Coming up with a starting lineup for the Twins is, to a certain extent, an exercise in frustration. Manager Ron Gardenhire has acknowledged that almost the entire team will rotate in and out depending on matchups and who has the hot hand.
Nevertheless, every order needs a default setting and until Joe Mauer makes his triumphant return, the below line-up and bench will probably be Gardy's standard from which he will make adjustments as the day requires them.
It should also be noted, this is the lineup I suspect Gardy will use. The lineup I would set up would be similar, albeit with a few small changes, such as Alexi Casilla hitting leadoff.
Denard Span — CF
Span was a revelation last spring, hitting well and showing off the defense that made him a top line prospect in the first place. This spring has been a different story; Span started off camp on a horrible 1-for-28 slide.
He's now hitting 8-for-55, but for the man who has seen the most ABs of any Twin this spring, that's still far too low. Carlos Gomez is outhitting him and has drawn the same number of walks in fewer ABs.
Span gets the nod here since Ron Gardenhire has already hinted that he's more focused on what Span did last year than what he's done in 60-odd at-bats. Still, if Gomez goes on a tear this week and next, he could sneak ahead of Denard for the leadoff spot.
Alexi Casilla — 2B
Another leadoff candidate, Casilla has had a strong spring and looks full recovered from the hand injury that cost him most of August and severely hampered his performance in September. He's probably the Twins' third option as a leadoff hitter
Casilla is one of the players that could help to mitigate the loss of Joe Mauer if he can improve his OBP from last year. No one expects that he'll go from .333 to Mauer's .413, but .360 isn't out of the question for the speedy Casilla.
Jason Kubel — DH
This is probably where Kubel should be hitting even when Mauer returns. He isn't exactly the prototypical Adam Dunn-esque DH, but Kubel has good power, which makes him a good fit in the third spot.
Kubel is probably the best DH option the Twins have had since Chili Davis in 1991, and at just 26 he's still improving. While he hasn't flashed much power, Kubel boasts a .444 average this spring, an addition to his game which would make him all the more valuable hitting ahead of Justin Morneau and the rest of the Twins' RBI men.
Justin Morneau — 1B
Moreanu's value to the Twins is beyond question. He's the driver of the offense, a very good first Baseman, and as durable as any player in the majors: Morneau appeared in every one of the Twins' 163 games last season.
One thing he can do to improve his reputation league wide is to finish the year strong, something he has not done well over the course of his career. Both in 2007 and 2008, Moreanu looked phenomenal before the All-Star break only to return half the player he was when he left.
In 2007, he hit 25 home runs before the break, and just seven after. His OPS dropped nearly 250 points. In 2008, his batting average fell 60 points after he outdueled Josh Hamilton in the Home Run Derby.
If he can play well throughout the season, it will push his already high value even higher.
Michael Cuddyer — RF
Cuddyer has played a full season just once in his career, but last year's 71-game season was excessive even by his standards. If he's healthy, Cuddyer will be the mainstay of the outfield while the three others rotate between left field and center.
Having Cuddyer hitting fifth assumes that he's healthy and that his power hasn't completely left him, but this spot could also go to the hot hand.
If Joe Crede or Delmon Young is really raking, Cuddyer could fall as low as seventh in the order. He may also get bumped up to third if Kubel is showing good power.
Because of his "elder statesman" status and large contract, Cuddyer will see a lot of playing time. If he's healthy and hitting, that's a good thing for the Twins. If he is floundering and stealing time from Young and Gomez, Gardy has got to be willing to pull the plug. Without Joe Mauer, this lineup can ill-afford another black hole.
Delmon Young — LF
Delmon Young is a pretty good figurehead for this team: He's young, got boatloads of talent, if he improves from last year he could make the team incredibly dangerous, and yet, there is still a chance that he could fall on his face and be a bench player by midseason.
He's far from the only player in that situation, but he may feel the pressures most acutely.
Another passable season from Young may get him labeled as a draft bust, despite the fact that he improved in basically every rate stat from the rookie year which nearly netted him Rookie of the Year honors.
Signs point to a big season for Young, but if he starts off slowly, he may not get the chance to break out of the slump with playing time already at a premium. A small improvement in plate discipline could go a long way to making Young a premier hitter instead of a pretty good corner outfielder.
Joe Crede — 3B
Like Span, Crede started off very slowly, 0-for-14 in fact, and while he has had a few good games, he's still hitting under .200 for the spring. Brian Buscher, the man he replaced, has an OBP of .442. Crede was brought in primarily as a middle ground between the Buscher and Nick Punto, who is as good a defender as Crede, but hit just .282 last year.
I spent too many words praising this signing to change my tune now, especially given how little Spring Training matters to veterans like Crede. Still, it would surprise me not at all if Crede started the season slowly and earned the ire of fans.
Ultimately, I still think this signing will benefit the Twins, but having Crede hitting seventh seems like a smart place for him until he proves better suited to somewhere else.
Drew Butera — C
Ron Gardenhire seems to prefer a dead space, hitting eighth rather than ninth, so that's where Butera falls. Mike Redmond may hit higher in the order when he plays, though he, too, could hit eighth.
Butera seems to have the inside track as Redmond's platoon mate given the Twins' preferences regarding the defense/offense balance at the catcher position.
Butera won't be "Nick Punto circa 2007" bad with the bat, but don't expect production out of this spot in the lineup. Butera, and to a lesser extent Redmond, is here to call a steady game and to play defense.
If he can push a run in or get on base, view that as a bonus, then resume praying that Joe Mauer gets healthy quickly.
Nick Punto — SS
Ironically, Nick Punto is one of the hardest players to predict on the entire Twins roster. The perception is that he's all glove, no bat, but in 2008 he hit a very decent .284 with an OBP of .344 and in 2006 he had a career high .291 BA and .352 OBP.
Of course, between those two years was his 2007 campaign in which Punto spent much of the year dangerously close to the Mendoza line before finishing with a .210 average. 2005 was also a down year for Punto; he hit just .239, though he did have a career high four home runs.
2009 being an odd year, it doesn't bode well for Nick Punto. He looked better than his stat line shows in the World Baseball Classic and has seven hits in seven games for the Twins so far in camp.
Depending on how well Crede is doing at third, the Twins may choose to bring in Brendan Harris' bat to cover if it looks like Punto is once again succumbing the odd year curse.
The bench isn't deep, but with the Twins it almost never is. However, each of the players mentioned here is quality and could start on any given day, which is a welcome change from years past.
Every one of these guys will start at some point during the year, some more often than others, but everyone will see the field.
Even if Mauer makes it back for opening day, do not expect to see someone like Luke Hughes on the bench; it is far more likely that the Twins would carry 13 pitchers instead.
There is a small chance the Twins would choose to carry 12 pitchers and opt for Brian Buscher but as of right now, it appears that he is man 26 on the 25-man roster.
Redmond will split time with Drew Butera or Jose Morales, and while it would seem that Redmond would get the majority of the time, Butera's defense may well be superior to Redmond's, which would probably make him the Twins' choice.
Another of the Twins' breakout candidates, Gomez has had an up-and-down spring, highlighted by a nine-game Grapefruit League hitting streak, but his overall average is still just .256.
A major improvement from last season is his improvement in his BB/K ratio this spring, as well as in winter ball. Gomez drew just 25 walks in 150 games last season, but already has five in just 15 games this spring.
If he can keep his OBP near the .350 level it is now once the season starts, Gomez could easily move into the lead-off spot and push Span to the bench.
Like Gomez, Harris will see very consistent starting time, but he starts off as the odd man out. Harris hasn't gotten much buzz for his quietly solid spring, but his numbers are almost identical to Brian Buscher's and he's a little more versatile, which make him more likely to see the field than Buscher is once the season starts.
What it comes down to here is that Harris won't benefit from the consistent reps in AAA like Buscher will.
Offensively, Buscher is probably a little better, but not so much so as to cover for the fact that Harris can play three of the four infield positions. So, Harris gets to ride pine in Minneapolis while Buscher plays most every day in Rochester.
Tolbert has come on like a man ablaze over the last few games and has the scrappiness that manager Ron Gardenhire craves. Tolbert played well last season before getting injured, which probably gives him a leg up over Luke Hughes, but puts him at Brian Buscher's level.
Once again, the call between Tolbert and Buscher could go either way, but if Tolbert continues to hit even reasonably well, he will probably get the nod.
However, if he falls off again, Buscher may reclaim the last bench spot.