Mackey: Twins will take long looks at Burroughs, Pearce and Towles
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When the Minnesota Twins break camp in a little over a month, the biggest roster battle question marks will likely hover over the final two backup bats.
With 12 pitchers expected to head north, that leaves nine starting position players -- including DH Ryan Doumit -- and four backup slots.
If the season started today, it's safe to assume outfielder and super-utilityman Trevor Plouffe would take one of the backup slots, along with a third catcher -- either Drew Butera or J.R. Towles, who will start behind the plate in Thursday's 'B' game.
But here's where non-roster invites Towles, Sean Burroughs and Steve Pearce come in -- three veteran players who once all ranked high on Baseball America's top prospect list; general manager Terry Ryan said earlier this week he's looking for veteran hitters who can come off the bench late in a game and put together mature, solid at-bats against elite closers.
A tough task, obviously.
Referring specifically to Burroughs and Pearce, Ryan said, "Both of them are old enough where they can give you a good at-bat against a premiere closer. ...
"You send a guy up there in the eighth or ninth inning against the Mariano Riveras and the (Jonathan) Papelbons that hasn't been around the block, you're probably over-exposing them. And that's why Pearce is here. Pearce is a pretty good baseball player."
Some might say Burroughs, 31, underachieved slightly as a young player, considering he was once one of the top-five prospects in the game for three straight years. But in his only two full seasons with the San Diego Padres ('03, '04), despite not hitting for much power, he posted a combined .292 batting average and .350 on-base percentage. The Twins like his defensive versatility and believe he will provide a patient approach at the plate.
Pearce, on the other hand, has only a .232/.302/.366 major league batting line in 521 plate appearances spread across five seasons. But he owns a .281/.352/.483 line in over 1,000 Triple-A plate appearances, and he once hit 26 and 31 home runs in back-to-back seasons across three levels in 2006 and 2007.
"It was a fun year, I know that," Pearce said Wednesday. "I set a high bar for myself. When I go out there I don't want to hit .280. I want to hit way higher. I want to be an elite player. Until I'm there, I'm going to keep on grinding. I know I've still yet to play my best baseball. I'm happy to be over here -- a new atmosphere, new eyes on you."
Pearce, 28, hit a plateau with the Pirates over the past couple seasons, but the Twins are intrigued by his power -- a .227 ISO in the minors -- and willingness to play several positions.
During the first two days of full-squad workouts the Twins had Pearce playing mostly third base -- a position he's played only played 20 games at in his major league career.
"That's good enough for us," Ryan said. "He's played there. He's played first, he's played in the outfield a little bit, he played a little third. And he's a right-handed bat. So he's a major league guy that's got experience up here. Those guys are valuable if they got versatility and they can come off that bench in the eight or ninth inning and get you a big hit. Pearce can do stuff like that. Granted, he didn't have the year that the Pirates were looking for last year in the major leagues at all, but he's always been a pretty good hitter.
"Our history with first base, we've always looked for an extra guy, probably a right-handed type bat to give Morneau a little rest. And Burroughs can go over to first base as well."
As for Towles, his career has taken a similar path to Pearce's -- parts of the same five seasons in the big leagues (2007-2011), and solid Triple-A numbers (.286/.389/.443 in 556 PAs) with very little major league production to show for it (.187/.267/.315).
Still, Towles -- formerly ranked No. 53 on Baseball America's prospect list -- is only 28, and he has a lot more offensive upside than Drew Butera.
"You don't think Gardy wouldn't like to have a guy like that that also could sting the ball?" Ryan said, referring to Towles' minor league production.
"Defensively we were fine (at catcher in 2011). Offensively we weren't. We've got to find somebody who can sting the ball too."
Butera caught the most innings for the Twins last season, and his defense is generally very reliable -- 36% of base stealers gunned down, plus a good understanding of how to call a game. But he also posted some of the worst offensive numbers in baseball history last year -- and that's not hyperbole.
Since 1920, only 20 players with at least 220 plate appearances have posted a lower OPS than Butera's .449 mark last year.
"Yeah, he's a fine catcher, he's a fine thrower, he calls a good game," Ryan said. "He works behind the plate; pitchers like to throw to him."
"He hit .165," Ryan added. "We'd love to have somebody take that job and we wouldn't have to worry about it for the next five years. We've got to have some production from the backup catcher or the guy that's going to end up being out there when Mauer's not."
Manager Ron Gardenhire will also have a strong say in how the 25-man roster looks when April rolls around, although he admittedly hasn't seen much of Towles, Pearce or Burroughs yet.
"I haven't seen Sean swing in I don't know how many years," Gardenhire said. "I haven't seen him on a baseball field. I want to see him play."
Gardenhire wants hitters off the bench who "get up to the plate, get a fastball. ...
"Obviously (Burroughs) is not in Randy Bush's stature, but Randy Bush was the same type of hitter. Walk up as a left-handed hitter and he could hook a fastball with a man on first anytime he wanted to. That's a pretty good trait for a pinch-hitter off the bench. You've got to be able to hit a fastball, especially a lefty, if you can jerk the ball, that's normally a pretty good thing.
"We've had some pretty good bench guys in the past. Lately, we've had a lot of young kids. Earlier when I first started managing, we had pretty good hitters off the bench. Jose Offerman and guys like that, they were pretty good pinch-hitters. It's hard to find, hard to get them. But we'll see what happens and see how these guys all work themselves out."