Twins ST will see competition in middle infield

This is the fourth in a five-part series previewing the Minnesota Twins by position heading into spring training, which starts Tuesday with pitchers and catchers reporting.

Friday: Starting pitchers
Saturday: Relief pitchers
Sunday: Catchers
Today: Infielders
Tuesday: Outfielders

ON THE ROSTER (alphabetical order): Jamey Carroll (.268, 1 HR, 40 RBI), Brian Dozier (.234, 6 HR, 33 RBI), Eduardo Escobar (.227, 0 HR, 4 RBI), Pedro Florimon (.219, 1 HR, 10 RBI), Justin Morneau (.267, 19 HR, 77 RBI), Chris Parmelee (.229, 5 HR, 20 RBI), Trevor Plouffe (.235, 24 HR, 55 RBI), Danny Santana (.286, 8 HR, 60 RBI at High-A Fort Myers)

OFFSEASON CHANGES: The Twins didn’t really add anything to bolster the infield depth this offseason. The only real change was that Santana was added to the 40-man roster in November after spending the 2012 season with High-A Fort Myers. Otherwise, Minnesota was pretty set at infield positions and will have plenty of competition this spring from a handful of players who saw time in the majors last year.

The Twins did lose utility infielder Alexi Casilla in the offseason. Casilla, who played in 106 games in 2012, was claimed off waivers by the Baltimore Orioles in early November. He spent seven seasons with Minnesota after making his major league debut in 2006.

STARTER SPOTLIGHT: After two injury-plagued seasons, Morneau returned in 2012 to play in 134 games and hit 19 home runs. He played 99 games at first base last season and will likely play more in 2013 if he remains healthy. For the first time in years, Morneau was healthy entering the offseason and had a productive winter. The Twins will need not only his glove at first base but his bat in the middle of the lineup.

If Morneau is indeed healthy and remains Minnesota’s every-day first baseman, that may leave Parmelee out of the infield mix. The 24-year-old Parmelee played 64 games last year but spent 19 of those games in the outfield. Catcher Joe Mauer also saw time at first base as the Twins had a bit of a platoon at the position. The hope, though, is for Morneau to get the majority of the starts at first.

For a while last season, Plouffe was baseball’s hottest hitter when he hit 13 home runs in a 22-game span from mid-May to mid-June. After that, though, the 26-year-old Plouffe cooled down at the plate. He also had some issues defensively at third base, a position that was relatively new to him in 2012. Plouffe spent most of his minor league career as a shortstop but played 95 games at first base this past season. While he may have a bit of competition for the job this spring, third base is Plouffe’s job to lose.

That leaves the two middle infield spots, for which there will be plenty of competition this spring. Dozier spent more time at shortstop for the Twins (81 games) than any other infielder last year, but struggled both offensively and defensively and was sent down to Triple-A Rochester. Casilla played 83 games at second, most among the team’s infielders, but Carroll got 64 starts at second and can play either middle infield position, as well as third base. While many of the Twins’ middle infielders are young and have limited major league experience, Carroll is the seasoned veteran as 2012 was his 11th season in the majors.

Florimon started the majority of games in the final month and a half at shortstop. Minnesota’s front office and coaching staff like what Florimon brings to the field defensively, but they’d like to see his bat improve (he hit just .219 in 137 at-bats).

Escobar, acquired from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade, appeared in 14 games in the final month of the season with the Twins. He has just 138 career major league plate appearance, so it may be too soon to tell what he can bring to Minnesota offensively. He’ll be in the mix this spring for both of the middle infield positions.

SPRING TRAINING QUESTION: How will the middle infield shape up? The Twins appear set at first base (Morneau) and third base (Plouffe), but the shortstop and second base positions remain the biggest question mark in the infield — and perhaps one of the biggest questions overall this spring.

Minnesota has several candidates vying for those two jobs who all saw time in the infield last year. Carroll will be 39 years old this season but is the most experienced of all the infield candidates. He spent 66 games at second base last year and 37 at shortstop.

Dozier has spent the offseason learning the second base position. Of the 84 games he played with the Twins last year, all 84 came at shortstop. Dozier played both middle infield positions during a brief winter ball stint in Venezuela and has been working with former Twin and Baseball Hall of Famer Paul Molitor on his turns at second base.

Both Florimon and Escobar played the middle infield last season, although Florimon has only played shortstop in his 47 career games at the majors. Escobar was more versatile, as he played second base, shortstop and third in 14 games with Minnesota after he was traded from the White Sox.

Now, the question will be which of these candidates emerges this spring as the two most reliable options at second base and shortstop.

GENERAL MANAGER TERRY RYAN SAYS: “We don’t know exactly how Florimon’s going to respond. Dozier’s got ability. He had a tough time last year. Escobar just came over from the White Sox and it was I think a little bit of a culture shock for him coming from the White Sox to the Twins. Obviously we sent him right to Triple A. I’m sure he wasn’t happy with that. He’s got talent, or we wouldn’t have gone out and got him. With that foursome, we’ve got a couple other young guys on the roster we’re going to bring in as well.”

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