spring training battle will sort out the final two starting rotations spots—a battle expected to consist of Samuel Deduno, Kyle Gibson, Mike Pelfrey, Vance Worley, Scott Diamond and possibly Alex Meyer.

Deduno has been Minnesota's most consistent starter during the last three years, but his effectiveness has dulled as hitters learn his tendencies and an already lackluster velocity's ability to camouflage off speed pitches further wanes. Deduno will compete for a starting rotation spot, and should earn one, but expect manager Ron Gardenhire to pull a short leash if early season difficulties once again present themselves.

Although too far and too few in between, Kyle Gibson showed flashes of brilliance during his first major league action last year. Gibson, a few years removed from Tommy John surgery, showed signs of being easily shaken last season and faces a potential make-or-break year in the eyes of Twins executives.

Most expect Alex Meyer, the organization's top-rated pitching prospect, to begin 2014 in AAA, but his arrival in Minneapolis will likely come much sooner rather than later, especially if the Twins fall behind early in AL Central. Diamond and Worley, both of whom fell out of favor with Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson a year ago, will also be in the mix for a starting spot.

All-Star Glen Perkins, who remains the team's closer, and 2013 breakout Casey Fien return to Minnesota's bullpen, as does Anthony Swarzak and Brian Duensing, but the pen will also see several new names and faces. Jared Burton, Ryan Pressly and Caleb Thielbar will all compete for a chance to come north with the big team as well.



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