5 questions for the 2020 Twins in spring training

Who will be the team’s fifth starter?

The Minnesota Twins’ top four spots in their rotation are set with ace Jose Berrios backed by Jake Odorizzi, Kenta Maeda and Homer Bailey. Now, the Twins also have Michael Pineda and Rich Hill on the roster, but Pineda will be out until May due to last year’s suspension and Hill is still recovering from elbow surgery and hopes to be on the mound in June. So, who will be that fifth starter for the first few weeks? It comes down to three young players: Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe. All three had encouraging seasons in 2019, none more spectacular than Dobnak. Dobnak went from being an Uber driver in spring training to beginning the season at Single-A to starting Game 2 of the ALDS. He posted a 1.59 ERA, 23 strikeouts and five walks in nine appearances with the Twins (five starts, 28 1/3 innings). Smeltzer, a survivor of childhood cancer, was one of the most inspiring stories of 2019 by not only making his big-league debut but also finding great success, registering a 3.86 ERA and 0.7 WAR in just 11 appearances (49 innings). Thorpe, on the other hand, didn’t have his best season in 2019 (4.58 ERA in the minors) and allowed at least one run in 10 of 12 appearances for the Twins. If we had to guess, we’d go with Dobnak since the Twins brass trusted him enough to start a playoff game … on the road.

 

How can Byron Buxton stay healthy?

It’s a tricky situation. On one hand, Buxton is one of the — if not the ­— best outfielders in all of baseball when he’s flying around the field making absurd catches. On the other hand, Buxton doesn’t give the Twins any value when he is sidelined with an injury after crashing into the wall. Always an elite defender, the second overall pick in 2012 has shown flashes of what he can do offensively when healthy — like the second half of 2017 when he batted .300/.347/.546 with eight doubles, five triples and 11 home runs over 57 games. But Buck has been limited to 115 contests over the last two seasons combined. There’s been chatter to place the outfielder deeper in the outfield grass to limit the momentum with which he charges into outfield walls. That might help a bit? We hope so. The Twins’ lineup is scary already, but with the speedy Buxton in on the fun, yikes! Good luck, AL Central.

 

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Is there a spot for fan-favorite Willians Astudillo on the roster?

There better be. And there should be. Among the new rules Major League Baseball introduced this offseason was the 26-man roster, adding one player to each big-league roster. Enter “La Tortuga.” Astudillo made the Opening Day roster last season but struggled with an oblique injury and bounced around from the minor leagues to the majors to the injured list. In 58 games last year, Astudillo batted .268/.299/.379 with nine doubles, four home runs and 21 RBI while walking five times and whiffing eight times. Just as advertised, Astudillo played just about everywhere on the field: 21 games at catcher, 15 at first base, 13 at third base, eight in the outfield, two at second base and two at designated hitter. That versatility combined with his ability to put the bat on the ball (just 11 strikeouts in 301 career plate appearances) should be enough to make the roster again. If not, there might be riots in Minneapolis.

Who will make up the bullpen?

Teams can have a maximum of 13 pitchers on these 26-man rosters. That gives the Twins room for five starting pitchers and eight arms out of the bullpen. Minnesota’s rising trio — Taylor Rogers, Trevor May and Tyler Duffey — is locked into roster spots as well as veterans Sergio Romo and newcomer Tyler Clippard. That leaves three openings. Zack Littell will likely be back after allowing just 11 earned runs in 37 innings (2.68 ERA) at age 23 last year. Down to two. One would think the Twins think highly enough of Cody Stashak to save room for the right-hander, who made his MLB debut last July by fanning Aaron Judge and three other Yankees over a two-inning appearance and pitched in two ALDS games. Down to one. It’ll probably come down to the two players who lose the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation (out of Dobnak, Smeltzer and Thorpe). All three made multiple relief appearances for the Twins last year. That doesn’t leave any room for Fernando Romero or Matt Wisler. But the reality is we’ll probably see all of these young names up and down the organization throughout the season since the top five roles in the bullpen are etched in stone.

 

Do any non-roster invitees have a shot?

There always seems to be one or two non-roster invitees to make an impact on the big-league club. In 2018, it was Astudillo who stole the hearts of Twins fans. And last year, it was Ryne Harper (and his curveball) who did enough in spring training (11 scoreless innings) to make the Opening Day roster and was arguably the Twins’ best reliever in the first half (2.92 ERA 9.2 K/9) before being sent down to Triple-A in August. Anyway, there were a few big minor-league names on this year’s list of invitees including Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Royce Lewis and Brent Rooker. Twins fans would love to see one (or more!) of these highly touted prospects make their debut this season. Lewis is probably still a year or two away from serious consideration, but Rooker, Larnach or Kirilloff making an impact in 2020 isn’t out of the question. Making the Opening Day roster probably is, though. The biggest veteran name on this list is Jhoulys Chacin, who was Milwaukee’s best pitcher on a division-winning team in 2018, registering a 15-8 record and 3.50 ERA over 35 starts. Last year, however, Chacin flopped and was waived by the Brewers in August after allowing 57 runs in 88 2/3 innings (5.79 ERA) and allowed nearly two homers per nine innings. The Twins made Martin Perez a mostly usable starter for half of last season, so could the pitching staff find something in Chacin? He certainly gives them more to work with than Perez did.