For the Minnesota Twins this spring there are only two battles remaining. While Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey are battling for the last spot in the starting rotation, there is also the battle to replace Nick Punto as the utility infielder.
At this point I am not including the bullpen, as there will more than likely be a year-long battle with a revolving door to the bullpen as the Twins tinker with the relief corp.
For the utility infielder role it would appear Luke Hughes is leading that competition. The problem is he still may not make the trip north to Toronto when the Twins open the season April 1st.
Hughes, who has been in the Twins organization since 2002, signing as an amateur free agent when he was 18 years old from Perth, Australia, leads the Twins in at-bats and home runs this spring.
Hughes hit a home run in his first major league at-bat when he made his debut with the Twins on April 28th last season at third base.
He only had seven plate appearances and two hits in a two-game stint with the Twins before being sent back to Triple-A Rochester. The problem for the eight-year veteran of the Twins minor league system is that his main position has been third base, a position that the Twins filled last June with the call-up of Danny Valencia.
Who should be the Twins utility infielder in 2011?
Hughes' main competition is Matt Tolbert, who has played every position in the infield and even has one appearance in the outfield in parts of three major league seasons with the Twins.
So far this spring Hughes leads the Twins with 36 at-bats, four home runs and 13 RBI. His .361 batting average is 121 points higher than that of Tolbert, who has six singles in 25 at-bats.
However, Tolbert appears to readily fit the versatile, switch-hitting, lack of power mold that Punto filled for manager Ron Gardenhire and the Twins for the previous seven seasons.
The downside for Hughes, while he has played over 200 games at both third and second base in the minors, he has not played shortstop at any level since 2006.
Tolbert may also hold an edge because of Gardenhire's desire to improve the speed of the Twins. Tolbert has 14 stolen bases in 18 attempts for the Twins and was 54 of 75 over seven seasons in the Twins farm system, while Hughes is 31 of 46 over eight seasons and 598 games.
The signing of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and the promotion of Alexi Casilla will provide an upgrade in speed to the starting lineup, the question will be what Gardenhire values more coming off the bench—speed or power.
While Tolbert's .281 minor-league batting average is better than Hughes' at .270, Tolbert has hit only .246 for the Twins with just three home runs in 398 at-bats.
Hughes already owns one major-league home run and averaged a home run every 38.7 at-bats. While not great, it is much better than Tolbert's average of one every 132.7 at-bats for the Twins.
While I would like to see Hughes get the nod as the utility infielder role, the more likely outcome will be to send him to Triple-A Rochester in order to get more consistent playing time and perhaps some work at shortstop in order to groom him as a potential utility infielder.
His path to the majors took a hit when Valencia emerged at the Twins third baseman, now it will take a change in positions or organizations for him to get a shot.