The Forgotten Man?

In all of the off-season discussions and speculation about who is going to play where, and who will fill the shoes of Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Jim Thome, Delmon Young, and Joe Nathan, one man has been virtually ignored by almost everyone. When there is a mention of his name, it tends to be an after-thought. The player I am talking about? Luke Hughes.

He has made splashes in the past – hitting a home run in his first major league at bat April 28, 2010, and leading the Twins in home runs in 2011 spring training – but last season, when he had a chance to grab and take over second base with Nishioka out, he did not rise to the occasion. Nevertheless, I think he deserves some more consideration.

This year will be his make or break year with the Twins mostly because he is out of options and will either be on the active roster when the Twins break camp or he will have to pass through waivers without being claimed, an unlikely scenario. In my earlier projections, I have him as a bench player filling in at third base, second base and first base as needed to spell players or as a replacement if someone is on the DL.

I see him in that role because the Twins have more or less given all four infield starting positions to other players and because I don’t think the Twins are willing to risk losing him by designating him for assignment. I therefore think it is much more likely that they send Nishioka to Rochester to begin the season than Hughes, if the infield gets too crowded.

As I think more about Luke Hughes, I think it is also possible that 2012 is his breakout year. That may be a long shot, but there are two scenarios that make that worth considering. He has the ability to hit the ball and has demonstrated that he can hit for power at the major league level, and the Twins are going to need every bat they can get this year.

Here are what I believe to be the two possible door openers to more playing time for Hughes. One is more of a long shot than the other, and that is if Justin Morneau’s not able to return to form. The other is if Danny Valencia either sustains a serious injury that puts him out for a month or more, or continues to be mediocre in the field while struggling at the plate as he did most of last year.

In the first case, timing will be everything. If Morneau is determined not able to play anymore sometime during spring training, the Twins will either sign a free agent or trade for a veteran to replace him and Hughes will not get a chance to show his ability. If, on the other hand, Morneau starts the year and for whatever reason fails to make a go of it, Hughes may get a few games at first base as his replacement. That will be more likely if Joe Mauer or Ryan Doumit are also struggling, but Hughes may get a look under any circumstance. If he plays well defensively and hits well, especially for power, he may win the position and be off and running on his breakout year. One serious fly in the ointment with this scenario is if the Twins deem Chris Parmelee ready and call him up to replace Morneau.

The more likely possibility is at third base replacing Valencia for whatever reason. Hughes has played more at third base and will no doubt feel more comfortable in the field there. Again, he will have to grab the opportunity, play strong defense and hit well to win the position, but that is not an unthinkable possibility. Sean Burroughs is the potential foil in this scenario, especially if Burroughs is on the opening day roster with Nishioka at Rochester.

I like what I have seen of Luke Hughes. He appears to have a good attitude and his personality seems to fit in the clubhouse. I’d love to see him get one more chance to play regularly to see if he can rise to the level of being a major contributor. Even so, the probability is high that he will end up this year being a utility man and relegated to the role of decent bat off the bench.

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