Coming into spring training, there were expected to be a handful of roster battles. After a week’s worth of games, there may be an extra battle to add to the list.
We all knew that the second utility position, also known as the Ehire Adrianza role, is a bit of a question mark. There’s also the battle for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation, although Matt Shoemaker was expected to have the inside track on the role. And, of course, the bullpen, which has a few locks to make the squad but a couple of slots that could still change hands.
But let’s talk about the latest, hottest roster battle ongoing in Twins camp...
Who wins the fourth outfielder competition?
There remains some intrigue as to who starts the season as the Twins’ starting left fielder, which may actually help provide an answer to the above question. But let’s start with what we know.
First of all, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler are two-thirds of the everyday outfield. The Twins allowed Eddie Rosario to depart with the idea that Alex Kirilloff would slot in as the everyday left fielder in 2021. While we don’t know if he’ll break camp with the club due to service time considerations, he’ll be the guy at some point this season.
The fourth outfielder spot seemed to be Jake Cave’s. It was last year, but his role was seemingly further cemented when LaMonte Wade Jr. was shipped to San Francisco. The only other option was Brent Rooker, who can also fill in at first base and would be a worthy designed hitter, but doesn’t offer the ability to play center field in a pinch. Truthfully, Rooker fits the “final bench/utility spot” conversation better than he does the fourth outfielder conversation.
Enter Kyle Garlick, an early February waiver claim.
Garlick was this offseason’s depth outfielder who multiple teams tried to sneak through waivers to stash in Triple-A. And for good reason; Garlick is a .288/.345/.536 career minor-league hitter in 464 games over five seasons. He has 645 Triple-A appearances to his name, where he’s slashed .281/.332/.568 — that’s an on-base plus slugging of .900.
The downside is that Garlick is exclusively a corner outfielder and is already 29 years old, but he’s the perfect depth option. He also still has an option remaining, while Cave does not. The most likely scenario is still that Garlick is optioned to St. Paul while Cave wins the fourth outfielder spot, but the newcomer is at least making the Twins think about it.
There’s also Keon Broxton, the veteran non-roster invitee who hit 20 home runs for Milwaukee back in 2017. He won’t make the team but is valuable depth as a more traditional fourth outfielder who can also play center field.
Keep an eye out for Garlick as the Twins will no doubt look to get him as much playing time as possible over the next couple of weeks.
Checking in on the bench options
The Twins’ Opening Day infield is slated to include Josh Donaldson at third base, Miguel Sano at first base, Jorge Polanco at second base, and Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, provided his delayed start to spring training doesn’t affect his April 1 availability.
Luis Arraez will be in the Marwin Gonzalez-esque super-utility role. Cave (or Garlick!) will be the fourth outfielder. Ryan Jeffers and Mitch Garver will be the catchers. That leaves room for at least one more position player — and two if the Twins decide to go heavy on that side of the ledger with two off days in their first eight days of the regular season.
Willians Astudillo would figure to have the inside track here, given his ability to play catcher in addition to the corners. Manager Rocco Baldelli also appears to enjoy the option to go to Astudillo’s bat-to-ball ability as a pinch-hitter, although that was occasionally to the Twins’ detriment last season.
The next logical choice here would be Travis Blankenhorn, although his defensive capabilities basically mirror Arraez: second base and third base with a bit of left field in a pinch.
Other options include pure shortstop JT Riddle, a non-roster invitee who saw nine at-bats across five games in the first week of spring training. He could also play some center field, but if the Twins are comfortable with Polanco sliding back to shortstop occasionally, Kepler and Cave can handle backing up center field.
But if Minnesota is comfortable with Polanco as the backup shortstop and Arraez as the emergency option, going with Blankenhorn’s bat or Astudillo’s ability to serve as the third catcher is probably the way to go. Make sure to pay attention to what should be heavy playing time for both Blankenhorn and Astudillo in the coming week.
The end of the bullpen
The Twins’ bullpen is mostly set, although an early injury to Caleb Thielbar complicates things a bit.
Hansel Robles will almost certainly make the team, but his Twins career got off to a bit of a rough start this week. To be sure, he’ll need to show that he’s much more like the 2019 version of himself than the disastrous 2020 edition. But Robles is still in a good spot.
The long-relief role is probably Randy Dobnak’s to lose, with Lewis Thorpe possibly an option as both a long-reliever and a lefty to slot in for Thielbar if he remains behind. Don’t forget about Devin Smeltzer, who could fill a similar role.
Cody Stashak is another name that probably has an inside track but needs to solidify his spot. Thus far, he’s given up four earned runs in four innings of pitching.
Names to watch this week include Luke Farrell, the former Rangers pitcher who has thrown 2 1⁄3 scoreless innings so far, and Shaun Anderson, who the Twins acquired from the Giants in the Wade trade last month. Anderson had a rough outing on Tuesday, but will certainly be given chances to prove himself moving forward.
Stay tuned. We’ll be checking in on these individual battles as we roll through spring training.