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Updated: February 16th, 2011 11:02pm
Spring training preview: Middle infield and bullpen are main questions

Spring training preview: Middle infield and bullpen are main questions

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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Important dates

February 17: Pitchers and catchers report
February 18: First workout (pitchers and catchers)
February 23: First full-squad workout
February 27: vs. Boston Red Sox
March 28: Team leaves Fort Myers
April 1: Regular season opener @ Toronto

40-man roster breakdown

Pitchers (21): Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, David Bromberg, Alex Burnett, Matt Capps, Scott Diamond*, Brian Duensing*, Deolis Guerra, Eric Hacker, Jim Hoey, Dusty Hughes*, Francisco Liriano*, Jeff Manship, Jose Mijares*, Joe Nathan, Pat Neshek, Carl Pavano, Glen Perkins*, Anthony Slama, Kevin Slowey, Anthony Swarzak

Catchers (2): Drew Butera, Joe Mauer

Infielders (8): Alexi Casilla, Luke Hughes, Justin Morneau, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Chris Parmalee, Trevor Plouffe, Matt Tolbert, Danny Valencia

Outfielders (8): Joe Benson, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Jason Repko, Ben Revere, Denard Span, Rene Tosoni, Delmon Young

Designated Hitter (1): Jim Thome

Non-roster invitees

Pitchers (6): Yorman Bazardo, Phil Dumatrait*, Kyle Gibson, Carlos Gutierrez, Chuck James, Kyle Waldrop

Catchers (6): Jair Fernandez, Chris Herrmann, Steve Holm, Danny Lehmann, Daniel Rams, Rene Rivera

Infielders (6): Jeff Bailey, Matthew Brown, Ray Chang, Brian Dozier, Justin Huber, Chase Lambin

Outfielders (1): Brian Dinkelman

* Throws left-handed

Three biggest question marks

3. Six starting pitchers, five slots; who moves to the 'pen?

The Twins enter spring training with six starters -- Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey -- each vying for a spot in a five-man rotation.

In reality, the battle is likely between Slowey, Blackburn and Duensing, with one of them being the odd man out.

With Baker, Slowey and Blackburn all battling stretches of ineffectiveness and/or injury in 2010, Duensing stepped up and posted a 3.05 ERA in 13 starts, including 51 strikeouts and only 22 walks in 85 2/3 innings.

During the final two months of the season, Duensing may have been the Twins' best starting pitcher.

Manager Ron Gardenhire has been consistent since the end of last season, saying Duensing is a starting pitcher. Unless he encounters a rough spring, Duensing -- even though he might provide stability to a bullpen full of question marks -- appears to have the inside track ahead of Slowey and Blackburn.

2. Matt Capps and a bunch of unknown commodities; who steps up?

With Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes all finding new homes this offseason, the Twins' bullpen will undergo a makeover this spring.

The only known commodities at this point are Matt Capps, who posted a 2.00 ERA with 16 saves in 27 innings after being traded from Washington, and left-hander Jose Mijares, who, if he stays healthy, will likely be the Twins' top lefty reliever.

Beyond that, questions linger over the heads of Joe Nathan, who is 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery, Pat Neshek, who is two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and a cast of at least 8-10 others who will battle for one of seven bullpen slots.

Nathan has been ahead of schedule for the majority of his rehab, and pitching coach Rick Anderson characterized his first bullpen session off a mound as "outstanding" on Wednesday. Reports from earlier in the week had Nathan throwing 88-89 mph on what may or may not have been a juiced-up radar gun.

Neshek was nearly untouchable at one point before his elbow injury nearly three years ago, and his velocity dipped into the mid-80's toward the end of 2010 in his first year back from surgery. If Neshek can bump his fastball velocity back toward 90, he could be an effective bridge option.

As for the other spots, the Twins will look long and hard at lefties Scott Diamond (a rule-5 draftee), Dusty Hughes (acquired off waivers from the Royals), non-roster invitee Chuck James (a former Braves starter) and Glen Perkins.

The righties are Alex Burnett, Anthony Slama, Jeff Manship, Carlos Gutierrez, Eric Hacker and Jim Hoey, a hard-thrower whom the Twins acquired in the J.J. Hardy deal from Baltimore.

All of the aforementioned will be thrown at the wall. Gardenhire and company are hoping a few of them stick.

1. A new middle infield; will the Twins finally find stability?

Since 2007, nine different Twins players have started at least 20 games in a single season at either shortstop or second base -- Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto, J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson, Matt Tolbert, Brendan Harris, Orlando Cabrera, Adam Everett and Jason Bartlett.

Not exactly a blueprint for stability.

The Twins will try again this year, with two new starting middle infielders. Or, more specifically, one new middle infielder -- Tsuyoshi Nishioka -- and an old face in Casilla, who has been given multiple chances to start in the past, but so far hasn't been able to lock the job down.

Orlando Hudson's non-stop motor may have worn tiresome in the Twins clubhouse near the end of the season, but he did provide a relatively stable presence on the field -- .268/.338/.372 with six home runs in 559 plate appearances, and an above-average glove.

Gardenhire said the main reason for letting Hudson walk and trading Hardy and instead using a Nishioka-Casilla middle infield is to inject more speed into the lineup.

One might argue the Twins lineup -- which scored the sixth-most runs of any team in baseball (781) and posted the second-highest team on-base percentage (.341) -- didn't necessarily need much tweaking, but more speed could allow for more versatility.

Nishioka won the Pacific League batting title in 2010 with a .346 batting average. He also posted a .423 on-base percentage and .482 slugging percentage, but expectations in the major leagues should be tempered.

What about Morneau?

Justin Morneau hasn't played a baseball game since taking a knee to the head in Toronto on July 7, 2010. Since then, the Twins have preached optimism and have insisted that Morneau continues to progress with his workouts.

Morneau is now taking part in baseball activities, and all signs point -- at least for now -- toward him being ready to return to action in early April.

Until he faces live pitching and begins scrimmaging and playing in spring training games, it will be difficult to judge his true progress.

Morneau is expected to join the team for the first full-squad workout on February 23.

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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