Standard Stories Surfacing

We are just a few days away from the beginning of spring training and already the typical “he’s in the best shape of his life” stories are beginning to show up in the media. (By media, I should hasten to say in this case I am using the term in the broadest possible sense – including bloggers, Twitter comments, etc.)

Some of the beat reporters are on the scene in Ft. Myers already, no doubt settling in to their temporary living quarters and starting to scope out which players, coaches and family members have arrived already. That inevitably leads to sightings of players who have put in some extra work and conditioning in the off-season and as a result become subjects of the common stories.

Those of us who are fans who follow the team closely during the off-season welcome any stories that  help us get a feel for what the coming season will bring. For example, hearing today that Vance Worley has lost 25 lbs is an intriguing bit of news that will be worth following as he battles for the 5th rotation spot or even a position in the bullpen. Will the weight loss improve his strength and help his accuracy or will it diminish his velocity making his pitches even more inviting to major league hitters. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does.

Apparently, Trevor Plouffe has also arrived early and is reportedly bulked up a little in hopes of improving his power. And, some of the younger players, not surprisingly have also added some weight during the off-season.

So, the count down to Monday’s first workouts for the pitchers and catchers continues.

2014 Starting Pitchers

Review of the field positions was relatively easy compared to the uncertainty of the pitching staff. In the last few years of 90-plus losses, the starting pitching has been a primary problem. While moves this off-season have improved the prospects for better results on the mound this year, there is still plenty of room for concern.

Three key acquisitions through free agency are, at this point anyway, what gives some reason for optimism. One hopes the starters will be consistent enough not to completely wear out the bullpen as was the case the past couple of years. Ricky Nolasco is probably the number one starter going into spring and Phil Hughes is my number two. Both should be capable of putting up innings and keeping the team in the ballgame regularly. The third free agent signing was actually a re-signing of Mike Pelfrey, who was with the Twins last year. I list him as my number three starter over Kevin Correia because Pelfrey had a decent year last year in spite of coming off TJ surgery the year before. One more year out and he should be better yet this year.

Number four is Kevin Correia, who surprised many of us fans last year and pitched fairly well, at least in the context of the other starters. He is not overpowering but last year was pretty consistent at getting to the sixth inning or later with the game still winnable. If he does that again in the fourth starter slot, he will be a solid member of the rotation. He is in the second year of a two year contract this year, so if he falters, he is unlikely to be on the roster after June.

Several pitchers will be vying for the fifth starter slot including some who have had some success in the Twins’ rotation in the past. When he has been healthy and not completely wild, Sam Deduno has been very good. In the rotation last year, he was arguably the best of the bunch. Because he had surgery over the winter, he may not be ready to really compete the first day of spring. In fact, he may not enough time to get fully ready for opening day. If he is healthy, he will need to be on the active roster to avoid losing him since he has no more options.

Scott Diamond is another contender who is coming off a down year after being quite effective in 2012. If he is able to bounce back this year, he would be the only left-hander in the rotation (assuming the first four remain as I’ve predicted above). Diamond is another player without options, so his chances of making the roster as a starter or reliever are slightly better than someone who has options.

Although his major league debut last year was anything but stellar, Kyle Gibson is still considered a major prospect with number one or two starter potential. If he is healthy and does well this spring, he may break camp as the fifth starter, but I expect him to begin again in Rochester and establish himself before being called up when another pitcher falters or is injured.

Vance Worley probably needs to at least be mentioned as a possible number five, but he is a long shot at this point. He might end up in the bullpen if the Twins want to keep him, but my guess is he will not make the team and will be subjected to the waiver process because he is out of options.

Logan Darnell and Trevor May are the two other starters on the 40-man who are not on the active roster. Though they have a slim chance of being the fifth starter, I expect them to be at Rochester or New Britain when the season opens.

Alex Meyer, the Twins’ top pitching prospect, is being talked about as being close to ready after a good showing in the Arizona Fall League, but he would be making the jump from AA to the majors if he found himself in the rotation. I hope and expect he’ll get the opportunity to prove himself at AAA Rochester first. Maybe by mid-season depending on other circumstances, he will get the call up.

If I had to pick the rotation now, the first four are set and Scott Diamond would be my pick for number five with Deduno opening on the DL and Worley either released or stashed in the bullpen. Much can happen in the next couple of months, so I do not necessarily expect this prediction to hold.

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.

Post-Winter Meeting Thoughts

With the winter meetings now history, this is as good a time as any to put together some thoughts about how much progress has been made so far this off-season. I’ve been more than a little lethargic the last couple of months when it comes to thinking about the Twins. It has been difficult to get too excited because the roster has so many needs of upgrades and my confidence in their willingness to address enough of them to field a competitive team in 2013 has so far been low.

Activity at the winter meetings has changed that. Realistic or not, the moves made by Terry Ryan this past week have been exciting enough to recharge the enthusiasm at least a little bit. Trading Denard Span was not unexpected, but I must admit I was a little disappointed in the return – prospect Alex Meyer – not because he is not a very good prospect, but because I was hoping for the first move by Ryan to be a signal that he was putting together a respectable starting rotation for 2013 and not just beyond. Trading Ben Revere did come as a surprise because I have been speculating that he would be the starting center fielder for the Twins for a year or possibly more while we waited for Aaron Hicks to be ready. The more I think about and and review what was received in return, the more I really like the move. One slot in the rotation is now filled with the acquisition of Vance Worley. Another excellent pitching prospect, who will likely start the season at Rochester, in Trevor May, sweetens the deal if he progresses as hoped for. And finally, the Rule 5 selection of Ryan Pressly may prove to be a good choice if he makes the 25-man roster upgrading one slot in the bullpen.

There was only one dark spot in the Rule 5 process and that was the loss of recently acquired pitcher, Tom Boleska, in the AAA Rule 5 draft. It remains to be seen just how large a loss that will be, but the fact that he was a free agent when he was signed November 20, means he was not highly valued by his previous franchise.

It is clear the Twins are not finished yet with off-season moves. Rumors have Justin Morneau as the next possible trade bait and that may well happen if Ryan can secure more major league ready starting pitching in the process. With some offers out to free agent starting pitchers, according to Twin Cities media reports, one or more starters may be acquired that way. It will certainly be interesting to see how that all turns out in the next few weeks.

Even as early as it is in the off-season, I am going to go out on a limb and project Darin Mastroianni as the opening day center fielder. I was impressed with him this past season and think he will be a very good fourth outfielder eventually, but an adequate fill-in until Hicks is ready – most likely mid-season 2013. Mastroianni is very similar to Revere in many respects, but with a better arm. If Revere was going to be an adequate outfielder for the short term, Mastroianni will be also. I’m expecting him to win the battle for opening day starter over Joe Benson and Aaron Hicks, although if Benson has a hot spring, he may make the opening day roster at least as the fourth outfielder. Hicks needs to play every day so will almost certainly start the season in Rochester.

I’m going to wait a little while before posting too many projections for 2013, but at least the roster actions of the past week have stirred some interest again.