Random Thoughts at the End of Spring Training

Today the 2013 spring training came to a close. Two bits of good news on the injury report: Justin Morneau played in a minor league game and is expected to start opening day; Cole De Vries is declared good to go and is expected to be ready for his first start Saturday, April 6.

A few days ago one of the younger Twins was being interviewed and made a comment about how much he was looking forward to opening day, especially as all the veterans talked about never forgetting every opening day. It is a special time each year. As I look at the roster, it occurred to me that several guys are about to experience this for the first time. By my count, perhaps nine of the Twins 25-man roster have not been involved in an opening day game before. Several have spent time in the big leagues before but were not on an opening day roster. It will be interesting to see how they do, particularly the ones in the starting lineup – Brian Dozier, Pedro Florimon, and Aaron Hicks. It is also Vance Worley’s first opening day start. Look for evidence of high adrenalin Monday.

As the season is about to begin, I am curious about what impact the three new coaches will have this year. Tom Brunansky, Bobby Cuellar, and Terry Steinbach may be feeling a few butterflies of their own. I’m hoping for a little more power from the hitters, some well prepared relievers coming out of the bullpen, and improvement in the footwork and throwing of the catchers, including Joe Mauer.

We shall see.


Another Day Closer

Even though it has been more or less obvious which 25 men would be going north to face the Tigers on opening day, some events today added both more clarity and some uncertainty.

On the clarity front, the Twins announced today Alex Burnett was claimed by Toronto on waivers leaving a 40-man roster spot open for Wilkin Ramirez. Although a corresponding release has not yet come out announcing the placing of Ramirez on the 40-man roster, it is expected at least by the deadline for setting 25-man rosters. An interesting side note on Ramirez is the fact that he played center field today, not his normal corner outfield spot. Obviously, grooming him for a super utility backup role to Darin Mastroianni.

The uncertainty today comes from reports that Cole De Vries left today’s spring training game early with an arm issue. Without more information, it is not wise for me to comment much yet. Suffice it to say, if he is placed at the back of the rotation, it will be a week before he would be due to pitch again, so there is time to determine if he needs to be replaced.

The departure of Burnett is a bit of a surprise. I would have thought a few others on the 40-man would have had a better chance of sliding through waivers without a claim, but the Twins apparently decided the risk was worth it. It may well be they have become disenchanted with him and his inconsistency.

My take on Burnett after watching him since he first came up with the Twins a few years ago, is he is a low-key, nice guy who is very competitive when the adrenalin is flowing, but a little lackadaisical when he pitches in less challenging situations. He seemed to do better when he came in with runners on base and had to shut the opposition down immediately than when he started innings. It is all anecdotal from my failing memory that I say all this, but it seems to me most of his walks were in low stress settings and he was particularly weak if the Twins were either way ahead or way behind when he came in to start an inning. He also was more effective earlier in the seasons he was with the Twins than he was toward the end of seasons. Whether that was from overuse and fatigue or lack of focus with the Twins being out of the running the last two years in particular might be pure speculation, but I suspect both played a part.

If I am right, this move could be a great opportunity for him. Toronto looks to be competitive for a division title and that would make Burnett’s appearances meaningful virtually every time out.  His situation may well be a classic case of “needs a fresh start”. I’ll be paying attention to how he does in the Blue Jays organization, especially if he gets to pitch with the major league club.

Rotation Roulette

The starting rotation for the first few games has now been set. Vance Worley gets opening day followed by Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey. Most likely Cole De Vries and Liam Hendriks will fill out the group at least until Scott Diamond is ready to return. No matter how one looks at this array of starting pitchers, it is not a World Series image that comes into view. Fifth place in the division is a more realistic picture.

With the whole off-season and ample payroll room to work out solutions, it is more than a little disappointing that this rotation is the best Terry Ryan could assemble for 2013. Was he counting on Kyle Gibson making the big league roster? Does he really believe the three former National Leaguers comprising the front end of this rotation are going to get the job done to be competitive this year? Did he miscalculate and lose other free agents he thought would bite on his offers? From my vantage point, these questions are unanswerable. I can only speculate, but it appears to me Terry Ryan knows this year is a place holder for the future and he was just trying to get some innings eaters – basically 4th and 5th slot starters – to bide time until younger arms are ready.

While I think Diamond paid his dues and pitched quite well for much of the year last year, the latter part of last season does not give me high confidence that he can sustain his performance level of last year. He is definitely a regression candidate for 2013, primed for a sophomore slump. I hope I’m wrong and he comes on strong right out of the chute whenever he is finally activated, but it does not seem like a good bet to me. At best, he is much more likely to be a future back of the rotation guy.

Beginning in just a few days, we’ll have the opportunity to start watching how it all will play out. Today Correia looked like he might be coming around (in his final spring start against Boston) and that is at least one reason for encouragement. Whether he and the others can make a positive adjustment to the American League is going to be one of the intriguing story lines to follow this year. My bet is Correia and possibly Pelfrey will be in the bullpen or gone by mid-season with Sam Deduno, Gibson, Rich Harden and/or possibly one or two of the young power arms acquired in the off-season moving into the rotation to gain experience for 2014 and 2015.

In spite of all the pessimism in this post, I am excited for the season to begin. It will be interesting to watch so many new faces, some young future stars, develop even if the won-lost record leaves something to be desired. If the Twins play better defensively and show improvement in consistency of good at-bats, that will be enough to return to a more optimistic outlook for 2014 and beyond.

Opening Day Roster Already?

With just three spring training games left, the opening day roster already appears, surprisingly, to be set. It may be a bit premature to declare it a done deal as currently unforeseen events could change it, but for now we have a pretty good idea of what the lineup will look like against Verlander and the Tigers on April 1.

Most exciting is the arrival of Aaron Hicks as centerfielder and lead-off man. He clearly won the position with his excellent, consistent performance in spring training. If the rest of the team, especially the starting rotation leaves one less than enthusiastic about the coming season, Hicks’ presence will make the Twins worth watching.

It is also somewhat encouraging that Hicks won the position in a genuine three way battle rather than being handed it ready or not. After an injury derailed Darin Mastroianni, one of the competitors, he made a very good showing as well. Mastroianni remains a more than capable fourth outfielder with his ability to plan all three positions, his decent bat and exceptional speed on the base paths. Joe Benson, the third competitor, may have still been rusty after the rough season of injuries last year. He ends up in Rochester to open the season.

I wish I could be even hopeful about the pitching, but even with the acquisitions of the off-season, the starters leave much to be desired. I’ll leave to another post a detailing of my concerns, but for now, my prediction is an 0-3 start against the pitching rich, power rich Detroit Tigers to open the season. The Twins may be able to out slug teams this season, to keep from the worst record in baseball, but it is unlikely the Tigers will be one of those teams.