With this year’s Minnesota Twins, it’s less about how much talent they have, and more about how to use it. They could use an ace. They also would benefit from another veteran lefty reliever, a ready-to-go backup player at short if Eduardo Escobar gets hurt or struggles and a surefire catching option. But in general, every position in the field should have a capable player occupying it on Opening Day, and the rotation and bullpen are, by and large, filled out. And if someone falters, there is depth in the minor leagues.
For starters, they have the predicament of who will play in right field. Miguel Sano will get the first crack at it, but he’s 265 pounds and was projected to be a third baseman. Trevor Plouffe has played there before, but didn’t have great success and has turned into a capable third baseman — which prompted Sano’s move to the outfield. Could Joe Mauer, Minnesota’s erstwhile catcher and $23 million man, see time out there while Byung Ho Park and Sano occupy first base and DH?
The pressure will be on manager Paul Molitor early to find the right fit for everybody, while also getting playing time for a couple intriguing players. Oswaldo Arcia has hit 36 home runs in his major league career, but only two last year. He’s a bit of a work in progress in the outfield, but is a threat against righties (career .807 OPS vs. RHP, .614 OPS vs. LHP) and is entering his age 25 season. “He had a difficult year, and I mean difficult,” general manager Terry Ryan said of Arcia, who hit below the Mendoza line in Triple-A to finish the season. “I think it snowballed on him because things didn’t start going in the right direction when he got down there, and ultimately I think he got into more of a power mode, which that’s not a good thing.”
For starters, they have the predicament of who will play in right field.
Danny Santana hit .319/.353/.472 with 27 doubles as a rookie, but only hit .215/.241/.291 last season. He is a super-utility player that can hold his own both as an infielder and in the outfield. Like Arcia he’s entering his age 25 season and has enough of a track record of success in the majors that he deserves a long look next season. “Santana has a lot of ability,” said Ryan at the end of last season. “We certainly haven’t closed any doors on Danny Santana, we like Danny Santana, but we’ve gotta get him closer to the way he played in ’14 instead of ’15.”
Molitor and Ryan also have to determine how long they will go with their starting rotation. Phil Hughes had a career year two seasons ago, setting a major league record with an 11.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but battled injury last season and gave up a career-high 29 home runs. He’s potentially ace material, but is more of a solid No. 2. “He had a very difficult year,” Ryan said, while adding that he thinks he could be an ace again, “so I’m hoping to get him back to the point where we can count on him every five days.”
Ervin Santana has a track record of durability, but was suspended 80 games for PED use last year and showed inconsistency in his age 32 season. Kyle Gibson, 28, was once one of the team’s top prospects and could have a breakout season this year. And Tommy Milone, 29, pitched well enough last season after being demoted early on that the Twins retained him in the offseason. He’s the lone lefty, has five years of major league experience under his belt and is in the prime of his career.
Barring injury, those four pitchers should be part of the rotation all year. It’s what the team does with the other spot that will be interesting. Ricky Nolasco is currently the fifth starter, but after throwing only 196.1 innings and owning a 5.64 ERA in the first two years of his four-year, $49 million deal, the team could be quick in calling up Tyler Duffey or Jose Berrios from the minors if Nolasco struggles. Duffey would likely be a short-term fix, given that he’s the lower-profile prospect, where once Berrios is up, the team likely wants him on the major league roster for good.
Ricky Nolasco is currently the fifth starter, but the team could be quick in calling up Tyler Duffey or Jose Berrios from the minors if he struggles.
As far as the bullpen goes, things seem pretty set on the back end with Glen Perkins as the closer, Kevin Jepsen as the set-up man and Trevor May as the seventh inning guy. Casey Fien, 32, will likely get high-leverage situations if a starter finds himself in trouble early, Fernando Abad is the only other lefty outside of Perkins and Ryan Pressly, a former Rule 5 pick, was coming into his own until he suffered a lat muscle injury that ended his season in July. Michael Tonkin, 26, is in a do-or-die scenario this year after oscillating between the majors and Triple-A for parts of three seasons. “I would say eventually he’s gonna get it, just because I know what kind of worker he is,” Ryan said of Tonkin in August. “I know what kind of guy he his: He’s a good teammate, he got all the attributes that you look for in a guy that should be able to eventually get it right.”
Like with the rotation, there are a lot of pitchers in the minor leagues that could come up and replace the older players on the roster. Nick Burdi, J.T. Chargois and Jake Reed are fast-rising prospects. J.R. Graham, a Rule 5 pick last year, Ryan O’Rourke and Aaron Thompson spent significant time with the major league team last year.
Kurt Suzuki will start the year as the incumbent catcher, but the Twins traded Aaron Hicks, who was once held in high regard as a prospect inside the organization, for John Ryan Murphy in the offseason. Murphy is entering the prime of his career, and Suzuki struggled at the plate (.240/.296/.314) and throwing out runners (15 percent caught-stealing) a year after making his first All-Star appearance.
Outside of right field, the Twins outfield looks pretty set. Byron Buxton has long been one of the top prospects in baseball, and with MLB-ready tools defensively, he just has to hold his own in the ninth spot and stay healthy to keep a job all year long. Eddie Rosario hit .267/.289/.459 with 18 doubles, 15 triples and 13 home runs as a rookie, but is considered a regression candidate because of his propensity to swing at junk pitches. “It’s a great moment, a great chance for us to play together,” Sano told the Star Tribune recently, when asked about playing with Buxton and Rosario in the outfield. “We can be the best outfield in the world.”
Overall, the Twins have talent — it’s a matter of putting the players in the right places on the field and knowing when to call up players from their highly-touted farm system.
If he struggles, or Sano can’t play in right, Max Kepler could be called up and lock down a spot in the outfield. He was named the Southern League Player of the Year and made his major league debut after winning the Double-A championship. “Kepler’s a nice-looking kid, and Buxton’s a good-looking kid; Rosario’s a good-looking kid,” Ryan said at Torii Hunter’s retirement in November. “We got some things to work with, but they’re all young.”
Overall, the Twins have talent — it’s a matter of putting the players in the right places on the field and knowing when to call up players from their highly-touted farm system. Even in a wide-open American League, many pundits still have Minnesota falling below .500 despite finishing 83-79 last season.