5 questions for the Twins heading into 2019 spring training
FOX Sports North
The Minnesota Twins followed up a playoff appearance in 2017 with a 78-84 record last season. After an offseason of big changes -- a new manager in town and a franchise legend in Joe Mauer retiring, the Twins look a bit different this spring. What will the starting rotation look like in 2019? And will fan-favorite Willians Astudillo earn a spot on the 25-man roster? FOX Sports North examines the tough questions facing the Minnesota Twins’ roster as the 2019 season approaches.
AP PhotoGerald Herbert
Who will win the fifth spot in the starting rotation?
Minnesota’s starting rotation is mostly in place. Jose Berrios will labor as the ace alongside veterans Kyle Gibson and Jake Odorizzi, and Michael Pineda is expected to contribute after missing last season due to Tommy John surgery. It’ll be a battle to claim the fifth spot. Left-hander Martin Perez, who signed a one-year deal with the Twins in late January, might have the best shot. After all, he has more experience than the other contenders with 128 big-league starts under his belt. But Perez has been shaky as of late, as he was relegated to the Texas bullpen in August after posting a 2-7 record, 6.78 ERA and mere 1.45 K/BB ratio as a starter last year. Another candidate? Fellow left-hander Adalberto Mejia. Mejia made just five appearances (2.01 ERA, 5.2 K/9) last year before his 2018 season was ended by an elbow injury, but has started 25 games for the Twins the past two seasons. Twins prospects Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves (another lefty), Kohl Stewart and Zack Littell all made their long-awaited MLB debuts last season, but none really ran away with the job. Manager Rocco Baldelli has Romero ticketed for the bullpen in 2019. And we’ll throw in 25-year-old Chase De Jong in to the mix, a non-roster invite who allowed seven earned runs over 17 2/3 innings of work after being traded to the Twins at the 2018 deadline. All things considered, it’ll likely be Perez vs. Mejia battling for the fifth spot as spring training begins.
What should we expect from Michael Pineda?
As mentioned earlier, Pineda is coming off Tommy John surgery, but says he’s 100 percent heading into camp. So, what should we expect? Pineda has had an interesting career. He was named an All-Star in his rookie year with Seattle in 2011 and ended the year with a 3.78 ERA, 1.099 WHIP and 9.1 K/9 in 28 starts. After being traded to the New York Yankees in 2012, he missed the 2012-13 seasons with a variety of shoulder injuries and didn’t return to the mound until 2014. From there, Pineda logged a 31-31 record, 4.16 ERA and 5.04 K/BB ratio over 89 starts in the Bronx. He led the big leagues with a 10.6 K/9 in 2016, registering 207 strikeouts in 175 2/3 innings pitched. That’s well over his career mark of 9.1 K/9, but the Twins can expect Pineda and Berrios to rack up the Ks at Target Field. He’s a bit of a wild card, but this Pineda signing just might pay off.
Is there a spot for Willians Astudillo?
There may be riots in Minneapolis if “La Tortuga” is left off the 25-man roster, but it’s not a guarantee that the fan-favorite will claim a spot. Astudillo won over the hearts of Twins fans last season with his 5-foot-9, 225-pound frame, relentless hustle and numbers to back up the hype -- .355/.371/.887 slash line and 21 RBI in 29 games. The 27-year-old spent most of his time at catcher last year (16 games), but his versatility speaks for itself, as he played seven different positions (including, yes, pitcher). And his ability to make contact is almost unheard of in this era of baseball, fanning just three times in 97 plate appearances. So why wouldn’t there be room on the roster? Well, starting catcher Jason Castro is healthy after missing most of 2018 with a knee injury, so he’ll be back in the lineup with Mitch Garver serving as the primary backup. Plus, the Twins have Ehire Adrianza as their utility infielder and the club signed Ronald Torreyes in the offseason to serve a similar role. Unfortunately, there are a limited amount of spots on the roster. But with a solid spring, the versatile, sweet-swinging Astudillo can ink his name back on the lineup card. We want to see more of this.
Jordan JohnsonJordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Who's on first?
For the past several years the Twins could pencil in Joe Mauer for the majority of games at first base. But with Mauer retired, there's a hole to fill -- and plenty of competition. Acquired from the Yankees in the Lance Lynn trade, Tyler Austin played 35 games for Minnesota last season and hit nine home runs with a .488 slugging percentage. Austin has the power -- a .469 slugging percentage over 120 major-league games -- but has struggled to reach base otherwise (.232 average, .290 on-base percentage). He appeared to have the edge entering the offseason, but then in late November the Twins claimed C.J. Cron off waivers from Tampa Bay. After four years with the Angels, where he hit 16 home runs in three separate seasons, Cron hit 30 homers for the Rays in 2018. Cron has more experience than Austin -- 548 major-league games -- but a similar career slash line (.260/.311/.461). Also in camp, on a minor-league deal, is nine-year veteran Lucas Duda, who, unlike Ausin and Cron, hits left-handed. From 2014-17, Duda hit 30, 27 and 30 home runs. Last year with the Royals and Braves he combined to hit 14 in 107 games. His career slash line is .242/.337/.452. And what about Miguel Sano, whose best position might eventually be at first and not third? There's no room at designated hitter, where Nelson Cruz is expected to play nearly every day, so versatility could be a key -- Austin and Duda both have played in the outfield in the past.
USA TODAY SportsKevin Jairaj
What will the back end of the bullpen look like?
One of the unknowns of a first-time manager like Baldelli is how he'll manage relievers. We have no reference point, but in 2018, Tampa Bay, where Baldelli was on staff, had three pitchers with eight or more saves: Sergio Romo (25), Alex Colome (11), who would be traded to Seattle, and left-hander Jose Alvarado (8). There's no shortage of candidates in Minnesota in 2019. Trevor Hildenberger took over as closer after Fernando Rodney was traded at last year's deadline and had seven saves -- but he also blew four save opportunities and allowed 56 percent (14 of 25) inherited runners to score. Trevor May is healthy and converted all three of his save opportunities in 2018, but allowed 7 of 16 (44 percent) of inherited runners to score. Lefty Taylor Rogers, who had two saves and allowed 26 percent (10 of 39) inherited runners to score, could get some situational opportunities. Veteran Addison Reed didn't have any saves with the Twins last year but has plenty of closing experience with 125 career saves. Young left-hander Gabriel Moya also has closing experience, but in the minors. As mentioned, Romero is being moved into the bullpen and his 97 mph fastball could play well late in games. And then there's Blake Parker. Signed as a free agent in the offseason, Parker had 22 saves and 10.5 K/9 for the Angels over the last two seasons. One thing is for certain -- Baldelli has a lot of choices.