Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Five Spring Training Questions

The Twins opened their Grapefruit League schedule with an 8-4 victory over the Red Sox on Sunday night. March has arrived, exhibition play is underway, and spring training is officially in full swing.

The month leading up to the start of the regular season always carries with it a number of issues needing to be sorted out, and this year -- more than most -- the Twins face significant uncertainty as they try to whittle their roster down to 25 players by Opening Day.

Below, you'll find five burning questions that the coaching staff must answer before the team heads to Toronto to open up meaningful play on April 1st.

1) Who's on first?

All reports have been good on Justin Morneau thus far. He's on the field, launching balls over the fence in BP and taking part in all drills without issue. Still, the first baseman is sitting out exhibition games and the team has been cautious about setting timetables. Until that changes, we can't say with full confidence that he'll be in the starting lineup on Opening Day.

What's troubling is that his sole big-league backup at first, Michael Cuddyer, is also being held out of games due to a wart on his foot. The medical staff is currently trying to treat the ailment with a specialized cream, but should that course of action fail the wart could require removal, which would shelf Cuddyer for weeks.

So, in the event that neither Cuddyer nor Morneau is ready to go at the start of the season, who opens at first base? The only other first basemen in camp (with the exception of prospect Chris Parmelee, who hasn't played above Double-A) are minor-league journeymen like Jeff Bailey and Justin Huber, and none of them are on the 40-man roster.

2) Where's the relief?

Teams typically enter spring training with one or two spots in the bullpen up for grabs. This year, the Twins have openings at three or four spots, with about a dozen pitchers warranting legitimate consideration.

Joe Nathan's sharpness will be under heavy scrutiny as he participates in live games for the first time since going under the knife a year ago, and similar uncertainty surrounds a number of other bullpen candidates. Can Pat Neshek show increased velocity after struggling to reach even the high-80s last year? Can Jim Hoey find a way to command his blazing fastball? Are players like Alex Burnett, Glen Perkins and Jeff Manship ready to rebound from disappointing 2010 campaigns?

3) How will the middle infield shake out?

We know that Alexi Casilla and Tsuyhoshi Nishioka project to start at the middle-infield spots. What we don't know is which one will play where. Nishioka played shortstop in Japan last year, but some scouts have questioned whether he possesses the requisite arm strength to play the position effectively in the majors. Early reports from spring training have echoed that sentiment, and Nishioka started at second in the team's first game on Sunday. Meanwhile, Casilla has made only 24 career starts at short.

While it is assumed that Nishioka and Casilla will be the Opening Day starters up the middle, it is hardly guaranteed. In his recent interview with Jesse Lund of Twinkie Town, assistant GM Rob Antony hinted at the possibility that Nishioka could open the season "in more of a utility role or platoon situation or something" (though that seems highly unlikely) and nothing is assured for Casilla, who has often frustrated the team in the past with lacking focus and production.

4) Will a starter be shipped out?

With six pitchers vying for five spots in the rotation, the Twins haven't been too secretive about the fact that they're open to trading one of their starters to supplement another area of the club. Kevin Slowey's name has been floated by reporters as a trade candidate throughout the offseason, and over the weekend Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweeted that the Twins are keeping tabs on Yankees prospects, later suggesting that Francisco Liriano could be dealt to New York within the next two weeks (a move that would make my head explode).

Starting pitching depth is important, and the Twins almost certainly won't deal anyone in the early weeks of spring training, but if we get to the end of March and everyone's healthy, it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see someone flipped, especially if Kyle Gibson continues to impress.

5) Which prospect(s) will emerge?

It seems like every spring, at least one prospect breaks out in big-league camp, putting himself on the map with fans and -- more importantly -- the coaching staff. Last year, it was Ben Revere, who hit .326 and impressed Ron Gardenhire and Co. with his blazing speed and cheery attitude. Gibson is generating the most talk among prospects early on this spring, but players like Parmelee, Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes could easily work themselves into the team's plans by performing well over the next several weeks.


Ed Bast said...

The only thing that really matters during spring training is what happens with Liriano. If they trade him, the team will have officially given up on 2011 before it even started (can't want to hear the excuses Twins apologists make to turn this insulting, shameful, and terrible idea into something noble. Something about payroll and/or luck, I'm sure).

If not, we fans can go into 2011 hopeful that the club will stay healthy and competitive in the first half and make the necessary move(s) at the deadline to elevate them from division contender to World Series contender.

solomon69 said...

If the Twins trade Liriano before the season starts I would be dissapointed but I wouldn't throw in the towl for 2011 season. All 5 remaing starters would have to prove themselves healthy before making that move unless Gibson shows he is ready.

Anonymous said...

1. Morneau will be back. Have faith. I don't understand the situation with Cuddyer's foot. My son sliced the heck out of the bottom of his foot stepping on a shell in the lake. He had 10 stitches to close the cut that was on the ball of his foot, limped around for a few days, got the stitches removed after 10 days, used liquid band-aid for a couple more days while he resumed playing baseball. Total time out=12 days. How can removing a wart make Cuddyer be out of the game for weeks? Cut the damn wart now and be done with it.
2. Did you hear Gardy singing the praises of Kyle Gibson? Look for him to join the majors sooner rather than later. I think Neshek will be pitching better this year too.
3. Nishi will be at 2B and Casilla will be at SS and they will be great this season.
4. Twins are not going to trade Frankie. I could see Slowey going if they need to trade someone, but not Frankie. That is just crazy talk!
5. See #2 above.

Anonymous said...

As soon as I left this page I saw this:

Minnesota Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer will miss the next week or two of spring training games after having a wart removed from his left foot.

Ok that makes more sense!

Durt E. Sanchez said...

My choice for breakout player is Carlos "Gutz" Guttierez, dude was nasty at Miami, he's got a heavy sinker and could sneak into the alex burnett role in the bullpen. I see him as someone who makes Capps expendable is Nathan is healthy and Neshek and Mijiares come back to form.

A lot of ifs in that statement but it's not too much of a stretch. I'm with you on dealing a starter if Gibson kicks ass but it won't happen until after 5/1. They did it with Liriano in '06, they'll do it with Gibson now. That's the reason Frankie Franchise isn't a free agent after this year.

Negative ass prediction: Scott Baker misses the majority if not all of the season with shoulder or elbow surgery. Nothing to do with today but the guy hasn't been right for a year and a half. At the very least he'll spend a lot of time on DL this year.

If Joba and Mijares are on the same team the Twins will lose will have to raise ticket prices due to the amount of post game buffet they will put down. Twins better hope Hrbek doesn't stop by the clubhouse.

Longer post than your blog but I love reading you, you're the man. I'm pumped about outdoor baseball part doux and if the Twins deal Frankie for anyone but Montero or Cano (dreaming) to the Yanks I'll choke Billy "the brain" Smith with my homer hankey.