With 8 days to go before the start of the Twins’ season, the team has already gotten word on one important suspension and is awaiting word from Major League Baseball on the possibility of another. That’s not exactly uplifting news for a team that would rather feel good about the moves it made this winter.
Even so, the Twins did have a successful winter, in my opinion. You could rightly accuse the front office of being bargain hunters if you wanted to play that game. They didn’t spend a lot of money on any one player, they diversified their risk, and they cut the downside possibilities by rarely promising more than one guaranteed season in any contract. So, yeah, they’re bargain hunters. But they found some good deals in a crazy (or rational?) winter market and they appear to have made their club better than the one that broke camp in Fort Myers and headed north last April.
I took a few blind guesses about the roster 5 weeks ago. Now that we’re getting close to games that actually matter, let’s start ramping up the roster speculation.
C – Jason Castro
1B – Joe Mauer
2B – Brian Dozier
SS – Eduardo Escobar
3B – Miguel Sano
LF – Eddie Rosario
CF – Byron Buxton
RF – Max Kepler
DH – Logan Morrison
Jorge Polanco’s 80-game PED suspension puts a wrench in the plans that would have been set a week ago.
And no, that’s not the batting order that the Twins will use on Opening Day. The most suspense involved here is whether or not Miguel Sano will be suspended after assault allegations, start the season on the disabled list after offseason leg surgery, or find himself batting third in the opening day lineup.
Backup catcher – Mitch Garver struggled in limited action in the Majors last year. With that said, he’s apparently come a long way behind the plate from his days as a bat-first college catcher. I’m calling small-sample alert on his MLB bench time last season. I’d say that his minor league offensive profile and apparent versatility make him a reasonable bet to be Castro’s backup to start the season.
First Base – The Twins won’t need a backup here. Joe Mauer, Logan Morrison, Miguel Sano; they’re well-covered.
Second Base – For the first few weeks of the season, the Twins will only need a backup if Brian Dozier gets hurt. He prides himself on playing all the time, and I think he’s capable of it in April. I’m guessing that he won’t play every inning of 162 games, but especially if Sano gets suspended for a short time then Dozier can be counted on to take the post and help ease the squeeze of Minnesota’s early depth concerns.
Shortstop – Well, this one got a lot trickier. It’s simple enough to say that Eduardo Escobar should take over for the suspended Jorge Polanco, with the smoother fielding Ehire Adrianza serving as Escobar’s backup. But what if Sano gets suspended? That could push Adrianza into a starting role as well, since Escobar would probably have to take over at third base.
Third Base – Similar story at third base to the one that you have at shortstop. If Sano is suspended, the starting gig could be Escobar’s. If both Escobar and Adrianza are in the starting lineup on a nightly basis, not only is the regular cast weaker overall, but the bench takes a non-trivial step backward as well. That is, unless Erick Aybar can turn back the clock and be an unexpected contributor.
If Sano is not suspended, then the Twins will need to back up two infield positions in the short term—shortstop and third base.
Outfield – The way the team’s decision makers talk about Minnesota’s outfield alignment, you get the sense that Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler all will be expected to play quite a bit this season. The roster’s construction is a little weird because Robbie Grossman is an offensive threat to get on base but he’s not much of an outfielder.
Kepler was an awful hitter against lefties last season, so it’s fair to wonder if manager Paul Molitor will plan to give him a rest on those days with a lefty starter on the mound, even if it means likely taking a step back defensively. Then again, Kepler is young and promising enough that you could see the Twins prioritizing Kepler’s development rather than quitting on the idea that he’ll be a solid everyday player no matter the matchup.
I sort of think of Kepler and Rosario as Buxton’s backups in centerfield. Of course, that only works if you have corner outfielders to move into the void that creates in right or left field. Mitch Garver has played some left field in the big leagues and has a track record of doing so at Triple-A Rochester. It’s one reason why I think he’ll get the nod over veteran catcher Bobby Wilson as the backup in Minnesota. And Grossman can hold his own with a glove, even if he’s a far cry from that prototypical fourth outfielder with a plus sign next to his glove on scouting reports.
The way I see it, for the first few weeks of the season anyway, the Twins will need to back up two infield spots (the left side) and two outfield spots.
Could you consider Grossman and Garver together as one corner-outfield backup? Do you consider Adrianza as the sub at both spots in the infield? Can the fact that he’ll play a little outfield help alleviate any desperate coverage concerns? Or would the Twins do something a little outside expectations? I think that the standard assumption right now is that Erick Aybar will make the team as another backup infielder and the Twins will go with either Grossman or one of their more capable minor defensive outfielders like Zack Granite or perhaps Jake Cave. I just think that Grossman is too good to cut loose for nothing, so it puts the Twins in a bit of a weird spot.
The only drama here in my mind revolves around Phil Hughes. Will he make the team and in what role? The Twins had been expecting to go with four starters to open the season, and maybe they stick with that. But if you’re going to hold off until the Pittsburgh series to use Lance Lynn (to make sure he’s ready) and J.O. Berrios (to ensure he gets a chance to pitch in Puerto Rico), then the Twins might actually need 5 guys the first turn through.
I haven’t run this theory by anybody with the Twins, but what if they used Hughes the first turn through the rotation and then slid him into more of a bullpen, multi-inning reliever role? I haven’t seen every start that Hughes has made this spring, although I do wonder how much that sort of thing –spring performance – matters to the Twins’ front office. Clearly they’re paying attention during spring training. I’m just saying that circumstance has a way of influencing decision. What are the roster needs? What is the 40-man roster situation? What challenges are on the horizon?
So don’t think about it like a 5-man rotation, at least not for now. It could be, and Hughes could be the fifth guy taking turns when the need arises through the first four weeks of the season. I think of it more like a 12-man pitching staff — with one ‘swing’ starter/reliever for now — made possible by holding the bench to four players.
Closer – Fernando Rodney
Setup – Addison Reed, Trevor Hildenberger
Lefties – Taylor Rogers, Zach Duke
Righties – Ryan Pressly, Tyler Kinley
Here’s a fairly non-controversial opinion: Other relievers who are not listed here will help the Twins at some point this season. Alan Busenitz, John Curtiss, Tyler Duffey, Gabriel Moya … that list could go on and on. These pitchers all have at least one minor league option remaining, so to start the season at least, I’m just guessing that Minnesota’s decision makers will want maximum flexibility. That means keeping a tantalizing pitcher like Pressly (out of minor league options) and Kinley (a Rule 5 pick with a big fastball).
A lot has been made of Hildenberger’s spotty spring training performance. I think it’s possible that he’ll be sent out as a result of those stats. I just put more weight into his outings last year than I do the numbers that he’s posted in exhibition games in Florida this spring. He’s one of the best relief pitchers on the Twins, in my opinion. (And, like a lot of the non-free agent relievers in the organization, he also has the flexibility of holding at least one minor league option.)