Breaking Down Possible Position Battles in Twins Spring Training

Please Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

One of the luxuries afforded to the Minnesota Twins coming off a 101-win season is that most of the Opening Day roster is set as of this writing — a full week in advance of the first game the team will play in Spring Training.

Part of it is how good the team was last year, but part of it is also coming off an active offseason which saw the Twins address their needs at pretty much every level. Really the only position the Twins didn’t address was in the outfield, and one could easily make the contention that’s where the team has the most depth.

In short, there isn’t a ton of intrigue over who will or won’t make the Opening Day 26-man roster — a change from previous seasons in terms of player limit — but there still is some.

We’re here to take a look at those few spots:

Last spot on the bench

It’s possible Byron Buxton’s health could throw a wrench into this mix a little bit, but the general idea is that the bench will look like this:

There’s some leeway in how the fourth bench spot is filled, as Gonzalez has ample outfield experience — over 1,500 defensive innings — and all three of the regulars can handle center field. So while foundationally it makes sense that it should be Jake Cave or LaMonte Wade Jr. in that fourth spot, it could make sense for Willians Astudillo to be there, too.

Teams can never have too much catching depth, and it helps that Astudillo’s bag of tricks includes the ability to play a few spots. However, Astudillo isn’t particularly good defensively at any of them — which is already a problem with incumbents Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez at their normal spots — and there isn’t apt to be a ton of playing time behind the plate with Alex Avila playing the 1b to Mitch Garver‘s 1a.

READ: Meet the Minnesota Twins Non-Roster Invitees to Spring Training

Now an argument can be made for Astudillo as a pinch hitter, but he’s coming off a stretch of 200 MLB plate appearances last season where he hit just .268/.299/.379. Additionally, there really aren’t that many options for players in the regular lineup to pinch-hit for on a regular basis with the Twins possessing one of the best batting orders in the game. Sure, Astudillo could provide protection if Garver pinch hits for Avila and the team wants to be protected at catcher in case of a subsequent injury, but using a roster spot for that very narrow possibility doesn’t seem like a good use of resources.

Sep 26, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Minnesota Twins first baseman Willians Astudillo (64) receives congratulations from right fielder Jake Cave (60) after he hits a home run in the eighth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Please Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Cave and Wade each have very different skillsets. Both have played some center in the big leagues, and both are left-handed swingers, but Cave’s game is more predicated on driving the baseball while Wade has a more discipline-oriented approach.

It’s truly hard to know which player has the better set of tools to properly complement the current starting trio, but the nod would seem to go to Cave based on him spending most of the last two seasons in the bigs with some success at the plate that Wade can’t quite hang his hat on — at least not yet.

At this point, Cave feels like the smart bet — but the Twins have some flexibility and rarely pass up an opportunity to be as creative as necessary to win ballgames. There’s some intrigue here.

No. 5 starter

With Michael Pineda suspended until mid-May and Rich Hill sidelined until June, there’ll be an opportunity for at least one of a cadre of pitchers to grasp an opportunity that otherwise might not have been there if things had gone to plan. As of right now, that quartet looks as follows:

Chacin is the only one of the four not on the 40-man roster, but he also feels like the leader in the clubhouse. He’s coming off a brutal season split between Milwaukee and Boston — 6.01 ERA in 103.1 innings with 25 homers allowed — but he’s just one year removed from being a mainstay in the Brewers rotation. In 2018, Chacin posted a 3.50 ERA in 192.2 innings and allowed fewer home runs (18) than he did in just over half as many innings in 2019.

There’s significant Anibal Sanchez energy here, and while the Twins aren’t simply going to let Chacin make the team because they A. missed out on Sanchez and B. there isn’t a Lance Lynn available on the market to take his spot, it still feels like a good bet that Chacin will be the first choice to make the first handful of starts in the spot earmarked for Pineda when he returns — which would be in Kansas City on the second weekend of May if all goes according to plan.

Sep 12, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin (43) delivers a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays in the first inning at Rogers Centre. Please Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Even though this sort of plan frustrated Twins fans back in the days of Ramon Ortiz, Livan Hernandez and Sidney Ponson, teams operate this way for a reason. If the veteran falters, the kids are an easy contingency plan. Vice versa doesn’t work, though, since those veterans aren’t available on May 1 if a youngster doesn’t perform well over the season’s first few weeks.

And while Chacin isn’t on the 40-man roster, the Twins have an open spot with the inclusion of Luke Raley in the Kenta Maeda deal, and they’ll probably have another spot if/when Hill is moved to the 60-day injured list in the near future.

As noted in this space frequently, having guys like Thorpe, Dobnak and Smeltzer just a phone call away is an immense luxury for an MLB team. None of them would be in over their heads as basically finished products from a developmental standpoint, but each has options left so they can be summoned as needed to fill out whatever role the Twins require. It’s not a great existence from a player’s standpoint, but it’s the harsh reality of how the game is set up.

No team will ever complain about having 8-10 MLB-caliber starters at their disposal.

Last two spots in the bullpen

In this instance, one operates under the assumption that the following bullpen spots are locked in:

On a 13-man pitching staff, that leaves two more spots. As a wise young man told me earlier this year, team “out of options” is undefeated. In other words, that means Matt Wisler likely has a good chance of making the Opening Day roster. That’s not an unreasonable or unusual situation, either. Not only is Wisler not that far removed from being a big-time prospect, but he clearly has big-league stuff. He struck out 63 batters in 51.1 innings last year between San Diego and Seattle — though it also came with 10 homers and 9.8 hits per nine innings.

The upshot is that opposing batters hit .272/.323/.490 against him last year — or about what a healthy C.J. Cron could be expected to provide. If that happens again this year, he won’t make it through the season in the team’s bullpen. But there are still plenty of things to like about his pitch profile — especially his slider — to make things happen here. He wouldn’t be the first relief pitcher to take a big leap forward at age 27 — that’s for sure.

Jul 28, 2019; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Matt Wisler (44) throws against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning at T-Mobile Park. Please Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The other spot was hypothetically earmarked for Brusdar Graterol, who has since been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Maeda deal. That opens up the potential that someone like Cody Stashak makes the team, or maybe someone a little further down the list like Fernando Romero.

On numbers alone, Stashak belongs. In 25 innings, Stashak had an incredible 25-1 K/BB ratio and 3.24 ERA with three homers allowed in a year where the ball was flying like crazy. But here’s where Stashak’s youth works against him — he has options left. And to be fair, it wasn’t a perfect first time through the big leagues. Opposing batters still posted a .773 OPS against Stashak, so there’ll still be some potential kinks to work out along the way, but his overall success has put him in a position to grab perhaps that final spot.

It’s hard to believe that a year ago the Twins were discussing Romero as someone with a future in the back end of the big-league bullpen, but it’s the truth. It just never came together for Romero in 2019, however. He only threw 14.0 really shaky innings with the big club (7.07 ERA, 18-11 K/BB), and things were unusually dicey for Romero at Rochester, too: 4.37 ERA in 57.2 innings, 9.8 K/9, 4.5 BB/9 and a WHIP of 1.42.

But the stuff is still (ostensibly) there. This is a guy who, despite his struggles, averaged 97.0 mph on his fastball in his brief MLB time last season and had a pretty solid 11.4 percent swinging-strike rate.

If Stashak or Romero don’t make it, there’s hardly a shortage of interesting arms who could have a chance. One of the starters who doesn’t make it could work in a long role. Jhoan Duran and Jorge Alcala both throw smoke. Sean Poppen‘s overall numbers weren’t great in an 8.1 inning stint in the big leagues last year, but he misses bats and throws a 95 mph sinker. Yes, sinker.

The Twins could still look to non-roster types as well. Of those, lefties Blaine Hardy and Danny Coulombe seem to make the most sense, though Ryan Garton from the right side might have an outside chance as well. All three have some MLB experience, and again, the Twins may have an open 40-man spot once Hill is added to the 60-day IL.

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