It would be a really boring spring training if there were no questions to be answered. From the day that pitchers and catchers reported, all you could do was cross your fingers that people stayed healthy and just enjoy watching a little baseball. It's far more interesting to have a few unanswered questions, in the very beginning at least, and so here are a few well-considered answers to some of your brilliant questions.
Paul asks: Will Nick Pinto come in as a special instructor during spring training since he's sitting out the season?
I'd have to think that Paul Molitor would really appreciate Nick's get-after-it-ness. But mostly I'm pretty sure that Punto has already packed up his 1963 Chevrolet Impala and is cruising America's highways in search of his papa bear. I'm sure we'll have more on this later.
Marshall asks: Who will the fifth starter be?
We're all familiar with the candidates: Tommy Milone, Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Mike Pelfrey, and - apparently - Tim Stauffer. I've listed those in order of decreasing probability in my mind.
A lot of times when teams get into these situations, their decision is based less off of performance than it's based off of things like experience, handedness, salary, and roster flexibility. Based off of those four things, Milone has the best combination of factors acting in his favor. He has a Major League track record of some success, he's the only left-handed pitcher in the group, and he's guaranteed $2.775 million this season. He has one option remaining, but that shouldn't change anything. For those reasons, he's my favorite.
Does this mean the Twins will send Trevor May and/or Alex Meyer to Triple-A? Probably, although neither will be there for long. Does this mean the Twins will try to use Mike Pelfrey in the long-relief role, or will they cut him loose? Your guess is as good as mine.
Luke asks: Who will play center field?
I think there are four options: Aaron Hicks, Jordan Schafer, Eddie Rosario, and Shane Robinson. It's Hicks' job to lose; Schafer is a career fourth outfielder at best, Rosario has no Major League experience, and Robinson is a non-roster invitee.
There are a few scenarios that could play out here. If Hicks plays well enough to get the job, then it'll be Schafer as the fourth outfielder. But if he doesn't?
- If Eddie Rosario has a good camp and impresses the right people, he could be eased into the role by splitting time with Schafer.
- If Rosario isn't ready but Hicks still doesn't impress, Schafer could be the starting center fielder and the Twins could add Robinson to the 40-man roster as the fourth outfielder (probably by designating a pitcher for assignment).
- The Twins could always fall back on Danny Santana for the role, which would keep Schafer in the fourth outfielder spot and allow Eduardo Escobar to start at shortstop.
Eric asks: Why don't we have any top shelf talent?
The Twins do have top-shelf talent. Brian Dozier is a fantastic all-round second baseman, even if his batting average hovers around .250. Glen Perkins is a premier closer and Casey Fien is about as good as you could ask for from a set-up man. Joe Mauer's down year in 2014 shouldn't distract from the fact that he's been one of the game's best hitters for a decade. Phil Hughes pitched like an ace last year and should be a leader in the rotation for years to come. Oswaldo Arcia has the minor league track record and the tools to become a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter.
And none of that even skims the surface of where the future success of the franchise hinges: the minor leagues. Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios, and Kohl Stewart are all consensus Top 100 prospects in the game. Eddie Rosario, Lewis Thorpe, and Nick Burdi are all very talented players who will be leaned upon to help the Twins win down the line.
Minnesota doesn't look to have the talent, on paper, to compete for a post-season run in 2015, but I legitimately believe that the next division-winning Twins club isn't that far away.
Sascha asks: How well they ease the young guys into the show. Recent memory has it, that some of those guys got burned and could not live up to the promise.
You're right, Sascha - and that's going to be a big thing to watch in the next couple years as all of these young players start to earn their stripes. Aaron Hicks has won the starting job in center field the last two seasons but hasn't been able to keep it. Josmil Pinto's bat is promising, but his defense needs a lot (a lot) of work. Chris Parmelee sunk like a brick after a promising September callup in 2011. Trevor May's overall line left much to be desired after his debut late in 2014.
The important thing to remember is that patience can work. Not always - but it does. Patience paid off with guys like Cliff Lee, Jose Bautista, and Carlos Gomez. By the same token, we should expect to see the Twins take quite a few lumps this year. Young players can be incredibly exciting one week and then fall into a funk for a while, and it's guaranteed that's going to happen this year. It's part of the territory.
But on the plus side, Kyle Gibson showed improvement between 2013 and 2014, and looks like he will be a solid arm for the rotation if he can be more consistent. Oswaldo Arcia also improved between 2013 and 2014. Even a guy like Trevor Plouffe, who has been a bit of a late bloomer, has had patience (and opportunity) pay off: he was a top-ten all-around third baseman last year. As underwhelming as May's stat line was on the season, we also saw flashes of brilliance - like when he struck out ten White Sox in Chicago.
There will always be prospects who don't live up to the hype. Patience may or may not work. A player's development and growth isn't an exact science, but that's part of what makes it a game. It's an unknown variable against the future. And it's part of the fun in being able to watch it all unfold.
Paul asks: Will Paul Molitor conduct naked batting practice?
Can you imagine how Mike Redmond would take that? I think he'd take it quite personally. The last thing anyone needs is a wronged Mike Redmond showing up at the clubhouse door.
John says: The fifth starter "battle" will consist of throwing loads of crap at a wall to see what sticks.
I get the pessimism after the last four years. But I'll tell you what, John - I'll put this year's fifth starters up against the fifth starters from any of the fifth starter options from 2011 through 2014. Hell, I might take this year's fifth starter options, turn it into an entire rotation, and put it up against Minnesota's rotations from 2011 through 2014.
Scott asks: Who is going to fill the huge holes in left center & right center?
That's been my concern most of the winter, so you're not alone in asking the question. I think a lot of people have the same concern.
The company line from the Twins front office is that while the defense in the corners may not be great, it won't be as bad as some of the metrics imply it will be, and that ultimately the net result will be positive over the results from the corner outfield in 2014. And on talent alone, I agree. There will be no Josh Willingham, no Jason Bartlett, no Jason Kubel, no Chris Parmelee, and no Chris Colabello. Replacing those defensive innings and plate appearances with Torii Hunter, Jordan Schafer, Eddie Rosario, and perhaps Byron Buxton, yes - I do think there will be a net gain in value provided Hunter's bat can roughly duplicate what he did last year.
Having said that, the net gain will be marginal. Maybe Arcia is better in left field and maybe Hunter doesn't lose offensive value, but something needs to show a marked change for the improvement to be anything more. That means a breakout season from Arcia at the plate or a more athletic outfielder playing in a corner more often than we might expect out of the gate, but right now that's all speculation. Net gain or not, I stand by my statement that the Twins' front office is taxing its pitching with how they've constructed the outfield.
Luke asks: How will Santana pitch? Will Hughes regress? Will Nolasco rebound?
I think Santana will pitch like the mid-rotation starter that he is. The expectation has to be 200 innings and an ERA around 4.00. If he can keep the ball in the park like he did in 2014, his results could be a bit better. I also think he's going to be a lot of fun to watch. Santana has a passion for the game and I love seeing the Twins having another player who isn't afraid to show a little emotion. He loves the game, and he wants to win, and that's important to have on a young team. Clubhouse culture is a real thing, and I think he's an asset in that area.
Hughes has never had a season like 2014, so I think some regression should be expected. But on the other hand, a number of his improvements look sustainable thanks to his cut fastball. The re-introduction of the cutter helped his fastball become so much more effective, it helped Hughes to cut down on his fly ball rate and therefore the number of home runs he allowed, and having a pitching staff and a catcher who had confidence in Hughes' abilities to succeed by pitching up in the zone helped increase the number of chase swings he could induce.
And as far as Nolasco is concerned, he's never had a year like he had in 2014 and I'd think he'd feel like he has something to prove. We know there was an injury that kept him from being fully himself last year. But the biggest thing that Nolasco has to overcome in 2015 isn't performance, as far as I'm concerned: it's perception. In spite of making 27 starts last year he was virtually a non-entity, and it's safe to say the Twins and Twins fans expect more out of him. He should pitch better this year, and there's an expectation that he will. But until he starts looking like he actually wants to pitch for Minnesota and loses some of the nonchalance, he'll be the favorite target of trade rumors. Here's hoping he can alter that perception.
Lisa asks: Can we win?
Absolutely. Can the Twins win it all? Probably not. I think that would be a pleasant surprise for everybody involved. But can the Twins win, and can they win more than they did in 2014? Yes. There's a level of talent and depth with the Major League team that hasn't existed for a long time. The rotation is better, there are plenty of options for the rotation and for the bullpen, there is depth in both areas, and the offense is coming off of a season in which they were the seventh-best offense on the year and the third-best offense in the second half...with a number of pretty good hitting prospects on the brink of making their debuts.
The Twins have won 63, 66, 66, and 70 games in these last four difficult years. But as the way things sit right now, I'd peg Minnesota to win about 77 games in 2015. That's within spitting distance of .500, and if a few things go really well...you never know. This team will surprise some people this year.
Paul asks: Does Mike Pelfrey own more than one sweater, or just the one he wore to two of the last three Twins Fests?
He really likes the one you knitted for him, Paul. Don't blame him for wearing it in public.