Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spring Break

This being the Twins' only off-day during their Florida schedule, and about halfway through that schedule, and the day after the first round of cuts, it's a good time to weigh on the events of spring training so far.

The biggest thing for me has been the absence of the heart of the Twins' lineup. Thanks to an assortment of nagging/lingering injuries, Joe Mauer (receiving injections of synthetic lubricant after offseason knee surgery), Justin Morneau (the concussion), Delmon Young (sore toe) and Michael Cuddyer (foot wart removal) have combined for 15 PA in official spring games. That was making me very nervous this time last week. But then Morneau and Young showed up in a B game last Wednesday, and have since appeared in Grapefruit League play regularly. Mauer has finally begun catching bullpens and could DH in tomorrow's game. And Cuddyer's foot is healing - he's already ramping up his activities and could get into action by the end of the weekend.

That should make the last 2 weeks of spring training games extra fun as the Twins' regulars scramble to get enough PAs to get their timing down and prove they're in game shape. I imagine them staying in games a little longer than they might have, and playing more on back-to-back days. It's also comforting to know that everyone is expected to be ready by April 1, so we won't have to have Jason Repko or Matt Tolbert in the Opening Day lineup.

Speaking of Tolbert, there is reason to hope he won't make the team. Luke Hughes has been one of the Twins' best hitters so far, batting .361/.385/.778 with 3 2B, 4 HR and 1/1 SB through 13 games and about 40 PA. He's a right-handed stick, and he's showing himself to be capable of spotting at the corner OF positions and all over the IF (though, with his limited range, I can't imagine him ever playing SS when Gardy could just slide Nishioka over). Tolbert, for his part, has hit .240/.286/.240 with 0/2 SB. He's a much better IF glove than Hughes, and probably a faster baserunner. But he's never going to have the bat that Hughes does.

Which of them should be the 25th man on the roster depends on which of these situations everyone thinks is more important:
  1. Jim Thome, pinch-hitting for Alexi Casilla, draws a late-inning BB. We need a PR who can score from 1B on a double, then go in and play the IF.
  2. Jason Kubel comes to the plate with RISP late in the game. The opposing manager can go to the bullpen for their LOOGY. We need a PH who can hit LHP enough to make that pitching change less of a slam-dunk move.
I'm solidly in the camp of #2. If you're really intent on having a PR score all the way from 1st, you can put in Repko and have Cuddyer play 2B the following inning while Repko goes to RF. Or you can just let Hughes run for Thome - he's definitely an upgrade speedwise. There's simply no potential for Repko, Tolbert or Drew Butera to be of any use covering for Kubel at the plate. Hughes could do that, and also be a formidable PH for Casilla or another light hitter if there's a southpaw on the mound late in the game - or if the Twins just want to try to win the game with one swing. Keep hitting Luke Hughes - I want you on the team!

I expected there to be some sort of competition for the back end of the rotation, but Gardy quickly anointed Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing as starters, leaving Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker to compete for the final spot. As much as I like what Slowey can do, I have to pull for Baker. After all, when Slowey's got everything working, he's a solid #3 starter. When Baker puts it all together, he's a poor man's #1, or at least anybody's #2. Carl Pavano (though showing this spring that he knows what he's doing out there) is a really good #3 for me, and everybody else tops out at #4. With Baker in the rotation and pitching to his potential, I think the Twins have a rotation that can match up with just about any team in the AL. With Baker in the 'pen, they're a little soft at the front end.

I'm a little disappointed the Twins didn't keep their options open with Brian Duensing, who has a track record of pitching well out of the 'pen, and has very strong numbers vs. LH batters. However, I can't really argue that his 2nd half stints in the rotation in 2009 and 2010 haven't earned him the opportunity to have a full season as a starter. I think he'll do just fine there.

If Slowey does lose out, he'll either become the long man in the bullpen, or he may be traded. I'd be loathe to give him up too quickly, though. Pitching depth can disappear pretty quickly (as the Dodgers recently found out), and until Kyle Gibson gets enough innings at AAA to prove he's ready for the Show, I think it would behoove the Twins to hoard as many quality pitchers as they can. Slowey has options left, so why not send him to Rochester? Keep him stretched out, impressing opposing scouts, building trade value and ready to step into the Twins' rotation at a moment's notice. That move would have the added benefit of avoiding spot starts from the likes of Jeff Manship or Anthony Swarzak. If everyone pitches well, when midsummer rolls around, Slowey can be a piece of the blockbuster that lands 2011's Roy Oswalt or Dan Haren.

The bullpen seems to be coming together OK. Joe Nathan has had 4 clean outings and one in which he got thumped (though his OF defense didn't do him any favors there). I don't see any reason why he wouldn't be on target to resume his role as Closer. Matt Capps has been terrific in his limited appearances so far. Jose Mijares has been his typical self: hardly dominant, yet putting up solid numbers overall. Pat Neshek and Dusty Hughes look to be on track to earn spots. Assuming one position goes to the 6th starter, that leaves one spot left in the bullpen. Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond has allowed just 1 run in 6 IP, but he's got a lousy 2/6 K/BB ratio. Anthony Slama's sore elbow likely takes him out of the running. Alex Burnett hasn't been too impressive, and James Hoey has been erratic and hittable. Carlos Gutierrez and Kyle Waldrop have faired pretty well so far, and remain on the big league side of camp. Maybe one of them can make it as Burnett did last year.

As for the cuts, I don't think there were any surprises. Everybody who went down in the first wave was either signed to provide minor league depth or a prospect who would clearly benefit from some more seasoning. I was disappointed to see Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson head back to New Britain, though. I understand that the Twins like to take it slow with their prospects, and that neither of those guys has a full season at AA on their resume yet. However, I think they both played well enough in the Eastern League in the 2nd half (after their brief demotions to Fort Myers) that, with their experience in the Arizona Fall League thrown in, they could have been set straight up at Rochester.

They have the potential to fill the roles of Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer in 2012, though that would certainly require them to have pretty awesome seasons in 2011. The savings would be considerable, as Kubel and Cuddyer together make nearly $16M this year. The idea of replacing those two with a couple of serfs (who run better and play better defense) has a lot of appeal for me. Starting Benson and Parmelee at AA makes that dream that much further from reality, though. Sigh.

I guess the other thing that's been interesting to observe so far is the play of Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Nobody was sure of what to expect from him stateside. He was quickly named the everyday 2B, and has hardly looked overmatched in his spring appearances. He's started out .318/.348/.455 with a 1/1 K/BB ratio and 2/2 SB, and he's already made a bunch of sparkling defensive plays. I continue not to worry about him.

That's it until the next round of roster decisions...

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