In two weeks and two days, the dark and dreary days of winter will lose their icy grip on our souls. In two weeks and two days, a light will appear at the end of the tunnel, beckoning us forward as if to say "Yes, friends, you have made it, and I shall warm your heart." In two weeks and two days, pitchers and catchers report for our Minnesota Twins.
This time two years ago at this time we were still talking about the signing of Jim Thome, with the Orlando Hudson signing just days away while we tried to still our panic about the Joe Mauer contract situation. Last year we were out of payroll space (sounds familiar, right?) and speculating about potential contract extensions. This year, well, it's been about the least exciting off-season in recent memory. But we still have questions about our favorite team.
How much first base will Justin Morneau play?
We know that Justin is going to play this year. We also know that the Twins will try to play him at first base to see if he can handle it, and how often he can handle it. The answer to this question will have a chain reaction, and will alter the playing time and futures of Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, Trevor Plouffe, and Luke Hughes. Of even more concern is that if Justin can't play first base, at all, then the question becomes: how often can Justin Morneau be the team's designated hitter?
I want Morneau to be a cornerstone at first base for at least the remainder of his current contract, because that would mean he's healthy. But I don't think it will take long for us to realize exactly what role Morneau will be playing with the Twins in the future, and we may even get our answer before spring training ends.
What's going to happen with Tsuyoshi Nishioka?
While Alexi Casilla is technically not under contract for 2012 yet, at some point he will be. Either the Twins and his agent will find a midway point, or they'll go to arbitration and the Twins will probably win. And at that point, Casilla will be the starting second baseman. Jamey Carroll, apparently, is going to be the everday shortstop.
Which means that the Twins will be paying $3 million per year for Nishioka, no matter what the Twins decide to do with him. In all liklihood he ends up on the bench, backing up both middle infield spots and probably starting one or two games a week between both positions. The alternative is to option him to Rochester, where he'd get an opportunity to play everyday. That option does seem unrealistic.
Nishioka was one of the most publicized moves of the off-season for Minnesota last winter. Hopefully he can stay healthy and find a little consistency on the field this season, because we need to see some form of improvement.
Who will round out the bullpen?
Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis are the starting five. Matt Capps is the closer, Glen Perkins is the setup guy, Brian Duensing is the lefty specialist. Lester Oliveros is likely to be one right-hander out of the 'pen. Anthony Swarzak will be the long man.
After that, it's a shot in the dark for those final two spots. Some of the targets are familiar. Joel Zumaya will get every opportunity to earn one of those spots, and I think we all hope he does. Alex Burnett and Jeff Manship are the two other relievers on the 40-man roster with the most experience. Kyle Waldrop will be a favorite option among certain circles, and of course Scott Diamond is still on the 40-man roster. The remaining pitchers are minor league journeymen or players who are either too young and inexperienced to be real options, or they're being kept in the minors for grooming.
Those final two spots, in my mind, will go to Zumaya and Burnett. Waldrop and Manship will be first and second on the call up list, respectively.
Who are 2012's dark horse contributors?
Each year, every baseball team across the league has one or two players that contribute in a way they didn't predict. Who will those guys be this season? Ignoring the Spans and Mauers and Morneaus, guys we need to be productive and healthy, who's ready to step up? While veterans like Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit, and Jamey Carroll largely are who they will be, Ben Revere could make a bigger splash than he made in 2011. Oliveros has the ability to strike batters out and could take a big step if his command improves. Maybe Nishioka, with a year's worth of experience and knowledge under his belt, starts out on a better foot. Could this be the year that Casilla finally puts everything together? Maybe those dark horse contributors will be minor leaguers to start the year: Chris Parmelee, Liam Hendriks, Joe Benson.
"Selling Hope" has been a conversation piece around the Twins blogosphere over the last few days, and while I think optimism is always going to be there before a season starts, selling a .500 club to an already frustrated fanbase is an interesting notion. If Minnesota is going to be competitive, if they're going to be .500 or better, they're going to need production from players outside of their core stars.
What happens if the Twins are in a seller's position come July?
This was the case last season and the front office didn't move due to any number of reasons, be it the brief run of success prior to the All-Star break or the loyalty they felt to a player like Michael Cuddyer or the indecisiveness they displayed to a player like Joe Nathan. This year, there won't be as many obvious chips to move.
Impending free agents are easy targets: Pavano, Doumit, Carroll, Capps. If Willingham has a good season, he could be a chip to move due to a good contract. If Blackburn has a good season, he's still relatively affordable. What if the Twins struggle but Morneau has a great bounceback season; with the end of his contract just around the corner, would the team consider moving him? And of course Liriano is in his last year of team control.
I know it's early to start asking this question, but every front office should at least have a contingency plan for how they might approach successful or unsuccessful campaigns so that it's not a conversation that needs to happen in the middle of the summer. Circumstances can change, the plan might look different, but having an outline is a responsible and proactive approach to what can be a challenging time of year.
Baseball is nigh, my friends! Game threads, actual results, hot dogs, Dicknbert! What questions do you have for the Twins before spring training begins?