Tuesday, February 17, 2009

2009 Spring Training Preview

Aside from the thrill of entering a new season with each team's destiny unknown, the arrival of spring training always carries with it an exciting mix of freshness and mystery in terms of roster composition.

Well, usually.

Twins pitchers and catchers officially report for duty in Ft. Myers today, signaling the official end of the offseason and the beginning of an eight-month stretch of preseason, regular season and (hopefully) postseason baseball. That's great, of course, but for the Twins, this spring kickoff comes with a decidedly subdued level of intrigue. While last year's Opening Day starting lineup featured five new players, this year's Opening Day 25-man roster will probably only feature one new player (Luis Ayala). And while the Twins entered last spring with a number of positions up for grabs (second base, center field, fifth starter), this year most roles on the team are already essentially locked up. Spring exhibitions will give players a good opportunity to shake off their winter rust and prepare for the season, but you get the sense that management already has a plan drawn out for Opening Day.

Sure, it's possible that a terrible spring showing from Carlos Gomez or Denard Span could earn either play a trip to Rochester to open the season, but that seems unlikely. Barring an injury, it seems almost certain that the lineup Ron Gardenhire writes out on Opening Day will be identical to the one he wrote out for the Twins' tiebreaker against the White Sox last September (except with Michael Cuddyer pushing Delmon Young out of the lineup and perhaps Brian Buscher starting over Brendan Harris at third, depending on the pitching matchup).

Still, the fact this year's iteration of spring training won't likely feature the amount drama and competition that we typically see doesn't mean there won't be plenty to keep an eye on over the next month and a half. Many members of the Twins organization will be participating in the World Baseball Classic, and there are a number of storylines worth following at the Twins' spring training home as well. Today, I'll run down a few of those, predict how they'll play out, and take a stab at guessing the Opening Day roster (we'll see if I can beat my 22-for-25 rate from last year).

Worth Keeping an Eye On...

* Injury situations. The Twins don't enter this spring with any major injury concerns (as long as Joe Crede's not on the roster), but two players worth monitoring are Joe Mauer and Boof Bonser. Mauer underwent a kidney operation during the offseason and his recovery process has been a bit slower than planned. While all indications are that the surgery won't be a problem and won't prevent him from being able to start on Opening Day, he's still bothered by soreness and wasn't able to work out much during the offseason. Perhaps more concerning is Bonser's situation. It recently came to light that Bonser had a hard time throwing off a mound during the offseason due to "a heavy case of tendinitis," and needed a cortisone shot in his shoulder last week. X-ray and MRI exams have reportedly come out negative, but shoulder problems for pitchers always present cause for concern.


* WBC performers. A handful of Twins will be participating in the World Baseball Classic, including Francisco Liriano, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, Nick Punto, Ayala, and several minor-leaguers. Much of the WBC action will be televised, so fans will have an opportunity to get an early glimpse of these players in action. We'll have to cross our fingers and hope they all stay healthy.


* Starting pitching pecking order. You won't see any of the rotation spots listed under the "Position Battles" section below, because it seems pretty clear that the Twins' five-man staff is locked in: Liriano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins. However, injuries often strike during spring training and early in the season, and the depth chart behind those five is unclear. Kevin Mulvey, R.A. Dickey, Anthony Swarzak, Brian Duensing and others will all be battling to be first in line if another starter is needed.

* Early signs of progress. One can't draw too many conclusions from the smattering of exhibition games that take place during the month of March, but sometimes you'll catch meaningful glimpses. You may recall that Denard Span posted a .404 on-base percentage last spring, a precursor to the much-improved plate discipline he'd show during the season. This year, keep an eye on players like Gomez, who has reportedly worked hard to refine his plate approach during the winter months, and Buscher, who has reportedly added mass during the offseason in an effort to bring some more power to the table.

Position Battles

Final Bench Spot
With Span/Gomez/Cuddyer apparently comprising the Opening Day outfield alignment and Jason Kubel looking like the regular DH, Young is looking like the fourth OF/DH. With Mike Redmond holding down backup catcher duties and either Harris/Buscher filling a backup infielder role, this leaves one remaining bench spot (assuming a seven-man bullpen). While the favorite for that spot right now has to be Matt Tolbert, who played well last year and gives Gardenhire some flexibility, nothing is guaranteed. Let's not forget that Tolbert himself came out of nowhere to claim that utility role last year. Matt Macri, Luke Hughes and Alejandro Machado all could get a legitimate look with strong spring performances.

Favorite: Matt Tolbert

Final Bullpen Spots
It is presumed that the first five bullpen spots will go to Nathan, Crain, Ayala, Craig Breslow and Matt Guerrier. Assuming the team goes north with a seven-man bullpen (which seems like a certainty to me), this leaves two remaining spots for three viable candidates: Philip Humber, Bonser and Mijares. Humber and Bonser are both out of options, so the team has strong incentive to keep them both, but starting Mijares in Triple-A would leave Gardy with only one left-handed option out of the bullpen to begin the year. It should be interesting to see how this situation shakes out. For now, I'll guess that the team goes with Humber and Bonser, but a trade or injury could shift the dynamics of this battle.

Favorites: Boof Bonser and Philip Humber

---

With all that sorted out, here's how I envision the Twins' Opening Day 25-man roster:

STARTERS
C: Joe Mauer
1B: Justin Morneau
2B: Alexi Casilla
3B: Brian Buscher
SS: Nick Punto
LF: Denard Span
CF: Carlos Gomez
RF: Michael Cuddyer
DH: Jason Kubel

BENCH
C: Mike Redmond
IF: Brendan Harris
IF: Matt Tolbert
OF: Delmon Young

ROTATION
SP: Francisco Liriano
SP: Scott Baker
SP: Kevin Slowey
SP: Nick Blackburn
SP: Glen Perkins

BULLPEN
RP: Joe Nathan
RP: Jesse Crain
RP: Luis Ayala
RP: Matt Guerrier
RP: Craig Breslow
RP: Boof Bonser
RP: Philip Humber

Thoughts?

8 comments:

Dwade said...

Prediction: Tolleson has a massive spring and gives Tolbert a run for his money. Tolbert may still beat him out for the last spot, but it won't be by much

Jeff said...

I like it. I would also add that Tolbert is most likely watching the Joe Crede situation closely, as that is the other factor that weighs heavily on him making the 25-man roster.

CA said...

The outfield situation should be interesting to watch. I'm curious about how the Twins will allocate playing time, and how Young handles a backup role.

Nick N. said...

Prediction: Tolleson has a massive spring and gives Tolbert a run for his money. Tolbert may still beat him out for the last spot, but it won't be by much

I like that prediction. I'm higher on Tolleson than a lot of people, as illustrated by his presence at the No. 10 spot on my Top Ten Prospects list a few weeks ago.

The outfield situation should be interesting to watch. I'm curious about how the Twins will allocate playing time, and how Young handles a backup role.

I'm sure Young will get his ABs in. With injuries and whatnot, these things tend to sort themselves out.

Ryan said...

Do you really think that Mijares will start the season in AAA after ending the year as the team's best reliever? I'm not so sure about that -- sure the Twins can put him down there, but it'll be awful tough to do so if he has a good camp.

Nick N. said...

Do you really think that Mijares will start the season in AAA after ending the year as the team's best reliever? I'm not so sure about that -- sure the Twins can put him down there, but it'll be awful tough to do so if he has a good camp.

It may certainly hinge on how he performs during the spring. Gardenhire's comments have left me with little doubt that he is willing to start Mijares in Triple-A, though.

fdddd said...

Mijares starting the season in AAA will depend on Bonser's shoulder. I think Bonser will be plsced on 15 days DL.

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