Tuesday was the one week mark from when Twins pitchers and catchers report. And while I'm not super enthused about that -- I won't start a countdown or anything -- it's still pretty cool to think about this being where the season starts.
I just don't think of it as something that pulls me from this no baseball funk. These guys have been playing catch all winter long. This is just more organized.
But nevertheless, there's plenty of intrigue surrounding this bunch of Twins. We've seen the inexplicable, as the club dealt both its big league centerfield options -- no slight to Darin Mastroianni -- while holding tight to the guys everyone thought might actually be on the block (Justin Morneau/Josh Willingham). The team added pitching, but did little to pacify fans qualms for pitchers they had heard of.
Whatever that means.
The Twins did well to add pitchers that fit the mold with what this team will be capable of doing this year, and that's 'hanging in there'. And while most fans -- season ticket holders especially -- don't want to hear this sort of thing, it's probably a good move.
After all, based on who you ask, the Twins have at least a handful of the game's top prospects. Does it make sense to sign guys to multi-year deals in spots where you'd rather have cheap prospects in the future. Well, yes and no. When it comes to starting pitching, I don't think it would have blocked anyone specifically to sign Brandon McCarthy to the deal he got from Arizona.
But I digress. The Twins had a plan, and stuck to it, and I commend them for it.
With this in mind, these are the storylines I'm looking into as spring training evolves:
Will Kyle Gibson make the team, and if so, in what capacity?
There have been some whispers that the Twins may handle Gibson the same way the Braves handled Kris Medlen last season. This would essentially mean starting the season in the bullpen before transitioning to the rotation. I think the Twins will be happy to see Gibson settle in just over 100 innings, which is a pretty healthy bump from the ~50 innings he threw between the minors and the Arizona Fall League. To that end, is he then the long guy in the bullpen? Or does he go down to Rochester to stretch out near midseason? I don't have exact answers for that, but I would contend that he'd likely work in middle relief, and barring something unforeseen, starting maybe six to 10 games in the second half before shutting down in September sometime. It should coincide nicely with the Twins hopefully playing better baseball as the season wears on, moving into what most hope/seem to suggest will be a better year in 2014 for the club.
What the heck will the bullpen look like?
I think the locks are Glen Perkins, Jared Burton, and Brian Duensing, with Anthony Swarzak and Alex Burnett being near locks. Casey Fien probably deserves to be a lock, but with limited track record prior to last season, he may still have to prove his mettle. This probably leaves two spots open, and my notion is that Fien, Josh Roenicke, Tim Wood, or maybe even Tyler Robertson have an inside track on those spots, however many the Twins decide to carry initially. It would certainly be nice for Rich Harden to force his way into this mix, but then it also leaves one wondering where exactly Gibson fits in. It's going to be a wild competition to be sure, as there are still other names I haven't mentioned who will get a look (Caleb Thielbar, et al).
Will this team actually be adept at fielding grounders? (Bonus question: Who plays 2B/SS?)
I think Brian Dozier and Pedro Florimon enter as the prohibitive favorites, but Jamey Carroll proved he deserves every chance to play regularly last year despite his age -- though his contract situation may be a factor. I've also gathered through some straw-polling that a few people whose opinion I respect really like Eduardo Escobar, even if I'm not entirely sold. Florimon is flashy but a bit erratic at short, but with some refinement I think he could be pretty good out there. Dozier's moving over from short, where he tended to struggle a bit, but I think he'll be OK at the keystone. Basically, I think the middle infield will be the least of the Twins' worries, as Trevor Plouffe will have to show a quicker first step and better instincts -- if that's even possible -- at third. This team is going to induce a TON of groundballs, so it could get ugly out there if this isn't a vastly improved group.
Who will be the fourth outfielder?
At this point it looks like Clete Thomas and Brandon Boggs are going to battle for that spot, though I don't think Thomas has the inside track after his less-than-inspiring run with the big club last season. I simply can't envision a scenario where Joe Benson sticks if he isn't starting, but we can also lead into the next question with....
Wait a second, who is going to play centerfield?!
Well, if Aaron Hicks is playing center, Mastroianni becomes the de facto fourth outfielder. And it's starting to seem like this is what the organization wants right now. The team flirted with a few fourth outfielder types late this winter -- including my favorite, Ryan Sweeney, and Scott Podsednik (they're the same player!) -- but I think their ultimate settling on signing no one of merit means they really, desperately want Hicks to earn the opening day job in center and at leadoff. The million dollar question is will the Twins put that much pressure on him?
If Ron Gardenhire is managing for his job, how will that change his strategy?
I somewhat wonder if bringing Hicks along might be Gardenhire's way of saying he wants to do whatever it takes to succeed in what could be his swan song as Twins skipper. The Twins Way has rarely been to promote prospects at the outset of the season -- can't remember many, if any since Joe Mauer in 2004 -- but to delay the arbitration clock a year by bringing the player up in June sometime. If Hicks shows an inkling of being ready, will that be enough for Gardenhire -- whose pull on 25-man roster decisions is unclear to me at this point -- to push hard for Hicks to come north despite never setting foot in Rochester (another organizational axiom)? We shall see.
Outside of how he manages the bullpen or pitch counts -- and I find this extremely unlikely anyway -- I don't think we'll really see an alteration to the way Gardenhire manages the team. Stick with what got you there, right?
Is Morneau a part of the next wave of Twins success?
He wants to be here; the team wants him to be here. If the heir apparent at first base, even in the short term, is Chris Parmelee, then I have to lean towards no. Again, a lot will hinge on if Morneau is peddled at the trade deadline, or what he is asking for in yet-to-be-opened extension talks, or about a million of other extenuating circumstances. If the Twins view Miguel Sano or someone else as the next first baseman of this team in the long term -- heck, maybe it's Mauer? -- then I see the Twins possibly retaining Morneau a bit further into his 30s. For now, I think the future is extremely murky.
Similarly, is Willingham?
I don't think so, due in large part to the outfield depth the Twins boast in the minors, as well as the fact that Willingham is only signed through the 2014 season. I think the ideal Twins outfield in 2015 is Hicks flanked by Oswaldo Arcia and Benson, or another outfielder TBD, but I feel pretty strongly that that third outfielder is someone in the Twins system.
And finally, as spring training ends, the team will obviously look like a team in transition. How far has this team come in that time?
You can't tell much from how a team plays in spring training, but if this team comes out of spring as a confident bunch, and can stay .500 in April, it might be a fun season as the boys try to bring back relevance to the Twin Cities.
Welcome back baseball. Oh how we've missed you so.