It’s between two and three weeks until the Minnesota Twins open the 2020 season in Oakland against the Athletics, and the final few spots available on the Opening Day 26-man roster are narrowing into focus the longer camp goes on.
The reality is that a team which won 100-plus games last year and is coming off an active offseason has precious few roster spots available to fight for in Fort Myers — and those battles are coming to a head as more and more players will be optioned or reassigned to minor-league camp in the days to come.
Nearly a month ago we previewed the scene, but here are the battles — not only where they are, but where we think they’ll go from this point forward until the regular season starts:
Final bench spot
The candidates (with spring stats entering play sunday)
- Jake Cave: .294/.368/.588 (5-for-17) in 19 PA
- LaMonte Wade Jr.: .313/.476/.438 (5-for-16) in 21 PA
- Willians Astudillo: .227/.227/.227 (5-for-22) in 22 PA
The expected winner?
Spring training numbers mean next to nothing, but they certainly don’t hurt Cave’s case. The reality is that everything lines up for Cave here. For one, all he’s done is hit since the Twins brought him to the big leagues in 2018. His slash line of .262/.329/.466 over 537 plate appearances assuages many small sample size questions and puts him firmly in the territory of a luxurious fourth outfielder who probably deserves more of an opportunity than the Twins can promise him.
But if Byron Buxton needs more or extra time early in the season as he works back from shoulder surgery, Cave is the easy option to step in. Wade certainly has a case as someone who can help the team right now — and would probably get the call as the next man up if Cave is pressed into starting duty at any point — but it likely comes down to MLB production and right now the advantage goes to the former Yankees prospect.
Astudillo’s versatility doesn’t help him as much as one might think here, as he’s not particularly good defensively anywhere outside of behind the plate — where the team is well-appointed with Mitch Garver and Alex Avila. The team also isn’t apt to pinch hit for anyone too often this season, either.
It feels like Cave wins this one, possibly in a landslide. At least it feels like it’d be awfully, awfully tough to send back a guy who has a .795 OPS through his first 163 MLB games.
Final rotation spot
- Jhoulys Chacin: 6.75 ERA, 1.13 WHIP in 8.0 IP
- Lewis Thorpe: N/A
- Randy Dobnak: 1.50 ERA, 0.50 WHIP in 6.0 IP
- Devin Smeltzer: 8.68 ERA, 1.93 WHIP in 9.1 IP
The expected winner?
A lot about this will feel unfair. Dobnak hasn’t done anything to lose this battle, but calling it a loss really doesn’t feel like proper terminology, either. At some point, it’s just a numbers game, and that’s what players say almost every time they’re the roster casualty after a game during the season. “I get it; it’s a numbers game,” the player will say dutifully as they pack their bags for the next-day flight to Rochester or wherever the Red Wings are next.
The life of a non-star player with options is far less glamorous than most think — make no mistake, the players involved aren’t complaining in this article — and it comes against a stacked deck. Chacin made his big-league debut in the middle of the 2009 season as a 21-year-old with the Colorado Rockies. His spring training stats from that year are probably available someplace, but there’s a chance he outpitched a veteran who made the team over him — even if they were a non-roster invitee like he is this time around.
Now, the shoe is on the other foot.
If Dobnak doesn’t win this time, it’s far from a death knell; it’s not like the team has simply forgotten about how well he pitched down the stretch and the fact that he took the ball in Game 2 of the Division Series. It’s just the rite of passage in baseball where it’s easier to go to the vet and ultimately replace him with the youngster rather than vice versa. Chacin can opt out of his deal if he doesn’t make the team; Dobnak cannot.
The same is true for Smeltzer, who has been knocked around a bit in spring training but that is rarely indicative of much, if anything. Is he working on his offspeed stuff? His breaking ball? Something he’s never done before altogether?
Speaking of what might feel unfair, the fact that Thorpe hasn’t gotten on the mound yet probably fits that bill. He was away from the team for a spell of a little over a week tending to personal matters, and the situation around him has been curiously quiet. Here’s to hoping everything is alright with him and moving in a positive direction going forward.
The final two bullpen spots
- Matt Wisler: 2.25 ERA, 1.00 WHIP in 4.0 IP
- Cody Stashak: 0.00 ERA, 0.33 WHIP in 6.0 IP
- Sean Poppen: 1.50 ERA, 0.83 WHIP in 6.0 IP
- Fernando Romero: N/A
- Possible fallout from rotation battle (Thorpe, Dobnak or Smeltzer)
- Potential NRI? (Blaine Hardy, Danny Coulombe, Cory Gearrin, et al)
The expected winner(s)?
Wisler and Stashak.
Banana peppers on a Subway sandwich.
This take — it’s not too spicy.
As noted before, the first six spots in what will almost certainly be an eight-man bullpen are locked and loaded. From there, one can go a number of different directions on trying to figure out what the Twins will do with the last two spots.
And it’s hard to apply too much conventional wisdom when projecting these spots. The Twins are among the most innovative and creative organizations in the game, and that goes well beyond the acquisition of players. Ordinarily, a standard bullpen might feature a long man and the need for another lefty, if possible.
Well, these aren’t your older brother’s Twins — in more ways than one. First, the need for another lefty is muted with the three-batter rule, thereby nullifying the potential for the situational southpaw — a bucket which many a lefty can fall into, fair or otherwise. The need for a long man is also less pronounced with the modern-day shift to an eight-man bullpen even before adding the 26th man.
And with all that said, the Twins could still go with Smeltzer, for instance — he checks both of the aforementioned, yet downplayed boxes — for separate reasons altogether.
Wisler seems to have the inside track based on being out of options — a whole ‘nother wing of the ‘fair/unfair’ discussion from the segment above that we’ll save for a rainy day — but simply terming it as such isn’t fair to him as a pitcher with a live arm and two big-league caliber pitches.
As noted before, Stashak was very, very good in his first shot of espresso with the Twins in 2019, but it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops. Opposing batters hit .287/.298/.475 against him, and a lot of the damage was incurred against lefties: .375/.390/.475. Righties still also slugged .475 against Stashak, so it’s not as though there’s no merit at all to having him start the season in Rochester while the team rifles through some other pitchers as well. Still, it feels like the 25-year-old righty has a pretty good shot.
But a lot of times, the Twins zig when everyone else zags. Not as merely sticking it to the man so much as turning over every leaf at the possibility of finding value.
So that’s where pitchers like Coulombe, Hardy, Gearrin and others like Ryan Garton come into play. Each has big-league experience — in some cases, a lot of it — and in an MLB bullpen that’s not something to just wave a hand over dismissively. It feels like Hardy could have the inside track of that quartet, but there’s no real evidence to point to which supports that theory.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying there’s conventional thought, what the Twins are going to do and a number of other paths — all of which can be seemingly valid but never intersect for more than a moment in time.
What’s truly too bad is that Romero hasn’t been able to report to camp due to visa issues. The young man with the dazzling right arm endured a really difficult season no matter what level he was pitching at in 2019, and it would have been nice to see him get a chance to break camp with the team in 2020 — something that didn’t happen when the team talked him up as a possible late-inning arm before he struggled badly (8.38 ERA, more walks than strikeouts) in Grapefruit League action last year.
Don’t sleep on Poppen in this situation, either. He’s already thrown six innings so they’re getting a good look at him, and the Twins rightfully like him. He throws the hell out of a sinker than runs up in the mid-90s and has induced tons of grounders in the minors. As long as he’s fully healthy, he has a shot.