As the Twins’ spring camp opens, here are 10 players to keep an eye on as the workouts and games get underway.
10. Joe Mauer
Calling Mauer one to watch is a bit deceiving, since he isn’t likely to play a single game. After minor kidney surgery this off-season (proving once again, the only minor surgery is the one someone else is having), Mauer will miss most of camp but should be ready for opening day.
If he ends up ahead of schedule, he may show up in some of the last few games in Fort Myers, if he’s a little slow recovering, however, the Twins may head into the season with Mike Redmond starting behind the plate.
If that happens, the Twins may be forced to carry an extra catcher, which makes one less spot for someone like Phillip Humber.
9. Carlos Gomez
This could easily be Denard Span, but both players are in the same camp. The Twins have a surplus of outfielders and while both players showed what they are capable of last year, a rough spring could result in a demotion to AAA.
Gomez needed to improve himself offensively with special focus on his plate discipline. While he had a fine winter league season, indications are that he hasn’t changed much as a hitter. A poor showing at the plate early in camp will put even more pressure on him once the games begin.
8. Boof Bonser
Or, Phillip Humber. Both of these guys are talented enough to make the roster, but haven’t shown it. Both are out of options and one of them isn’t going to make it. Bonser moped through last year after getting demoted from the starting rotation, but closer Joe Nathan and Pitching Coach Rick Anderson both said that Bonser has the stuff to be an elite set-up man, all he needs to do is get his mind into it.
The Twins are going to default to Bonser if these two guys look anything close to being equal, however, Bonser is the more likely of the two to pitch his way out of a spot.
Humber is more consistent and that may be enough. If Bonser wants a role on this team, its there for the taking, he just has to go out and get it.
7. Steven Tolleson
Tolleson raked in the Arizona Fall League to the tune of .383 with an OPS of .991 and indications are that he’s come into camp confident and ready to fight Matt Tolbert for his utility role.
Even though Tolleson is probably one year away from really challenging for a roster spot, if he plays half as well as he did this fall and Tolbert doesn’t look good, he’ll hang around the major league camp until the very end.
6. Francisco Liriano
Liriano is healthy, or so we are told. He made a few starts in the Venezuelan Winter League, but other than that, he’s been off the radar this winter.
Liriano won’t be in camp long, since he’s on the Dominican Republic’s roster for the World Baseball Classic. The DR team is expected to go deep into the tournament, which will keep Francisco out of the watchful eye of Rick Anderson for longer than many would like.
There’s no indication that pitching in the WBC is bad for pitchers, but having Liriano throwing at 90-100 percent this early in the year may strain his arm more than the Twins are comfortable with.
However, if he really is healthy, a chance to compete in meaningful games this soon may help to get him mentally prepared for a tough season in the AL Central.
It all comes down to how good Liriano’s arm feels now in his second year removed from surgery. He’s a big part of the Twins’ plans this year, so a setback would be devastating to the team and to Liriano’s future.
5. Luke Hughes
Team Australia’s third baseman of choice is a contender to fill the Twins’ third base opening. Hughes won’t miss nearly the same amount of camp that Liriano will miss, but he doesn’t have the luxury of knowing he has a spot waiting for him.
The WBC may make or break Hughes. If he comes back in poor shape, he’ll spend about a week with the Twins, then get reassigned to the minor league camp across the complex.
However, if he can bring a hot bat back to Fort Myers, and one of the Twins’ other options stumbles, Hughes could easily break camp with the team.
I think this is the direction the Twins really want to go in, allowing Hughes some time in the majors to see if he can claim the role.
However, he only spent part of last season at AAA and needs to prove that the massive improvement he showed at the plate last year will stick.
He’ll need to play very well to earn a call-up this early, but playing in live games against the world’s best might be exactly what he needs.
4. Danny Valencia
Valencia is the Twins' best hope for a great third baseman within the organization. He hit very well in AA last year and was sent to the AFL to work on his fielding.
His bat seemed to suffer as he worked on defensive mechanics, but there’s little reason to believe that’s indicative of a decline this season. He was sent to work on something, he got a lot better at it; something was bound to give in such a short time.
Valencia is, by most accounts, between one and two years away. I’ve got no reason to doubt that, assuming September call-ups don’t count.
Unlike the rest of this list, Valencia has no chance of breaking camp with the team. What he can do, however, is bump up his timetable.
All things being equal, Valencia will start the year in AA and move to AAA with about 1/3 of the season left to see what he can do in a higher level.
However, if he shows the same glovework he did in the AFL with the same bat work he had in AA last season, Valencia could jump ahead of Hughes and start the year at AAA.
Valencia is the third baseman of the future for the time being, but if he plays well enough and catches a few breaks along the way he could become the third baseman of the present as well.
3. Jose Mijares
Most Twins fans have Mijares penciled in to fill the void left by Pat Neshek, and it’s a good bet he will. However, his immaturity shone through this off-season when he went AWOL from his winter league team and then fought with his manager after being kicked off the team.
Mijares missed a lot of last year with a broken arm, but joined the team in September and looked fantastic. It’s a small sample size, but the pressure of a pennant run knows no age, and Mijares was more than up to the task.
If Mijares can show that what happened in Venezuela was a misunderstanding and that he is committed to being a part of the Twins this year, he’s got the stuff to win the spot easily.
Its probably in the best interest of all parties concerned if Mijares breaks camp with the team, but Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire have already hinted that they are more than willing to send Mijares back to Rochester if they feel he isn’t ready for the show for any reason.
2. Delmon Young
According to reports, Young spent this off-season bulking up and working on his hitting, which is good to hear. Gardy hinted this winter that Young could be the odd man out if everyone looks good in camp, which makes sense.
Michael Cuddyer is the veteran, Denard Span and Carlos Gomez are plus defenders, Jason Kubel is a 20+ home run guy, which leaves Young high and dry.
Young needs to show two things to earn his way back into Gardy’s good graces: Power and discipline. If he can lay off the change up in the dirt and punish pitchers for putting the ball near the zone, he’ll immediately move to the top of the pile.
He has the most raw talent of anyone in the Twins’ outfield scheme, but also has one of the lowest floors.
The beginning days of camp are more important for Delmon than for anyone else in the organization. If he shows improvement from last year, he’ll get the playing time he needs to wow the coaches.
However, if he falls victim to the same issues that plagued him for most of last year, he may find himself hard-pressed to get into the lineup.
If he can’t get playing time, it may be hard to change Gardy’s mind regarding what Young’s role on the team should be.
Young isn’t suited to being a bench bat, so a getting stuck in the dugout could be the first stop on a one-way road out of Minnesota.
1. Brian Buscher
Buscher has the worst job security of anyone on the 25-man roster right now. He’s under assault from the minors (Hughes and Valencia), from the free agent market (shadows of Joe Crede) and from his own teammates (Nick Punto and Brendan Harris).
Reports are that Buscher showed up to camp early and in great shape, but with a little but of a chip on his shoulder. He feels the job should be his full-time and that it shouldn’t be an issue.
He’ll get every chance in the world to show that he can take the pounding of a full major league season, since the Twins plan to start the season with a platoon of Harris and Buscher.
However, he’ll need to show serious improvement defensively, and a little power would help his cause immensely.
The Twins already have high OBP hitters, most of whom are better at it than Buscher is, but if he could assert himself as a run producer, he would win over many of his skeptics.
Right now, Brian Buscher is the picture of mediocrity: decent batting average, solid OBP, poor arm strength, low power. Since he’s already penciled in the starting lineup, that may be enough to earn him a role on the team.
However, if he lags much at all, look for the Twins to start exploring other players. They have internal options and they have room to add payroll, which gives them a lot of flexibility if Buscher fails.
If he’s used properly in a platoon, Buscher could be a nice stopgap for the Twins, but he wants to be more than that. Spring training is the perfect time to show that his teammates can count on third base being better than it was last year.
Even though the Twins made almost no moves this off-season, camp could be very interesting as many players vie for the same spots or for precedence in their current roles.
Adding Joe Crede to the mix takes much of the drama out of camp, since he’ll start at third no matter what and will provide more depth at a thin position, but may improve the team overall.
No matter what happens, baseball has started once again, and that is a wonderful thing.
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