Of course, spring training is a sweet time for Twins fans, and not just for the rising temperatures. After another uneventful offseason, storylines will start to develop and baseball will be played, with the first official exhibition scheduled against the Red Sox next Wednesday. Perhaps the most important function of the next month's slate of practices and exhibition games will be narrowing the Opening Day roster down to 25 players. Many guys have a spot locked up, but there are a few positions up for grabs heading into spring training this year, so today I will sort out the candidates and pick out an early favorite for each.
Fifth Spot in the Rotation
Many have expressed a sentiment that the Twins rotation is completely undecided behind Johan Santana, but I don't think that's the case. In my mind, you've got four spots pretty much set in stone. Santana is obviously the ace. Behind him, you have to believe that Boof Bonser's outstanding performance in the second half last season has earned him an automatic spot in the rotation, barring a spring injury or meltdown. The Twins exercised a $4.325 million option on Carlos Silva and are hoping he can rebound toward his 2005 form, so he'll be there. Similarly, Ramon Ortiz is locked into a guaranteed $3.1 million contract, so he's going to be there in the beginning, like it or not.
This leaves one spot open for competition, and several names have been thrown around as possible candidates. Sidney Ponson, who signed a minor-league contract with the Twins in the offseason, has been the topic of much discussion and will get a long look. Matt Garza got his feet wet in the majors last year and is also a strong candidate. Glen Perkins, who pitched well in a September call-up last season, has repeatedly been mentioned as a possibility. Even Kevin Slowey, who has yet to pitch above the Double-A level, is a contender in this race because he performed so well in the minor leagues last year.
Of course, one candidate that tends to get overlooked is Scott Baker. Baker was the fifth starter over Francisco Liriano out of spring training last year, but a disastrous '06 campaign has lowered his stock immensely. Even though he was a train-wreck last season (especially against non-Yankee opponents), we can't forget that Baker is still just 25 and does hold a 2.97 ERA over 439 1/3 career minor league innings.
Baker could be a wild-card somewhere along the line, but I'd still stick him at the bottom of this list. I think Ponson will get the nod out of spring training because Ron Gardenhire and the Twins really seem to want to give him a shot. However, I think Garza, Perkins and Slowey will all be on the big-league roster by September.
Favorite: Sidney Ponson
Final Bullpen Spot
With returners Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, Dennys Reyes, Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier all essentially guaranteed spots in the bullpen, it would seem that the only open spot is the one vacated by the non-tendered Willie Eyre. Of course, that seventh spot may not even exist. Many teams choose to go with just six relievers, opening up an extra spot on the bench, and this seems especially doable with the durable six listed above. Still, Gardy likes to carry a deep bullpen, and the potentially shaky rotation could increase the relievers' workload early in the season, so I do believe the Twins will go north with a seventh guy.
So who's it going to be? J.D. Durbin has been up-and-down over the past few years, and is coming off a nerve injury in his throwing elbow, but he's out of options and if the Twins don't keep him they will almost certainly lose him. Once a hot-shot prospect who dubbed himself "The Real Deal," Durbin's control problems have haunted him for the past few years, and it's starting to look like now-or-never time for the 25-year-old right-hander.
If the Twins don't go with Durbin, it will probably be because Gardy wanted an additional left-hander to spell Reyes. If that is the case, there are several options. The Twins brought in three veteran lefty relievers on minor league contracts during the off-season (Mike Venafro, Randy Choate and Carmen Cali). Any one of those guys is a possibility. Prospect Ricky Barrett, who will turn 26 in a couple weeks, posted a 3.42 ERA at Triple-A Rochester last year and seems about ready. A final possibility would be Perkins, in a situation similar to the one that occurred with Francisco Liriano last season.
Durbin has too much upside still to just be let go, so unless his injury remains a major problem or he can't get the ball over the plate in spring training, I think he'll be the guy.
Favorite: J.D. Durbin
Starting Designated Hitter
Last year the plan was to go with Rondell White at DH, and while he is returning this season, it looks like the Twins will be starting him in left field, where he posted better offensive numbers in 2006. That leaves the door open for Jason Kubel, who cruised to the majors after tearing up minor-league pitching in 2004, but missed the entire 2005 season with a knee injury that still hampered him last year. Kubel at DH would seem to be ideal, as it would allow him to save his knees the work of playing the outfield and he could add some power to the bottom of the Twins' lineup.
If Kubel isn't ready for regular action, off-season additions Matt LeCroy and Ken Harvey are right-handed hitters with DH experience. Still, I think the Twins would much prefer to have Kubel in this spot, with Jeff Cirillo occasionally subbing in against left-handed pitchers. Hopefully Kubel will be ready to go, because the latter situation would certainly be preferable to LeCroy or Harvey.
Favorite: Jason Kubel
Final Bench Spot(s)
We know Mike Redmond will be backing up Joe Mauer. We also know that Cirillo will be on the bench to back up first and third. Presumably Lew Ford will be on the roster since the Twins are paying him almost $1 million and he can adequately back up all three outfield positions. Beyond those three, there will be either one or two bench positions left over, depending on whether or not the Twins choose to carry a seventh reliever. Since I think they will carry that extra reliever, I project one remaining bench-spot. It would have to be a guy who can cover both middle-infield positions, since none of the aforementioned players fill that role. The Twins' Rule V draft pick, Alejandro Machado, seems like a natural fit. He doesn't hit much, but he is a nice fielder who would ostensibly provide the same services Juan Castro did in 2005 but at a cheaper price.
Luis Rodriguez is another possibility, but his defense at shortstop is not stellar and he provided little offense in 115 at-bats last season. Rodriguez might be out of options, but I'm not entirely sure.
If the Twins do carry a fifth bench player, you can bet it will be Jason Tyner, who hit .312 (albeit with no patience or power) over 218 at-bats last year. Yet, as I've said before, having Tyner on the roster seems redundant to me if all three starting outfielders are healthy. Ford can back up all three of those positions and he can pinch-run, and Kubel would also be able to fill an outfield spot when he's not at DH.
Favorite: Alejandro Machado
I posted my projected Opening Day roster back on January 30 and at this point I'm sticking to it, with one amendment. The only change I've made is swapping Ponson for Garza as the fifth starter. Here's my new projection:
Joe Mauer, C
Justin Morneau, 1B
Luis Castillo, 2B
Nick Punto, 3B
Jason Bartlett, SS
Rondell White, LF
Torii Hunter, CF
Michael Cuddyer, RF
Jason Kubel, DH
Mike Redmond, C
Alejandro Machado, IF
Jeff Cirillo, IF
Lew Ford, OF