Thursday, February 18, 2010

Spring Training Battles

With Spring Training slowly getting underway, hopes are high in almost every major league city. That's the best part about Spring Training; everyone is tied for first place. The Twins are the early favorites to win the division, and the buzz surrounding the team is as positive as it's been in quite some time. That's in part thanks to a great late season charge that allowed the Twins to sneak into the playoffs, but also because the front office addressed several major needs this team had. This was the best off-season the Twins have had, in my opinion, since the year they traded AJ Pierzysnki to San Francisco.

However, despite filling several important holes, the Twins still have some positions that are up in the air this spring. The team has four pitchers battling for the final rotation spot, a potential battle at third base, and a battle for the backup catcher's position until Morales is fully healthy.

Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn are all locks for the rotation it would appear, so that means Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak and Francisco Liriano are all battling for the final spot in the rotation. With Clay Condrey, Pat Neshek, Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, Jose Mijares and Joe Nathan in the bullpen, it seems likely that only two of those four starters battling for the fifth spot in the rotation will make the team.

Liriano seems to be the favorite to win the fifth starter job, based on his once unlimited potential and the fact that he dominated this winter in the Dominican. I'd say it's a pretty safe bet that Liriano wins the battle by opening day, but if he regresses back to the way he pitched most of last season it's possible the team could simply decide to move on. Doubtful, but possible.

If Liriano wins the rotation spot, that would mean Perkins/Duensing/Swarzak will be battling for the last spot in the bullpen. Swarzak will almost certainly be optioned back to AAA to allow him to remain in a starting rotation, and the Twins likely will want another lefty in their bullpen anyways. My guess is Duensing will remain on the roster, being used as an emergency starter at times, a situational lefty at times, and a mop up reliever at times. I fully expect the Twins to trade Glen Perkins once he shows he's healthy again, although admittedly I have no idea what the Twins would want back.

*Edit: Forgot about Guerrier somehow. That means there's only 1 roster spot for the four battling for the fifth spot, with the others likely headed back to AAA or traded.

Unless the Twins decide to send Glen Perkins away for a veteran third baseman, such as Mike Lowell, Nick Punto seems to be the odds-on favorite to win the third base job. Lowell would be a solid upgrade if healthy, and we know the Red Sox are willing to pay at least $9MM of the $12MM owed Lowell if they get value in return. I just don't see Perkins as the best fit in Boston, so I really don't see the Twins adding a veteran third baseman by opening day.

That would give Danny Valencia every chance to win the third base job, although the odds are certainly stacked against him. The Twins clearly don't feel he's ready, as they refused to promote him during September last year when the rosters expanded. Aside from giving Valencia some more seasoning in the minors, it's also important to note that if the team waits until June to promote him they will be delaying his arbitration and free agency by a season. That would keep him under the Twins control for an extra season, which is a big deal regardless of the market the team is in. Lastly, Gardy's love for Punto seems to suggest he'll start somewhere, and with the middle infield pretty much set with Hardy and Hudson, Punto seems to be the most logical and correct choice. That said, if Valencia has a great spring, it wouldn't be entirely surprising to see him given the third base job, sliding Punto back into the role he's best suited for... more of a super-utility player.

The backup catcher battle is one that I disagree with. Gardy has made some noise lately about possibly using one of the Twins best prospects, Wilson Ramos, as the backup to Mauer for a few weeks until Jose Morales is ready. Unfortunately, that decision would be a poor one. First, Ramos has yet to play above AA, and while he may be able to hold his own for a few weeks, it's hardly a sure thing he'd be successful. Secondly, Ramos would not get very many starts, and it could hinder his development to just sit on the bench for two weeks. The most important reason, however, is because it would start Ramos' arbitration/free agency clock, and that could be a big deal just like with Valencia. The Twins won't see enough of a difference over a two or three week span to promote Ramos over Drew Butera, even if Butera can't hit a lick. If Mauer ends up with an extended injury, then I would understand the Ramos promotion, but otherwise it would be a major mistake.

The Twins front office has done a nice job this off-season filling holes where they needed to and because of that there aren't very many interesting battles to be watching this spring. However, there's enough intrigue to make the spring worth following. Baseball season is right around the corner, and hopefully you're as excited as I am.