ORLANDO – Jason Bartlett happened to be visiting some old friends and teammates at Target Field on Aug. 29, a happy coincidence as it turned out.
“Gardy got kicked out in the [second] inning, so I talked to him the whole game,” the former Twins shortstop said of his once-and-future manager, Ron Gardenhire. “We had a good visit. I think he found out that I’m completely healthy now, and I really want to play again.”
He will get a chance next spring, after agreeing Monday to a minor league contract that includes an invitation to spring training. Bartlett, the Twins shortstop for three seasons until he was traded to Tampa Bay in November 2007, figures to compete for a utility infielder role, though General Manager Terry Ryan said Bartlett has the opportunity to do even better.
“It’s up to him. We’ll go in wide open to possibilities,” Ryan said. “He’ll get the job he earns.”
Signing a veteran shortstop who was an AL All-Star in 2009 seems like an obvious move, but Bartlett has been out of baseball for 15 months, since the Padres released him in August 2012. He was batting .133 at the time, a side effect, Bartlett said, of playing with loose cartilage in his right knee.
“It had been lingering for a while, and it gradually changed the way I played. I couldn’t plant to throw like I should, I wasn’t as athletic as I could be. Hitting, I couldn’t plant my back leg,” Bartlett said. “After I had surgery, I decided to take the year off to let the knee heal completely.”
But he has worked hard to get back in shape, doing yoga, running on the beach near his Tampa-area home, playing tennis. He plans to spend the winter working with Phillies hitting coach Steve Henderson, who held the same job with the Rays when Bartlett was there, to get his batting stroke back, and report to the Twins’ facility in Fort Myers, Fla., around Jan. 1.
“As soon as the pitchers report, I’ll be in there watching live pitching again,” he said. “I know I haven’t seen a pitch in 15 months, but as long as I’m healthy, I feel like I can still play. It’s my personal challenge to show the Twins.”
They saw enough during his three seasons in the Metrodome, especially when he batted .309 with a .367 on-base percentage for the 2006 Central Division champs, to know he had big-league talent.
“He could run, he could throw, he could cover a lot of ground. He was strong enough to drive the ball,” Ryan said. “He was an everyday shortstop for a number of years — there’s a reason for that. He’s got skills. Now he’s looking for an opportunity, and we have opportunity.”
Bartlett has been exclusively a shortstop in the majors, but “I was a third baseman in college. And I’ve worked out at second base,” he said, so the Twins — who primarily used Pedro Florimon, Trevor Plouffe and Brian Dozier in those roles in 2013 — could consider him for any and all those positions. “I want to help the younger guys. That’s my role now, and I think I’ve still got something to contribute.”
He is also 34, and while it takes him longer to warm up, he says he doesn’t believe his age or the time off will be a factor. He had other offers, but Bartlett said he chose the Twins because he knows Gardenhire and much of his coaching staff and is friends with ex-teammates Joe Mauer and Glen Perkins, “and I always liked playing in the Twin Cities. This really seems like a good fit.”
He is confident he can make the Twins roster and resume his career, which will fulfill one other important goal.
“My younger son has never seen me play baseball,” Bartlett said of 2½-year-old Jagger. “That would mean a lot to me.”