Twins’ five biggest questions as spring training gets underway

FORT MYERS, Fla. — After an offseason of additions, the Twins enter spring training this week with one of their most complete rosters in years, and with that comes an expectation of winning.

Pitchers and catchers officially reported on Wednesday, and while there aren’t many roster spots up for grabs, there’s still plenty of intrigue around a club trying to defend its 2019 American League Central division championship.

Here are five questions the Twins must answer as spring training gets underway.

STARTING PITCHING

There was no bigger question facing the Twins when they entered the offseason than its starting rotation. And while it’s mostly answered, it still isn’t completely, making it one of the biggest storylines to watch this spring.

After three starters — Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda and Kyle Gibson — hit free agency and the team declined its club option on Martin Perez, the Twins were looking at a rotation of Jose Berrios and four empty spots. So the front office went to work filling those holes, first extending a qualifying offer to Odorizzi, who accepted, and then bringing back Pineda on a two-year deal.

The Twins signed Homer Bailey and Rich Hill, then swung a deal with the Dodgers for Kenta Maeda, which was finally completed on Monday. Maeda is expected to report to camp on Thursday.

But neither Pineda, who has to serve the final 39 games of a suspension for testing positive for a banned diuretic, or Hill, who is rehabbing from elbow surgery, will be ready at the beginning of the season, leaving a spot open for now. Pineda is expected back in May, and Hill should be on track for potentially a June debut — if everything goes right,.

Options to fill that fifth spot range from veteran Jhoulys Chacin, who signed a minor-league deal and is looking for a rebound season, to Randy Dobnak, who started Game 2 of the AL Division Series against the Yankees last fall, to lefty Lewis Thorpe and righty Devin Smeltzer. Dobnak, Thorpe and Smeltzer all started for the Twins at various points last season.

BATTING ORDER

We should get a better sense of this once the Twins start playing spring training games. But with such a deep lineup, there’s probably no wrong answer here.

The Twins rotated through 145 different batting orders last season. The most common one, which was trotted out on Opening Day, was used seven times: Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Nelson Cruz, Eddie Rosario, C.J. Cron, Marwin Gonzalez, Jonathan Schoop, Jason Castro and Byron Buxton.

That lineup doesn’t include Miguel Sano, who was injured at the start of the year, or Mitch Garver and Luis Arraez, who took on the starting roles at their positions as the season went on.

Or, of course, Josh Donaldson, the team’s biggest offseason acquisition.

The Twins frequently rolled with Kepler or Garver in the leadoff spot depending on who was pitching against them. Will they stick with that or might they try Arraez, who had a .399 on-base percentage, there? And where will Donaldson slot in?

Rest assured, manager Rocco Baldelli already has started filling out lineup cards.

“When you’re trying to stuff that many really good hitters into a lineup, it leaves you with a lot of options,” Baldelli said after Donaldson signed last month.

EXTRA ROSTER SPOT

New this year, teams will be able to utilize a 26th roster spot — with a caveat: Teams will only be able to carry a maximum of 13 pitchers.

Should the Twins go with 13 — which is likely — they have one roster spot that appears up for grabs.

The Twins could opt to carry Willians Astudillo, who could spell Garver and Alex Avila at catcher while also playing around the infield. They could also go with a more traditional fourth-outfield role and carry Jake Cave or LaMonte Wade Jr. If they don’t, Marwin Gonzalez could fill corner outfield positions when needed.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see that spot fluctuate throughout the season, and since all three have options, all three are likely to be up at some point.

“It gives us some different opportunities, different options. There are different ways you can use that spot. We have some versatile players,” Baldelli said. “Just adding another player into the mix on a day-to-day basis, it factors in in a lot of different ways. I think we’re going to get a chance to see a lot of these new rules in person. We’re trying to prepare for all of these things in every way.”

BULLPEN

Much of this is dependent on how the Twins decide to utilize their final rotation spot.

If Chacin wins it, what will the Twins do with Smeltzer, Dobnak and Thorpe? All of them pitched out of the bullpen at some point last season for the Twins, but they also could head down to Triple-A to stay stretched out.

If we assume Taylor Rogers, Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May and Zack Littell are locks for the bullpen, the Twins still would have two of the 13 spots open.

Aside from Dobnak, Smeltzer and Thorpe for potential long relief, Matt Wisler, who the Twins claimed off waivers from the Seattle Mariners in October, is in the mix, as is Cody Stashak who posted a 3.24 earned-run average in 18 games with the Twins last season. Fernando Romero should also get a look, and the Twins have some non-roster invitees in camp, among them Blaine Hardy, who pitched in 39 games last year for the Tigers.

BUXTON’S STATUS

The hope is that speedy center fielder Byron Buxton will be ready for Opening Day. And there’s nothing yet to suggest otherwise.

Buxton had season-ending surgery on his left shoulder last September after he had injured it colliding with the outfield wall in Miami. Attempts to return were ultimately shut down and Buxton had surgery to repair his shoulder labrum.

The Twins are a much better team with their center fielder healthy, but they have no plans to rush him back. Buxton has been swinging the bat, and Baldelli said Tuesday that he had expectations for Buxton in his mind that the center fielder was probably already past.

“It’s going to be steady. We’re not here to take massive leaps on a day-to-day basis,” Baldelli said. “The goal is to get ready for the middle of March so he can get into some games and play. Is it possible that he’s getting into games a little before then? I guess it’s possible, but it’s certainly not a goal. The goal is for him to be ready early this year and playing for us in center field.”


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