2014 Middle Infielders

Five players on the Twins’ current 40-man roster are considered middle infielders. Three have some major league experience.

After what many considered a break-out year last year, second baseman Brian Dozier is expected to be the starter at that position opening day. I may be a little too pessimistic, but I am not yet convinced he will be consistent enough to hold down the position for any length of time. I hope to be proven wrong, but I’m having trouble believing his power numbers are real. I’ll be very surprised if he hits as many home runs this year as he did last, and I’ll be surprised if his batting average exceeds .270 with an on-base percentage much better than .310 or so. I just think major league pitchers will figure him out and he is not talented enough to overcome that, even if he makes adjustments. I will concede on defense he played well last year and there is no reason to believe that could not continue, unless he starts getting moved around again and loses the regularity of playing one position.

Shortstop promises to be the middle infield position that will produce the most competition this spring. Pedro Florimon, the incumbent, has not hit well enough or consistently enough to be declared the starter. Eduardo Escobar has shown some potential when he has had opportunities, both at bat and in the field, but he remains an unknown for the long haul. During this off-season, the Twins signed Jason Bartlett, former Twins shortstop, who was out of baseball last year, to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. If he is healthy, and returns to form as a hitter, he could be a legitimate contender, otherwise he may be a candidate for the utility infielder spot.

The other two middle infielders on the roster are Danny Santana, who played shortstop at AA last year, and Jorge Polanco, who played second base at single A Cedar Rapids. Santana may have an outside chance of making the roster at shortstop, but he is much more likely to start at Rochester. Polanco is probably going to start the season at high A Fort Myers.

As of today, I predict Escobar will be the starter and Florimon the backup/utility player, because I think Escobar has a better chance of being a decent hitter and his defensive is good enough, sometimes stellar.

Before I leave this discussion, I want to mention Eddie Rosario. He has been suspended for fifty games beginning when the season opens. If that had not happened, he would be in the discussion as a possible second baseman/outfielder. Because he is out for so long, and no one knows how well he will play after his return, it will be a full year before we know if he will return to high prospect status. He had been considered the heir apparent at second base if Dozier does not cement the position. Otherwise, he will move back to the outfield and be another contender there for the future.

Middle infield is defensively a strength for the Twins, but improvement is needed and consistency needs to be demonstrated for the offensive side to be major league caliber.

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2014 Corner Infielders

To make this series of posts more manageable, I’ll divide the infielders into two groups beginning with the corner infield positions.

First base and Joe Mauer is a good place to start. As all Twins fans know by now, the inevitable switch to another position from catcher was decided last fall shortly after the 2013 season ended. Unless he is unfortunate enough to sustain some kind of injury, he will be the everyday first baseman and there will be few opportunities for any others except to give him a day off. I expect Mauer’s offensive production to be similar to what it was last year, with the possible exception of a little more power as he continues to work with Tom Brunansky, hitting coach, developing a more powerful stroke. Defensively, I expect him to develop quickly into a very good first baseman. His overall athletic ability will aid him, and his work ethic may well eventually produce a Gold Glove.

Only two others are listed on the 40-man roster as first basemen, and of the two, only Chris Colabello has any major league experience. He saw some playing time last season after the departure of Justin Morneau in August. Although he struggled some at the plate, his power potential is high and that may be enough for him to be on the opening day roster. He will probably need to beat out Chris Parmelee to make the roster because there are simply not enough slots for everyone.

The other first baseman added to the 40-man roster last fall is Kennys Vargas. He is a promising young player with good power potential, but he will not be a factor at the major league level this year.

Max Kepler could also be on this list, as last year he played a majority of the time at first base, but I’ve already discussed him in yesterday’s post.

One of the most interesting anomalies of the full roster is only one player – Trevor Plouffe – is listed as a third baseman as his primary position. I’m not sure he is good enough to be considered the only contender for the position, but so far this off-season no challengers have been added to provide any competition. A few other players have made spot starts at third for the Twins over the last couple of years, but generally they are considered primarily middle infielders and I’ll discuss them in that context.

This will definitely be the year Plouffe must establish himself or he will quickly become a utility player. I am not confident he will ever develop the consistency that is needed at the position, either offensively or defensively, but this year will tell the tale.

One non-roster player invited to the major league camp this spring, who must be considered is Miguel Sano. He played at New Britain last year and demonstrated his power and general hitting prowess such that he is considered the fourth best prospect in baseball. But when spring training ends, I expect him to be at Rochester to gain some more experience before making an appearance either in June (if Plouffe falters) or, at the latest, in September.

2014 Outfield

Looking at the Twins for 2014, I’ll begin sharing some thoughts and speculations with a review of the outfielders currently on the 40-man roster.

Based on past success, only one outfielder is a given as a regular for 2014: Josh Willingham. Even though he did not have a good year last year, the hope is his back slide was not the beginning of the inevitable genuine decline due to age, but the result of an injury plagued year. The Twins are counting on him returning to respectability as a power hitter and run producer this year. At his age, there is no guarantee, but I would be surprised if he does not at least return to being a productive middle of the lineup player. His defense in left field is a liability, so my wish is he would be at least part of the DH rotation, if not eventually becoming the full time DH. His record as a DH thus far is not very impressive and that may be because he has openly stated he does not like being a DH, but he may need an attitude adjustment if and when the younger future stars arrive to play in the field.

The next most likely starter is Oswaldo Arcia. Last year, he demonstrated he is ready to play regularly and the Twins are looking forward to his growth as a hitter. Like Willingham, defense is not his strong suit, but most of his outfield time in the minor leagues was in right field, where he is likely to be opening day of 2014, so he should be at least adequate. He most likely will be part of the DH rotation as well.

Center field is perhaps the most unsettled outfield position at this point. The front runner for opening day is Alex Presley, not only because of his presence there after being acquired in a trade last August, but also because my belief is Aaron Hicks is not quite ready yet for the full time pressures. Last year it became painfully obvious Hicks had been rushed from AA to the major leagues. He did not have a good year at the plate even after being demoted to Rochester. If it was my decision to make, I would decide now to start him at AAA Rochester when the season opens to allow him to experience everyday success against good pitching. I would do that no matter how well he hits in spring training. Last year demonstrated that spring success does not necessarily translate to consistent production at the major league level.

Unless there is some change before opening day, Chris Parmelee is most likely to be the fourth outfielder as well as serving as the primary backup first baseman. This will be a make or break year for Parmelee. If he does not find a consistent hitting stroke with some power, he will almost certainly not be on the roster later in the season. Becoming consistent will be a challenge as he is not going to be a regular, barring injury thrusting him into that status.

Max Kepler is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster as of today. He is a promising young power hitter, but will probably begin in high A Fort Myers this year.

Beyond the present 40-man roster, there are three other outfielders that deserve mention here. Jason Kubel was signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league camp this spring. If he shows he is healthy and still capable of hitting, I see him as the primary DH, if not in a platoon situation with someone. Based on past experience, I’d rather see him in left field and Willingham at DH, but that is just wishful thinking. If he is not healthy or does not show some hitting prowess this spring, he will be traded or released, because the Twins have enough DH-OF types to try to find playing time for.

Darin Mastroianni is another player worth considering. With some experience at all three outfield positions, a decent arm and excellent speed on the base paths, he is a capable major league backup outfielder.  During the off-season the numbers game found him being dropped from the 40-man roster and sent outright to Rochester, but if Hicks starts at Rochester as I’m suggesting he should, the Twins almost have to have a versatile player such as Mastroianni on the active roster or they would have no capable backup in center field. He might even push Presley for the starting role.

So many of us in the Twins fan blogosphere have such high hopes for the number one prospect in all of baseball, Byron Buxton, that we are tempted to rush him to the needy big league club, but I hope he begins at AA New Britain and is allowed to grow and be promoted on meritorious performance. Patience is essential in his case.

Until the youngsters arrive, the Twins’ outfield will not be a defensive strength, but assuming all perform up to minimum expectation, the offense from this group should be adequate if not a true strength. A return to 2012 form for Willingham and a breakout year for Arcia along with major league average success for Presley (or a breakout year for Hicks, if he cracks the lineup) the outfield could become a real strength and a much needed improvement in power and run production this year.

Reasons for Some Hope

During this off-season, I have found myself daily looking for news about some Twins’ activity hoping for news of a trade and/or significant free agent acquisitions, not just the scavenger hunting on the waiver wire that has been typical for the Twins.

Most promising since the end of the 2013 season is the Twins’ activity in the free agent market. While I cannot say I’m ecstatic about all the additions, the signings so far have definitely been a step forward. The starting rotation has a chance to be something other than awful. Now if only I had a similar sense about the regular lineup being able to score runs, I would actually be a little more excited about the chances for some success in 2014.

I, like many other fans and bloggers, am most excited about the top prospects coming through the minor league system. Maybe some will be ready to succeed at the major league level this year, but I hope none are rushed. At this point, I’m willing to be patient.

Hiatus Over

My self-imposed silence is over. No excuses or even explanations. Only one comment about what has contributed to my failure to post for months: the Twins have not been very inspiring the last three years. And last year in particular was quite discouraging.

In my silent period, however, I did recognize finally that my interest in the Twins remains high, even if my optimism for 2014 is greatly tempered. Thus I will be posting again as a means of working out my thoughts about the Twins and what they are doing to return to competitive status, at least in the division.