La Velle E. Neal III has covered baseball for the Star Tribune since 1998 (the post-Knoblauch era). Born and raised in Chicago, he grew up following the White Sox and hating the Cubs. He attended both the University of Illinois and Illinois-Chicago and began his baseball writing career at the Kansas City Star. He can be heard occasionally on KFAN radio, lending his great baseball mind to Paul Allen and other hosts. Mark Rosen borrows him occasionally for WCCO-TV.

Phil Miller covered three seasons of Twins baseball, but that was at a different ballpark for a different newspaper. Now Miller returns to the baseball beat after joining the Star Tribune as the Gopher football writer in 2010, and he won't miss the dingy dome for a minute. In addition to the Twins and Gophers, Miller covered the Utah Jazz and the NBA for six years at The Salt Lake Tribune.

Twins use familiar lineup for Grapefruit opener

Posted by: Phil Miller Updated: March 5, 2015 - 3:36 PM

    FORT MYERS, Fla. — One night after showcasing his team’s future, Paul Molitor gets his first look at its present tonight. The Grapefruit League season opens at 6 p.m. CST (it’s televised on FSN) with the first of nine games against the Red Sox, and Molitor has penciled in nearly all of the Twins’ projected starters for tonight. In fact, all eight everyday positions will be manned by the favorite to hold each job this season, from the infield of Mauer-Dozier-Santana-Plouffe to the outfield of Arcia-Hicks-Hunter, with Kurt Suzuki behind the plate.

    They’re not necessarily in the same order that they will be next month, Molitor made clear. For one thing, Torii Hunter would seem to be an unlikely choice as cleanup hitter.

    Molitor said he doesn’t necessarily plan to use all the starters at once on a consistent basis, but figured everyone would like to be in the lineup right away. “I’ve tried to map out a little bit for some of our core players. talked to them about if they have any particular preference about approximate at-bats they want to have to start the season,” Molitor said. “I’ve seen guys who like to get 75, I’ve seen guys who like 50. It’s just kind of trying to start with a plan.”

    That plan included using minor-league stars like Jose Berrios, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano in last night’s exhibition game with the Minnesota Gophers, and that could hardly have gone better, with each of them making major contributions in the Twins’ 3-1 win. Kennys Vargas had a good game, too, smacking a run-scoring double in the first inning. Because he got to play last night, Vargas is the one projected starter not in the lineup tonight; Eduardo Escobar, fighting to keep his job at shortstop, fills in for him at designated hitter.

    It’s also the left-field debut of Oswaldo Arcia, a transition that “I’m not expecting to be a huge deal,” Molitor said of the former right fielder. “It might even be a little bit of a relief for him at Target Field. Bot that it’s not spacious, but it’s a little bit more conventional.”

    Here are the lineups for tonight’s Grapefruit League opener:

RED SOX

Bogaerts ss

Pedroia 2b

Sandoval 3b

Napoli 1b

Craig lf

LaHair dh

Brentz rf

Bradley cf

Vazquez c

 

Kelly RHP

 

TWINS

Santana ss

Dozier 2b

Mauer 1b

Hunter rf

Arcia lf

Plouffe 3b

Suzuki c

Escobar dh

Hicks cf

 

Gibson RHP

Random thoughts as Grapefruit League season begins

Posted by: La Velle E. Neal III Updated: March 5, 2015 - 3:30 PM

There are a few things on my mind as the Twins prepare to play the Red Sox tonight at Hammond Stadium.

1. There is a lot of talent, in varying degrees, in this clubhouse. You see a quality closer in Glen Perkins, a former MVP and batting champ in Joe Mauer, a second baseman with speed and power in Brian Dozier, a third baseman who has made himself into a decent player in Trevor Plouffe.

Then you have three young players in Oswaldo Arcia, Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas who didn't sink, at least treaded water and, at times, showed they could swim a little with the big fish last season.

Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana should at least stabilize the rotation, there's the emerging Kyle Gibson and the wild card in Ricky Nolasco. The race for a No. 5 starter is refreshing. The candidates for the role are not fighting for the No. 3 or No. 4 spots - which has happened here in the past.

The prospects in camp are impressive. Someone with the club told me that Jose Berrios, who pitched on Wednesday against the Gophers, might be more talented than Alex Meyer. And Meyer has a big fastball and wipeout slider. Then there's Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario,

How will all of this come together? When will the prospects be ready to join the major league roster? And can  the Twins make a push toward .500? It's an interesting mix of players with tantalizing talent who are nearly ready.

2. I watched Buxton in the outfield during batting practice on Wednesday. Buxton was ready and in position for every b.p. pitch. He worked on jumps when the ball was hit to the outfield. He would play lefties and righties to pull. You could see why he's considered such a gifted defensive player.

I started to look around the outfield, and no one else is doing this. Now, I couldn't tell who else was in the outfield, they might have been pitchers. But maybe not. All I know is that Buxton does not cut corners and looks to be the player to set the right example for teammates.

3. I was standing next to Twins GM Terry Ryan during infield drills earlier this week and we began talking about Jorge Polanco, who was called up in an emergency role last season and held his own.

Polanco was signed in the same international class as Sano and Max Kepler. I remember hearing how he battled homesickness early on but rarely looked overwhelmed on the field. And he can hit. ``His bat is a little bit ahead of his defense, and it's often the other way around,'' Ryan said. Then yesterday, Polanco turned on a fat pitch and hit over the fence for a home run against the Gophers.

We've hyped Buxton, Sano, Berrios, Meyer and Rosario. But don't sleep on Polanco.

4. Kyle Gibson starts tonight against Boston. I'm curious to see how many change ups he throws and what the results will be. Gibson wants to perfect the pitch to have something to get swings and misses with, as well as to use against righthanded hitters more.

Pitchers often fiddle around with different grips while playing catch. Mike Pelfrey, who has played catch with Gibson, said Gibson been working on the change up and has it moving better than last season. So we'll see tonight if he has command of it.

.

Postgame: Slow start, good finish to Molitor's managerial debut

Posted by: Phil Miller Updated: March 4, 2015 - 9:40 PM

    FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jose Berrios hit leadoff hitter Dan Motl with a pitch. Then second baseman James Beresford misplayed a double-play ball. Two batters into Paul Molitor’s managerial career, he was learning how much patience he’ll need.

    “An inauspicious beginning,” Molitor said with a smile. “We spent a lot of time on ground balls, and the first one didn’t work out too well.”

    But Berrios escaped with only one run, the Twins didn’t allow a hit over the final eight innings, and Molitor gets to remember his first game fondly, a 3-1 win over the Gophers.

    There were a few glitches, however. Confusion over the count — the scoreboard and the umpire didn’t agree a couple of times — caused Miguel Sano to take off for second base on a 2-2 count; he thought it was 3-2. But Sano stole the base, and bragged afterward about his underrated speed. 

    Molitor smirked at the thought, but said, “In [Class A] Fort Myers, he had double-digit stolen bases, though he wasn’t quite so big then. But he can get going a little bit.”

    Later that inning, Molitor said, he and third-base coach Gene Glynn experienced some confusion over the signals, so they’ll be going over them again before tomorrow’s game.

    The game featured only a handful of players who figure to come north next month, but it’s doubtful any Twins fans cared. They got to see the organization’s brightest prospects, and all contributed.

    — Berrios, likely headed to Triple-A this year, righted himself after the first inning, and managed to retire the Gophers in the second on just 11 pitches, right at the limit the Twins had set for him.

    — Byron Buxton led off the Twins’ first inning with a bloop to right-center that fell in for a hit — which he easily turned into a double. Then he doubled again in the second inning, driving in the go-ahead run.

    — Kennys Vargas smacked a first-inning double to score Buxton.

    — Miguel Sano laced a sharp single to center that nearly nailed pitcher Toby Anderson. Oh, and he stole a base.

    — Jorge Polanco launched the first home run of the spring, a fly ball that landed deep in the right-field bar seats.

    All were delighted with the game afterward, with Berrios pleased that he had good control of four pitches. The fastball velocity reached 95 mph — not bad, right? “Yeah, right now,” he said. “Maybe later, more.”

    Sano and Buxton were mostly just thrilled to be on the field again, after injury-plagued 2014 seasons. Exclaimed the 240-pound Sano: “Little Miguel Sano is back!”

    Wait, there’s a bigger one …?

Sano's return highlights Molitor's first lineup

Posted by: Phil Miller Updated: March 4, 2015 - 2:51 PM

Tonight’s Twins lineup

Buxton CF

Nunez SS

Herrmann DH

Vargas 1B

Sano 3B

Rosario LF

Fryer C

Beresford 2B

Robinson RF

Berrios RHP

    FORT MYERS, Fla. — Miguel Sano is back.

    The Twins’ top slugging prosect plays his first game tonight since late 2013, manning third base for Minnesota as it opens the preseason schedule against the Gophers in Hammond Stadium. Sano missed all of the 2014 season after having a ligament replaced in his right elbow, but he’s completely healthy and ready to try to reach the major leagues sometime this season.

    Sano isn’t the only one marking a landmark today, of course. Paul Molitor made out his first lineup as Twins’ manager, and said he had fun doing it. He’s using mostly young players; in fact, it’s conceivable none of today’s starters will be on the team next month — though several of them should arrive sometime this year.

    Game time is 6 p.m. CST, and the game is being televised on on Fox Sports North.

Twins spring training: Dozier extension in the works?

Posted by: La Velle E. Neal III Updated: March 3, 2015 - 3:11 PM


Second baseman Brian Dozier is set to sign a one-year deal this week, which really isn't big deal because he has between zero and three years of experience and most of those contracts are a formality.

But Dozier's agent, according to sources, is talking to the Twins about a multi-year contract for the speedy, power-hitting second baseman.

The sides tried to lock Dozier up last season, meeting during spring training in an attempt to hammer out a deal. But they failed to agree on the right numbers and decided to wait a year.

Dozier went out and batted .242 with 23 home runs and 71 RBI. He also walked 89 times and stole 21 bases. That was enough to encourage the Twins to try to lock him up once again.

Stay tuned to see how this plays out. Indications are that there could be an update in a couple of days.

Recovering

Jordan Schafer tried to return to workouts after battling the flu yesterday but was sent home. The other sick players, Byron Buxton, Oswaldo Arcia, Kurt Suzuki and Trevor May - returned to action.

Bully on Buxton

Molitor kept an eye on Buxton, who is scheduled to play Wedensday against the Gophers. Buxton did enough to convince Molitor to leave him in the lineup.  The manager remains bully on Buxton depsite the prospect missing most of last season due to various injuries.

The manager didn't hold back when he discussed Buxton's growth potential despite the missed development time.

``The areas I’m hoping to see improved are not so much defensively,'' Molitor said. ``Obviously people get better, but as far as his ability to read and jump and throw to the right place. That was probably, maybe his most advanced skill. Baserunning: fearless; technique needed improvement; awareness, somewhat. Offensively in the batter’s box: very competitive; strike zone knowledge. For his skillset, getting on base is going to be a big deal. He might develop into having some power along the way, but as he is developing, his strike zone knowledge is an area that I hope is improved from what I’ve seen in the past. Those are some of the things that I’ll be looking for him, for his growth.''

Scheduling

Jose Berrios will start for the Twins on Wednesday against the Gophers. Glen Perkins will follow him. After that. Mark Hamburger, Ryan Pressly, Michael Tonkin will pitch.

Kyle Gibson will start on Thursday against Boston in the official Grapefruit League opener.

Sad note

Popular Twins minor league coach Riccardo Ingram will not be presant at spring trainng this year as he fights for his life a second time because of the return of brain cancer.

Ingram, 48, is being treated in Atlanta, which is not far from his home in Lilburn, Ga., and where his family can keep an eye on him.

`I don't think anything is impossible with Riccardo,'' Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. ``He's overcome a lot of odds.''

In 2009, Ingram experienced pounding headaches that led to the discovery of Grade 4 glioblastoma in the front of his brain. At the time, 90-95 percent of people with that type of cancer die within a year. But Ingram underwent six week of radiation therapy and survived. The Twins helped out by naming him a roving hitting instructor between Class AAA Rochester and Class AA New Britain. That allowed him to make visits to Duke University Medical Center for follow up care.

Ingram is scheduled to be the hitting coach for the Gulf Coast League rookie team this season.

A fourth-round pick by the Tigers in 1987, Ingram played 12 games with the Tigers in 1994 and four with the Twins in 1995. He's been coaching in the Twins farm system since 1998.

Twins spring training: A healthier clubhouse

Posted by: La Velle E. Neal III Updated: March 3, 2015 - 9:11 AM

All five players who were sent home sick on Monday - Byron Buxton, Trevor May, Oswaldo Arcia, Jordan Schafer and Kurt Suzuki - were back in the clubhouse on Tuesday and prepared to rejoin workouts. Whatever has been going around the clubhouse reflects what has hit the area. Flu medication is flying off the shelves here as the baseball players aren't the only ones falling ill.

Today was media day, so players, in assembly line fashion, moved from station to station to take pictures for various media outlets. That pushed the start of today's workout back to a 10 a.m. eastern time.

Alex Meyer threw live batting practice yesterday, but the decision has been made to not use him Wednesday in the exhibition game against the Gophers. Meyer missed several days last week to be with his family after his grandfather passed away, but said this morning that he doesn't feel like he's far behind the rest of the pitchers in camp.

Danny Santana and Chris Herrmann were among the players taking extra batting practice when I walked past the cages this morning. Paul Molitor gushed about Santana yesterday when he was brought up, even mentioning how Robin Yount won MVP awards at both center field and shortstop - the two positions Santana can play.

``It’s a rare gift set when a guy can excel at those two positions,'' Molitor said. ``For him to be able to step up last year and do what he did, there was a learning curve up there but obviously when you have a chance to settle in at a position defensively, it helps your overall game. It’s not a lot of athletes that you can expect to be able to fill those two holes. ''

Will check back this afternoon was an update.

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