FORT MYERS, Fla—A few late-February notes from Fort Myers…
One of the primary goals of spring training is to come through it healthy, and with a month to go until opening day, the Twins haven’t been bitten by the injury bug yet. A couple of non-injury related absences on the pitching side, however, help bring the potential opening day pitching staff into focus.
Fernando Romero, who was a candidate to make the team as a reliever, remains in the Dominican Republic after being informed he needs to obtain a new visa to enter the country. That’s a tough blow for Romero, who will now almost surely begin the season in Triple-A once he does arrive. Romero is said to be working out at the Twins’ facility in Boca Chica, and could pitch in the Twins’ March 7 game against the Tigers in Santo Domingo. Assuming he’s able to gain entry into the country at some point this spring, the former top-100 prospect will have a chance to eventually pitch his way back to the bigs, after a disappointing 2019 season in Triple-A and the Majors. Romero, who will be out of options in 2021, has a lot at stake going into the season.
Lewis Thorpe left Twins camp earlier this week for personal reasons. It’s not clear exactly when Thorpe will be back, but he tweeted that he was leaving camp “for a week or two.”
If Thorpe is back in relatively short order, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate him from contention to be the Twins’ fifth starter coming out of camp, but an extended absence would likely mean he’ll begin the season in Rochester.
So, who remains in contention for spots in the Twins’ rotation and bullpen? With Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Kenta Maeda, and Homer Bailey rotation locks (barring injury), the fifth spot will likely go to one of Randy Dobnak, Jhoulys Chacin, or Devin Smeltzer.
Dobnak, in my view, deserves a roster spot based on his stellar performance in both the minor and major leagues least season. One factor going against Dobnak and Smeltzer, however, is that they both have options, meaning they can go up and down between the Majors and minors all season. The Twins would not have the ability to send down Chacin. So, if Chacin (who’s not on the 40-man roster) performs well in spring training and the Twins add him to the roster, it could come at the expense of either Dobnak or Smeltzer.
In terms of the ‘pen, Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, Tyler Clippard, and Sergio Romo should be locks to make the team. That leaves three open spots. Matt Wisler figures to get one of those spots, since he’s on a guaranteed contract and out of options. Among those competing for the final two spots are Dobnak and Smeltzer (both of whom can start or relieve), Zack Littell, Cody Stashak, Sean Poppen, Jorge Alcala, and non-roster invitees Danny Coulombe, Blaine Hardy, and Caleb Thielbar.
Littell had a phenomenal 2019, and has a good chance of making the opening day roster. Stashak was also very good last season, but if the Twins decide they want a second lefty in the pen, Coulombe, Hardy, and Thielbar—all of whom have major league experience—will likely battle it out for the final spot. Littell, Stashak, Poppen, Alcala, Thorpe, and Romero all have options, meaning there’s a good chance we’ll see them at some point this season, even if they don’t make the team when camp breaks. The amount of depth in the Twins’ pitching staff means we’ll likely see a lot of players at the back end of the staff going up and down a lot in an effort to cycle in fresh arms and create optimal matchups based on opponent.
Byron Buxton hasn’t appeared in a spring training game yet, as he works his way back from shoulder surgery. It’s unclear if Buxton will be ready for opening day, but he’s reportedly hit every check mark in his rehab. If Buxton begins playing in spring games in the next couple of weeks, it would suggest he’s on track to be ready for the opener on March 26 in Oakland. If not, he’ll likely begin the season on the IL, though barring a setback all reports indicate he’ll be ready shortly after the season begins even if he doesn’t break camp with the team.
Buxton had a breakout season last year before once again going down with injuries. He slashed .262/.314/.513 in 295 plate appearances while playing his usual world-class defense. Part of what makes him a tremendous defender—his fearlessness in colliding with the wall and laying out for catches—is also what makes him susceptible to injury.
The Twins attempted to mitigate the risk of wall collisions by playing Buxton deeper in center field last year, meaning he wouldn’t have as much runway to gather speed before hitting the wall. Unfortunately, that approach may have backfired when Buxton went on the 7-day concussion IL in July after sprinting in on a shallow fly ball, diving, and having his head collide with the outfield grass in Cleveland. Had he been playing at normal depth, it’s possible he could have made the catch without diving.
The bottom-line is there’s no perfect solution that will avoid injury while allowing him to play the type of defense that earned him a Platinum Glove in 2017. Allowing a few more balls to drop for doubles—rather than trying to make a spectacular catch and risk injury—is certainly a tradeoff the Twins would take, but it’s also difficult to ask a player to ignore their instincts when the ball’s in the air. Regardless, keeping Buxton healthy is paramount to the Twins living up to the hype this season. If he plays 140 games, he could end the season as one of the best players in the American League and a possible MVP candidate.
Spring training stats are mostly meaningless, but one thing worth watching over the next five weeks is Miguel Sano’s defense at first base. Moving the slugger across the diamond improved the Twins’ defense, both because Sano was a below-average defender there and Josh Donaldson is one of the better defensive third basemen in the game. If Sano struggles at first, though, it will create another defensive problem for the Twins. Minnesota’s infield D last year was mediocre, and perhaps their best defender, Jonathan Schoop, is now in Detroit. Luis Arraez rates out as around an average defensive second basemen, and Jorge Polanco is a below-average defensive shortstop. If Sano has trouble adjusting to the position, the Twins will be in a difficult spot, particularly because Polanco struggles at times with throws to first.
Sano’s best defensive weapon is his arm, which doesn’t do him much good at first. He’s struggled with his range, and at times, his glovework. The latter is where Sano will really have to improve to become a league-average defensive first basemen. Spring training will be critical for getting him reps there, and there’s a decent chance he’ll grow into the position over time the same way Joe Mauer did after transitioning from catcher. If he struggles to adjust, though, the Twins will have to weigh the benefits of Sano’s bat against his defensive limitations when filling out the lineup card each night. With Nelson Cruz as the everyday DH and Donaldson at third, Sano wouldn’t be able to get everyday at-bats at any other position.
If everyone is healthy at the end of camp, it’s tough to see a spot for Willians Astudillo. Even with the 26-man roster, teams are only allowed to carry 13 position players. Alex Avila, Marwin Gonzalez, and Ehire Adrianza are locks to make the team as bench players, leaving just one open spot for LaMonte Wade Jr., Jake Cave, and La Tortuga. Astudillo provides value as a third catcher and capable—though probably below average—infielder, and can play outfield in an emergency. Wade and Cave, though, are both strong fourth outfielders, have better offensive numbers than Astudillo, and can be used as pinch-runners. As such, Astudillo may be the odd man out come March 26, though it’s a safe bet he’ll see time in the big leagues at some point in 2020.