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Updated: February 11th, 2013 11:38pm
Mackey: Pitcher injuries, Joe Benson among things to watch in Florida

Mackey: Pitcher injuries, Joe Benson among things to watch in Florida

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Minnesota Twins pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers on Tuesday. Position players will report shortly after.

Here are five relevant statements that help narrow the focus of the next six weeks:

1. Almost every starting pitcher is coming off an injury

Yes, really.

Mike Pelfrey underwent Tommy John elbow surgery on May 1.

Kyle Gibson's innings were limited last year as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, and they'll be limited again this year.

Vance Worley had elbow clean-up surgery in September.

Liam Hendriks and Scott Diamond both had elbow clean-up surgeries in December, and Diamond might not be ready for the start of the regular season.

Kevin Correia is the only starter who hasn't undergone a recent procedure, but he's coming over from the National League where he posted a 4.54 ERA in 10 seasons.

Based on recent history with the Twins and injuries, there are plenty of reasons to fear the worst. But several pitchers undergo clean-up surgery every year, and Tommy John recovery has become fairly standardized.

By all accounts, Pelfrey has been ahead of schedule for quite some time and could be ready by the beginning of the regular season. The Twins could be even more likely to push Pelfrey, because the 29-year-old signed a one-year contract, as opposed to 25-year-old Gibson, who figures to be a pillar in the rotation for many years.

Due to an early off day, the Twins don't actually need a fifth starter until April 10, which marks the ninth game of the season. This provides more flexibility if Diamond can't go, or if someone suffers a setback.

2. The Twins should consider using Gibson out of the bullpen

Gibson, in his first full season after Tommy John surgery, will have his innings limited this season. Twins general manager Terry Ryan has said numerous times this offseason 130 to 140 innings was the likely target.

Starters who pitch a full season (30+ starts) usually tally at least 170 or 180 innings.

The Twins, coming off nearly 200 losses the last two seasons, likely don't need to worry about Stephen Strasburg-like backlash if they choose to start Gibson in April and shut him down in August.

But is that the best way to manage Gibson's innings?

Twins decision-makers closely monitored Kris Medlen's path back from Tommy John with the Atlanta Braves last season. Medlen underwent surgery in August of 2010 -- the same timeline as Gibson, but one year earlier.

In his first full season since surgery, Medlen began the season in the bullpen, where he remained until July 31. In 12 subsequent starts, Medlen posted a 0.97 ERA in 83 2/3 innings, and the Braves won all 12 of those games.

The Twins have already decided they won't use Gibson out of the bullpen, mostly because he has been a starter his entire professional and amateur career. Medlen had previous bullpen experience.

If having Gibson available in September is important, the Twins should reconsider.

It's a long shot, but imagine if the Twins are hovering near contention and Gibson, pitching effectively, reaches his innings limit on Aug. 10...

First, Gibson will need to earn a 25-man roster spot in spring training.

3. Pedro Florimon and Brian Dozier should start up the middle

Florimon, according to plus/minus metrics, was one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball last season, due in large part to his extended range.

The Twins have seen what poor shortstop defense can do to derail a starting pitcher's day (see: Tsuyoshi Nishioka), and Florimon would likely make a lot of plays the average shortstop wouldn't.

Considering Twins starters figure to strike out fewer hitters than any staff in baseball while perhaps inducing more groundballs than any staff, infield defense will be critical to success.

Problem is, Florimon hit just .219/.272/.307 last season, and he owns a career minor league batting line of .249/.321/.354 with minimal power.

At age 26, Florimon doesn't figure to get a whole lot better. His offensive ceiling resembles that of a kitty litter box. But if he's able to hit somewhere near .250 with a few stolen bases, that should be enough to hold his offensive weight, assuming his glove is stellar again.

Dozier struggled in his first 340 big league plate appearances (.234/.271/.332), and people in the organization were surprised by how flustered he looked at times.

When asked recently about Dozier's prospects as an every-day big leaguer, Rochester Red Wings manager Gene Glynn said he has "no doubt" Dozier will turn into a serviceable starter. That's just one man's opinion, and Dozier needs to show he can hit at the higher levels. But he does own a career .298/.370/.409 minor league batting line, while rarely striking out.

Dozier will turn 26 in May, so it's time for him to grab hold of a spot or risk never getting another legitimate chance.

The Twins would like everyone to believe Eduardo Escobar and Jamey Carroll are firmly in the mix too, and they are. But shortstop and second base are Florimon and Dozier's spots to lose.

4. Joe Benson is a darkhorse

Three men will compete for the Twins' starting centerfield job this spring -- Darin Mastroianni, Aaron Hicks and Joe Benson.

Hicks has the confidence of manager Ron Gardenhire, and the Twins view him as a fixture in the lineup for years to come, but he has yet to play a game above Double-A, which is why Mastroianni is likely the favorite.

But don't sleep on Benson, who is out of minor league options after 2013. The Twins must find out what they have in him this season.

No player in the Twins organization has fallen from grace quite as quickly as Benson, who at this time last season was ranked among Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects while fighting for a 25-man roster spot in spring training.

One year later, he's no higher than fifth or sixth on the outfield depth chart.

Benson, who turns 25 in March, was demoted from Triple-A to Double-A early last season due to poor performance, and injuries -- a broken hamate bone and knee problems -- took their toll soon after. He wound up hitting just .202/.288/.336 in 312 plate appearances across four levels after hitting .284/.387/.491 at Double-A in 2011 -- a performance that earned him a September call-up.

If Benson's knee holds up, he is a five-tool player with the ability to play centerfield.

5. Trevor Plouffe's defense might be more important than his power

Over a two-month stretch before the All-Star break last year, Plouffe was the hottest power hitter in baseball. He delivered a hailstorm of baseballs to the left-field seats at Target Field.

But outside of that prolific run -- and due in part to a thumb injury -- Plouffe's bat cooled off.

Most notably, Plouffe's defense was frigid all season. In fact, according to Fangraphs.com, Plouffe's bat was worth five runs above the average hitter, but his glove was worth seven runs below the average third baseman, with most of the runaway groundballs coming on plays to his right.

For the Twins to have any chance at being competitive this season, not only do they need Plouffe to be a more consistent hitter, but they also need him to be a break-even glovesman.

Corey Koskie and Justin Morneau are examples of Twins players who have turned stone hands into smooth gloves. We'll see if Plouffe -- a former shortstop -- can do the same.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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