MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Twins pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla., on Sunday, with the position players heading south not long after. It’s an important spring for the Twins, who are coming off their third straight losing season and have many questions to answer before the season. Here are the five biggest question marks Minnesota has entering camp.
1. Who will be the fifth starter in the rotation?
Minnesota made it a priority to upgrade the starting rotation this offseason, signing free agents Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes to help bolster what was the worst starting staff in the majors in 2013. The Twins also brought back Mike Pelfrey for two more years and have Kevin Correia — who was steady last year — on the roster. That means Minnesota essentially has four of its five starting spots locked up before spring training even begins.
There are a number of pitchers who will be fighting for that final rotation spot, making this possibly the best position battle of spring. The Twins cycled through several starters last year, so many of the pitchers hoping to make a case to be the No. 5 guy pitched in the majors last season. That includes right-hander Samuel Deduno, who missed all of September with an injury. Before then, however, Deduno showed that he has perhaps the best "stuff" of anyone in the Twins’ rotation. He cut down on his wildness that he exhibited in 2012 and walked fewer batters. Deduno might be one of the front runners for that No. 5 job.
Left-hander Scott Diamond has made 58 career starts in the majors and was Minnesota’s best pitcher in 2012. Yet he took a step backward last year as almost all of his numbers went in the wrong direction. While he had a disappointing 2013, Diamond should still be in the mix this spring. So, too, is right-hander Kyle Gibson, who made his much-anticipated debut in 2013 but failed to live up to the hype. Still just 26, Gibson will no doubt get his chance with the Twins, although it may not be to start the season. Finally, prospect Alex Meyer could be a dark-horse candidate to break camp as the No. 5 starter. The 6-foot-9 Meyer is Minnesota’s top pitching prospect, but he has yet to pitch above Double-A. Still, he’ll have a chance to make a case for himself in the next month and a half.
With Joe Mauer moving to first base full time, that means Minnesota has to figure out who will be behind the plate in 2014. The Twins signed veteran Kurt Suzuki this offseason, and general manager Terry Ryan essentially named Suzuki as the starter last month. Suzuki, 30, spent most of his career with Oakland while also playing for Washington from 2012-13. He’s nowhere near the hitter that Mauer is, but Suzuki has a reputation as being a solid defensive catcher and someone who can handle a pitching staff.
That leaves three players likely fighting for a job as Minnesota’s backup catcher: Josmil Pinto, Chris Herrmann and Eric Fryer. Pinto made his big league debut in 2013 as a September call-up and was impressive offensively in a limited number of at-bats. However, Pinto’s defense is still a work in progress, which could hamper his chances of heading north in April. Herrmann didn’t wow anybody with his bat in his 197 plate appearances in the majors the last two years, but he does bring versatility as he can also play the outfield. Frye doesn’t have a ton of major league experience either, and had just 13 at-bats for Minnesota last year, but he also has a shot to make the 25-man roster.
3. Will either of the familiar Jasons — Kubel or Bartlett — make the team?
Don’t adjust your television sets if you’re watching a spring training game this year. Those are indeed former Twins Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett fighting for roster spots with Minnesota. Kubel played with the Twins until 2011 before he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Bartlett, meanwhile, was out of the majors in 2013 after dealing with an injury and is hoping to make a comeback with the team that drafted him in 2001.
Kubel likely has the better shot of making the Twins’ 25-man roster. For starters, he actually played in the big leagues last year as he spent time with Arizona and Cleveland. However, after hitting 30 home runs in 2012, Kubel’s numbers took a big dip (.216, 5 HRs in 290 PA) in 2013 due in part to a leg injury. Now healthy, Kubel believes he can contribute in the outfield for Minnesota this season.
Bartlett, meanwhile, may be a bit of a longshot to earn a spot on the major league roster. A knee injury and subsequent surgery cut Bartlett’s 2012 season short and forced him to miss all of 2013. Plus Bartlett is no prospect – he’s 34 — and Minnesota feels it has a competent shortstop in Pedro Florimon, who was strong defensively but didn’t do much offensively for the Twins last year. If Bartlett does find himself on the 25-man roster, it would likely be as a utility infielder.
4. Is there any chance Miguel Sano breaks camp with the Twins?
Twins fans are excited about the future, in big part because of the depth of talent in the minor-league system. That includes baseball’s top prospect in outfielder Byron Buxton, who still appears at least a year away from the majors. Another top Twins prospect, however, could be much closer than Buxton to debuting with Minnesota.
That would be third baseman Miguel Sano, who is viewed by many as one of the top-10 prospects in the minors and the second-best prospect in Minnesota’s system. The 20-year-old Sano has hit for power at every level he’s played at in the minor leagues — including Double-A New Britain, where he batted just .236 but belted 19 homers and drove in 55 runs in 67 games with the Rock Cats in 2013. As good as Sano is at the plate, though, his defense at third base is still coming along.
Trevor Plouffe has been Minnesota’s third baseman for the last two years, but he knows that Sano is knocking on the door and could be close to taking Plouffe’s job. If Sano has a very strong spring, it might be tempting for the Twins to start the year with Sano on the roster. At the same time, Minnesota might be inclined to keep Sano in the minors for a bit longer before starting his service clock.
5. How will Joe Mauer look as an everyday first baseman?
A foul tip off the mask this past August changed Joe Mauer’s career forever. The 30-year-old St. Paul native had been a catcher for as long as he could remember, and won an MVP and three batting titles at that position since making his Twins debut in 2004. Yet after suffering a concussion that sidelined him for the rest of the season, Mauer made the switch to first base this offseason to avoid such injuries in the future. Minnesota needs Mauer’s bat in the lineup as much as possible, so moving him to first base was the best way to do that.
Nothing will likely change for Mauer offensively. In fact, not having to endure the daily wear and tear of catching may keep Mauer’s legs fresher and improve his hitting numbers. But defensively, it remains to be seen how Mauer will handle the position change. He has made 54 starts at first base over the last three years and seemed to adjust rather quickly. While Mauer is still getting used to hearing himself referred to as a first baseman, it’s likely that he’ll take to his new position just fine. Spring training will be Mauer’s first real chance to spend extended time working on his footwork. He’ll have plenty of tutelage down in Fort Myers, including former Twins manager Tom Kelly, who will no doubt be in Mauer’s ear during fielding drills. For Mauer, it might almost feel like he’s a rookie again.