Spring training serves many functions for a baseball team. It is an opportunity for players to get back in playing shape and prepare for the upcoming season, an opportunity for the new acquisitions to get acclimated and familiarize themselves with their new teammates and coaches, and - perhaps most importantly - it is an opportunity for the coaching staff to figure out who should be starting and which 25 players will be most capable of helping their team.
There are seven positions on the 25-man roster that will be up for grabs this spring, with some competitions more open than others. In today's post, I will analyze each of those positions and pick a favorite heading into spring training for each spot.
Starting Right Fielder
With Jacque Jones departing for the Cubs in the offseason, there are three players vying for his vacated starting position right field: Michael Cuddyer, Lew Ford, and Jason Kubel.
The club would likely prefer to have Kubel starting there, as he played well in his brief stint in the Majors in 2004 and has more upside than either of the other candidates. He is also a good defensive player with a strong arm. Unfortunately, Kubel is returning from a knee injury that kept him out all of the 2005 season, so there is a widely held sentiment that the team will start him in Triple-A to allow him to shake off a year's worth of rust and get his timing back. That said, if he performs well in the spring, it would be hard to see the team keeping him in the minors. Nevertheless, I don't expect he'll be on the 25-man roster coming out the spring. He's only 23, so it won't hurt to take it slow with him.
Presuming that Kubel starts the season at Rochester, the competition for the starting spot on opening day comes down to Ford and Cuddyer. I believe that Ford is a better player, both offensively and defensively, but I think Cuddyer will probably get the nod. Ford is a more valuable bench player, seeing as how he can play all three outfield positions and has enough speed to pinch-run late in games. The team appears intent on giving Cuddyer one more shot at holding down a regular job.
FAVORITE: MICHAEL CUDDYER
Starting Third Baseman
Much to the frustration of a number of fans, the Twins signed Tony Batista to a $1.5 million non-guaranteed contract during the offseason, making him the heir apparent at third base. During his better years, Batista - who spent the 2005 season playing in Japan - would have been a decent option to fill the Twins' power-hitting void. He hit 41 home runs with the Blue Jays in 2000, and hit 32 homers in 2004, his last season in the Majors. Unfortunately, Batista's last couple years in the league were not pretty, as he posted lines of .235/.270/.393 in 2003 and .241/.272/.455 in 2004. When you're hitting .240 and only getting on base at a .270 clip, it's difficult to be a productive player, even if you are hitting the occasional dinger.
Beyond that, reports have come in from numerous sources (including Twins' scouts) that Batista is out of shape and has shown decreased ability in the field. This would leave one to believe that the 32-year-old doesn't stand a chance at winning the starting third base job, and yet the alternatives aren't pretty. Glenn Williams is one option. As a 28-year-old rookie last year, he started his Major League career with a 13-game hitting streak before injuring his shoulder and missing the rest of the season. Unfortunately, the fact that most of these hits were bloop singles, coupled with the fact that he is only a .245 career minor league hitter, lead many (including myself) to believe that he does not have a future as a Major League regular. Another potential candidate for the job is Terry Tiffee, but he would have to seriously turn himself around after hitting a putrid .207/.245/.293 in 150 Major League at-bats last year. The only other candidate for the starting third-base job is Cuddyer, who played there last season. However, Cuddy was a disaster there last year, and if he was starting at third and Ford was starting in right, the team's fourth outfielder would be Nick Punto. Ouch.
Terry Ryan promised to give Batista a fair shot at the Twins third-base job when he signed him during the offseason. The only way I can see him not winning the spot is if he performs very poorly on defense in the spring or if Williams or Tiffee are sensational... or if Ryan makes a trade.
FAVORITE: TONY BATISTA
This was the most competitive spot in spring training a year ago, and this time around it will essentially feature the same candidates: Jason Bartlett, Nick Punto, and Juan Castro. However, while last year Bartlett seemed like a long-shot due to his inexperience, this year the team is counting on him because he is really the only member of the group with the potential to be a productive everyday player offensively.
Bartlett looked like a Rookie of the Year candidate after hitting .332/.417/.475 in Triple-A in 2004. Last year, he hit .370 in the spring to capture the starting shortstop job entering the season, but ended up struggling with the Twins, hitting only .241 on the year. This season, it is absolutely crucial that he perform well in the spring and carry that into the regular season. While Gardy has stated that the shortstop position will be an open competition this spring, it is essentially Bartlett's to lose. He would have to perform really poorly this spring in order for Punto or Castro to enter the season as the starting shortstop.
FAVORITE: JASON BARTLETT
Fifth Spot in the Rotation
This will be a competition between the Twins' two top young arms, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano. Despite the fact that Liriano was flat-out dominant at Triple-A last year, Baker is the clear favorite to win the spot. He has more Major League experience after starting 9 games for the Twins last year and posting a 3.35 ERA last year.
Adding to Baker's edge is the fact that Liriano is set to pitch for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic and will miss a large chunk of the exhibition schedule with the Twins. Gardenhire has already mentioned that not being able to see him and coach him first-hand will probably hurt Liriano's chances of winning the job. However, if Liriano tears it up in the WBC and dominates top big league hitters, while Baker is only so-so with the Twins this spring, will they really be able to leave Liriano in the minors? It would be an interesting situation. Nonetheless, expect to see Baker rounding out the Twins' rotation at the outset of the season.
FAVORITE: SCOTT BAKER
Final Two Spots in the Bullpen
While four spots in the Twins' pen are essentially locked up (closer Joe Nathan, set-up man Juan Rincon, middle reliever Jesse Crain, and long reliever Matt Guerrier), two spots are open and could be filled by any of a number of candidates. While Gardy has stated that he will not necessarily bring a veteran lefty just for the sake of having one, it is likely that he will bring one. Despite the fact that Nathan, Crain, and Rincon are all pretty effective against left-handed hitters, a manager just feels more comfortable sending out a southpaw to face a big left-handed hitter late in a close game. The top candidates for this spot are veterans Gabe White, Dennys Reyes, and Darrell May, all signed to minor-league contracts in the offseason. May has only had one reasonably good season in his entire career, and has relatively little experience pitching in relief, which in my mind eliminates him from consideration (hopefully). Reyes and White would both be decent options, although I would give White the slight edge since he has a better track record.
As for the other spot, it is likely that the Twins will bring a rookie. The top choice for this duty would be Willie Eyre, who posted a 2.72 ERA in Triple-A last season. There are a few other guys who could contend for this spot with good springs, such as J.D. Durbin or Dave Gassner, but I'd put my money on Eyre if anyone. It is also possible that the Twins will not bring a rookie and instead bring two members of the aforementioned group of lefties.
FAVORITES: GABE WHITE and WILLIE EYRE
Final Bench Spot
This is the most difficult spot to analyze because it totally depends on who wins the battles at several other positions. If, as I predict, Cuddyer starts the year in right and Batista starts the year at third, with Kubel in the minors, there is an open bench spot. We can pretty safely say that Punto, Castro, Ford, and Redmond will all be there. In this scenario, the final spot would likely be taken by Ruben Sierra, who would be used as a left-handed pinch-hitter and occasional DH. However, if Kubel is able to start the year in the big leagues, that would probably mean that Sierra would be released, unless Punto or Castro were let go. So, if Kubel starts the year in Triple-A, I think Sierra will be on the 25-man roster to start the season. But then the question becomes this: When Kubel shows he is ready to jump to the Twins (which I am fairly confident will happen within a month or two), who gets the boot? That will be an interesting situation when it comes up.
FAVORITE: RUBEN SIERRA
With all that said, here is my projected 25-man opening day roster, which obviously is subject to change: