Monday, February 18, 2008

2008 Spring Training Preview

The sun is high in the sky, blanketing the expansive stretch of freshly cut outfield grass. A warm breeze blows across the infield, kicking up puffs of brown sand and carrying them into the dugout and seats. The sound of bats cracking and mitts smacking fills the air. Ah, spring.

That last paragraph was pretty difficult to write as I sit here staring out my frost-covered window at another gray winter day in Minnesota. But it sure was fun. I like Minnesota, and I don't generally mind winter, but by the time we approach the end of February each year, I am ready for the snow to melt and for all the wonderful sights and sounds of baseball to fill the air. Fortunately, the start of Spring Training is upon us in the nick of time. Most catchers and pitchers are in Ft. Myers now, and the rest of the position players will slowly begin to make appearances over the course of the next couple weeks.

The majority of us fans can't make it down to Florida to take in the spring action (I'll be in Orlando for a week in mid-March and I'm holding out hope that I can get someone to take a trip down to Ft. Myers with me), but at the very least we can follow all the updates courtesy of the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press beat writers who work tirelessly to transmit all of the pertinent developments to those of us unfortunate enough to be stuck in Minne-snow-ta.

Last year, the Twins went into Spring Training with few questions. They had retained most of their players from a successful 2006 campaign, and the starters at most positions were decided going in. This year will be a lot different, to say the least. Major offseason shakeups have left the Twins with many new faces, and several decisions to be made. Today I'll preview some storylines that merit following, as well as some starting spots that multiple players will likely be auditioning for a spot at. Finally, I will predict the Opening Day 25-man roster, which will undoubtedly prove to be a much more difficult task than it was last year.

Worth Keeping an Eye On...

* Francisco Liriano. When will he get to camp? How will his arm feel? Where will his velocity be? How much will he throw his slider? Certainly more important questions surrounding him than any other player, and the answers could very well determine whether the Twins are contenders or pretenders in 2008.

* The new guys. There are a lot of them: Delmon Young, Jason Pridie, Brendan Harris, Carlos Gomez, Phil Humber, Mike Lamb, Adam Everett, Livan Hernandez, Craig Monroe, etc. Many Twins fans will be getting their first significant looks at these guys. What will they bring to the table? How will they fit in with the returning Twins' nucleus?

* Joe Nathan. Reports indicate that he and the team are in talks about a contract extension, but it's difficult to gauge how serious these talks really are. Given their frugal nature, it's hard to see the Twins being willing to pony up the amount of money Nathan is likely to command. Will his undecided contract situation be a distraction?

* Jesse Crain. He's coming off surgery for one of the most devastating injuries possible for a pitcher -- a torn rotator cuff and labrum -- and the prognosis for guys in his position is not good. He claims to be ready to go, but I'll be very skeptical until I hear that he's on the mound and throwing 90+ mph.

Position Battles

Starting Second Baseman
This would appear to be a three-way battle between Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla and newly acquired Brendan Harris. Each player has his strengths: Punto is the stellar defender, Casilla the speedy and exciting youngster, with Harris possessing the best stick. Given his poor 2007 campaign, I think there's little doubt that Casilla will start the season in Rochester unless he goes crazy this spring. Punto would seem to have an intrinsic advantage given the fact that Ron Gardenhire is clearly very fond of him, but I imagine that the offense-starved Twins will end up going with Harris on Opening Day in spite of his defensive deficiencies. He will have to have a good spring though, in order to avoid giving Gardy an excuse to stick with his favorite tail-battler.

Favorite: Brendan Harris

Starting Center Fielder
Right now this looks like a battle between two newly acquired players: Jason Pridie and Carlos Gomez. I wouldn't be surprised if the Twins hand a one-year contract to one of the remaining veteran free agents at the position, such as Kenny Lofton or Corey Patterson. If not, the advantage probably goes to Gomez by a smidge, although either one could make a good case. Pridie has the advantage of being older and more experienced, and he's actually had material success in the high minors. Conversely, Gomez is young and still quite raw, and since he was pushed very aggressively through the Mets' system he never had much time to adjust to any level. That's likely a large part of the reason that he has never had a ton of success at any stop in the minors.

With that said, I suspect the Twins will be eager to show some kind of return on the Johan Santana deal, and while his offensive game is a work in progress, Gomez already looks to be an above-average defender and base-runner. It also stands to reason that the Twins might prefer his right-handed bat to Pridie's left-handed bat in a lineup that is somewhat heavy on lefties, with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and Mike Lamb all projecting to be regular starters. I'll give the edge to Gomez for now, but this seems like a spot that could easily be won with a strong performance in March.

Favorite: Carlos Gomez

Fifth Spot in the Rotation
This is tricky, because one could really make an argument that all five spots in the rotation are up for grabs. For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume that Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Francisco Liriano and Livan Hernandez all have a spot in the rotation locked up. They are the most established candidates and I think it would take a really poor spring or an injury to prevent any of those guys from being there. This leaves an open competition for the last spot, where numerous young hurlers are likely to get a look. These names include Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing. You could also add veterans Zach Day and Randy Keisler to the list of contenders, but I suspect that they were brought in more as minor-league filler than legitimate candidates to fill a major-league roster spot.

Looking at the group of promising young arms, there are several guys with the potential to step up and seize a spot. But I'll make a couple of assumptions. First, I believe that both Blackburn and Perkins will start the season pitching out of the Twins' bullpen. I think the team will be grooming Humber for the bullpen, though he may just start the season starting in Triple-A. Mulvey is also likely to start in Rochester, and my guess is that Duensing will be there also since his name has mysteriously not been brought up much by Twins' coaches when discussing this year's rotation. That leaves Slowey, who is the only one in the bunch with significant big-league experience.

Slowey made his major-league debut with the Twins last year and tossed 66 2/3 innings with a relatively unimpressive 4.73 ERA. It's certainly worth noting, however, that in his second stint with the team as a September call-up, Slowey was excellent, posting a 3.34 ERA and 28-to-3 K/BB ratio over 29 2/3 innings. Given his late-season success and his complete dominance in Triple-A, I can't see any way the Twins send Slowey back to Rochester as long as he has a solid spring.

Favorite: Kevin Slowey

Final Bullpen Spot(s)
We can be relatively certain that Joe Nathan, Pat Neshek, Juan Rincon, Dennys Reyes and Matt Guerrier will all have a spot in the bullpen on March 31. That leaves one additional spot, or two if the Twins elect to go with a seven-man bullpen (which I believe they will, considering the lack of experience in the starting rotation). I've stated before that I think Humber is going to end up in the 'pen, and I figured that he would likely start the season there if he was truly out of options, which had been rumored in various places. However, La Velle cleared up those rumors on Saturday when he reported that Humber still has one option left. With that being the case, I believe he will start the season in Triple-A, with Blackburn opening the season in the Twins' bullpen as a long reliever. If Jesse Crain is truly back to full strengh in the wake of his surgery, that final spot would probably go to him. Since I have a hard time believing that he'll be ready to go at the outset of the season, I'm going to say the final spot will end up going to Perkins, who is the logical choice since he would give the team a second lefty out of the bullpen.

Favorites: Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins

Final Bench Spot
A seven-man bullpen leaves only four available spots on the bench. We can reasonably assume that three of those spots will be occupied by Mike Redmond, Craig Monroe and Punto (or Harris). The final spot is a little tricky. It could be occupied by the loser of the Gomez/Pridie battle in center field, but I doubt that for two reasons: 1) since both of those players are at a stage where they should be getting regular playing time, the loser would logically open the season as Rochester's starting CF; and 2) the Twins would already have five outfielders between Young, Cuddyer, Kubel, Monroe and Gomez/Pridie. Even Punto could fill a spot in a pinch.

What the Twins lack in the current scenario is backup infielder who can actually be an asset as a pinch-hitter. Punto can play any infield spot, but his bat is weak at third base and especially weak at first base. So, a more powerful corner-infield type would make sense. Garrett Jones is an option, but he is a poor defender and his left-handed bat is redundant with Morneau and Lamb (he also wouldn't be able to field any infield position other than first base). The defensive issues and left-handed bat also prevent Brian Buscher from looking like a real contender. Instead, I think the best option might be Matt Macri, who can play first, second or third, and possesses a solid right-handed bat which could be platooned with Lamb.

Favorite: Matt Macri

---

With all those battles in mind, here is how I project the Twins' Opening Day 25-man roster (although I certainly reserve the right to make adjustments as Spring Training progresses):


STARTERS
C: Joe Mauer
1B: Justin Morneau
2B: Brendan Harris
3B: Mike Lamb
SS: Adam Everett
LF: Delmon Young
CF: Carlos Gomez
RF: Michael Cuddyer
DH: Jason Kubel

BENCH
C: Mike Redmond
IF: Nick Punto
IF: Matt Macri
OF: Craig Monroe

ROTATION
SP: Scott Baker
SP: Boof Bonser
SP: Francisco Liriano
SP: Livan Hernandez
SP: Kevin Slowey

BULLPEN
RP: Joe Nathan
RP: Pat Neshek
RP: Matt Guerrier
RP: Juan Rincon
RP: Dennys Reyes
RP: Nick Blackburn
RP: Glen Perkins

Thoughts?

15 comments:

SethSpeaks said...

Nicely done, Nick!
I was glad to see you put Matt Macri as the final guy on the roster. I know I put Machado. Others have said Buscher. Macri can play 3 IF positions (unlike Buscher) and bats right-handed (hence, could play 3B when Lamb gets a day off.

TwinsTerritory said...

I'd like to see this roster.

I saw in some report that the Twins are likely leaning towards going with 12 pitchers which would help Perkins and Blackburn both make the team. And I'd like that bullpen.

I'm not sure 2B is much of a competition, but I'd like it to be. I hope Alexi has improved over the winter.

The final bench spot will be interesting. We know it won't be an OF (or so we think) so that means Machado, Macri and Buscher. Should be interesting.

Oh, and something on the SP battle.

I'd like to see Slowey, Baker, Liriano and Hernandez be locks with Bonser the guy battling. He needs to prove he can pitch more than five effective innings.

Great write up...

Steven said...

Isn't it more likly that Liriano is in the bullpen or AAA to start the year?

J. Lichty said...

Those are certainly very logical projections, but I think Punto gets the nod over Harris, just because Gardy loves him and "we hope Nicky turns it around here and he can't do that sitting on the bench."

It brings up one of the unfortunate problems with Gardy is that he does not put players in postitions to maximize their success. Punto is a useful player as a utility man, as was Tyner as a 5th OF. The problem comes in when Gardy expects more out of them than they are capable of giving. It's not the player's fault (well Punto's putrid season was bad even for him).

As long as Gardy is manager, you will likely see more of Craig Monroe than is useful and certainly more of Punto than is useful. Escpecially with all the new faces, Gardy will want the devil he knows.

Nick N. said...

Isn't it more likly that Liriano is in the bullpen or AAA to start the year?

As long as he has a good spring, there's no reason he shouldn't be in the rotation to start the season. Everything I've read has indicated that he is pitching at full strength.

Those are certainly very logical projections, but I think Punto gets the nod over Harris, just because Gardy loves him and "we hope Nicky turns it around here and he can't do that sitting on the bench."

I dunno. Everyone seemed to think it was so outrageous that Gardenhire continued to start Punto at third base last year, but let's be honest, he really didn't have any viable alternatives for much of the season. That's not to say I support his fascination with Punto, but let's give him a chance now that he's been given a clearly superior offensive player.

SL__72 said...

Looks good to me. Thoughts on Tolbert as that last bench guy instead of Macri? He's probably a better hitter at this point, I'd guess that he's a better fielder (but I don't know) and he also is a switch hitter. In fact, he looks like he could be a good permanent replacement for Punto after '08.

TT said...

I agree on most of the lineup. If Liriano isn't ready that opens a second spot in the rotation. But for now, lets be optimistic.

I think Blackburn will start the season at AAA. The seventh guy in the bullpen is going to be insurance who may not get many innings. They will want Blackburn to be pitching along with other candidates for the rotation.

They have several arms that will compete for the last bullpen spot- Korecky, dePaula and Cali. Day and Kiesler would also be possibilities. And you can add Brian Bass to that list, since he has a lot more experience than Blackburn.

The guy I have the most questions about is Perkins. The Twins keep saying they see him as a starter, but they kept him in the bullpen last year. If shows he is a candidate for the rotation, he may start the year at AAA. On the other hand, they may decide he will get enough innings as the sixth guy in the bullpen.

Macri has less than 60 at bats above AA and he hit .213 while in Rochester. I think if he makes it past the first spring training cut he will be doing well.

I think the competition for the last backup spot is wide open. I wouldn't rule out the Twins going with a guy like Jon Knott or grabbing someone on the waiver wire. But guys like Tolbert and Macri are real long shots.

My guess right now is Jones, mostly because it looks like he is out of options, can play first base and the Twins don't really have a left handed bat on the bench.

John said...

Great Stuff Nick.

Nick N. said...

Thoughts on Tolbert as that last bench guy instead of Macri? He's probably a better hitter at this point, I'd guess that he's a better fielder (but I don't know) and he also is a switch hitter.

I'm not sure I buy that Tolbert is the better hitter. He had a better year last year, but over the course of their minor-league careers Macri's OPS is about 60 points better. I don't know a whole lot about either of their defensive skills, so I can't really speak to that.

I think Blackburn will start the season at AAA. The seventh guy in the bullpen is going to be insurance who may not get many innings. They will want Blackburn to be pitching along with other candidates for the rotation.

They have several arms that will compete for the last bullpen spot- Korecky, dePaula and Cali. Day and Kiesler would also be possibilities. And you can add Brian Bass to that list, since he has a lot more experience than Blackburn.


You may very well be right about that. I suppose Blackburn would be a good guy to have down in Triple-A as an option to bring up should any of the starters get injured. I just figure he's already 26 (well, in eight days anyway) and really doesn't seem to have much left to prove in the minors. But you're right that there are several other guys who could fill that seventh spot in the bullpen, which will likely amount to mop-up duty.

The guy I have the most questions about is Perkins. The Twins keep saying they see him as a starter, but they kept him in the bullpen last year. If shows he is a candidate for the rotation, he may start the year at AAA. On the other hand, they may decide he will get enough innings as the sixth guy in the bullpen.

I think the Twins would like to have Perkins start eventually, but until Jose Mijares returns from his injury, I think he's the team's best shot at a dominating power lefty out of the bullpen.

tim said...

Nick. Well done. I agree with many of your choices. Especially Slowey in the fifth spot and Gomez as CF. I like Macri grabbing the final spot. But I'd prefer Denard Span. Atleast for the time being. I think we're deep enough in the IF, and need mor competition in the outfield. This is my starting lineup, in class rotating sides of the plate, just how likes gardy likes it.

1. Gomez CF (R)
2. Mauer C (L)
3. Youngs LF (R)
4. Morneau 1B (L)
5. Cuddyer RF (R)
6. Kubel DH (L)
7. Harris 2B (R)
8. Lamb 3B (L)
9. Everett SS (R)

neckrolls said...

I have Pridie in CF, Crain instead of Blackburn in the bullpen, and Jose Morales as the last bench spot (switch-hitter, 3rd catcher makes Gardy less squeamish about DH-ing Mauer). But these spots are certainly the most tentative.

I agree with you completely on the other 22 spots. Nice job!

Mike C said...

Good preview. It's pretty much how I see it. All I have to say is that if Gardy continues to play Punto despite his minor league hitting I will )for the first time in years) be annoyed by a Twins manager.

spycake said...

I heard Rick Anderson on the radio recently, and he basically confirmed Liriano was going to start -- they want him on regular rest/usage patterns. And I believe he made similar remarks about keeping him in the majors rather than AAA (unless, I suppose, Liriano is very clearly not the same pitcher anymore... but then we have bigger fish to fry!).

I doubt Macri sniffs the big-league roster this spring -- both Punto and Harris can slide over to third if necessary, and Lamb can slide over to 1B to give Morneau a day off. I suspect they will go with another middle IF like Machado to give them that flexibility. Or they could take another OF who can play center, depending on how well the starter performs this spring, and whether they see Monroe as a backup option there.

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