FORT MYERS, Fla. – In the past five years, Craig Breslow has twice come to a major league training camp with a minor league contract, and in two other years, he opened the season in Class AAA. So the lefthanded reliever understands the dynamics — and yes, the fun — of having to pitch his way onto a major league team.
“I really enjoy the challenge. And more so than competing with [teammates], I revel in the idea of competing with myself, of seeing how effective I can be,” Breslow said on the eve of the start of that competition: the Twins’ first Grapefruit League game, Friday against the Rays. “You try not to make it a you-vs.-someone-else situation — it’s about showing them you can get outs consistently. If you do that, there’s a place for you in the major leagues.”
There are only 25 places in the majors on any one team, though, and the Twins have 62 players in uniform, meaning three-fifths of their clubhouse’s inhabitants will get some bad news this spring. Some, such as youngsters Nick Gordon or Felix Jorge, have little realistic chance to stick; they’re in camp to get a glimpse of their future. And several, such as Joe Mauer and Ervin Santana, can use camp for preparation, with no worries about being challenged for their job.
But during 35 spring games over the next 36 days, battles for those roster spots will play out before manager Paul Molitor, Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine, who must choose which 37 players to disappoint.
“How the rotation shakes out, particularly at the bottom end” will be one ongoing story line, Molitor said Thursday, “and at least four bullpen spots are up for grabs. Positionally, we’ve got [to choose a] backup catcher. … Outfield play, there’s competition there, in my mind, about how that’s going to end up, whether you look at a platoon or backups. We’ve got some people that are going to push people.”
There also is some question about who the designated hitter will be, and how to fill out the final bench spots. For a young, inexperienced team, the Twins are planning remarkably little competition for starting roles at most positions — only DH and perhaps shortstop aren’t already settled. But the pitching staff, in the wake of a horrific 2016, is just as unsettled now as it seemed five months ago.
“We’ve given ourselves plenty of options, and we’re keeping an open mind as to who is ready to step forward,” Molitor said. “I have a lot of confidence and anticipation for watching how that works itself out.”
Santana is a given to head the rotation, and while Hector Santiago, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes aren’t guaranteed spots, they clearly have the advantage of experience. But that leaves Trevor May, Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey to pitch for the fifth spot, with newcomers Nick Tepesch, Ryan Vogelsong, Adalberto Mejia and Justin Haley also hoping to get Molitor’s attention.
The bullpen is even more uncertain. Veteran righthanders Matt Belisle and Brandon Kintzler are assured spots, and setup man Ryan Pressly appears safe. But after that, it’s a farmers market of choices, with Molitor and pitching coach Neil Allen to determine who’s ripe. Lefthanders Taylor Rogers, Ryan O’Rourke and Breslow — who is trying to remake himself with a new arm motion and new pitches — will have to distinguish themselves, righthanders Alex Wimmers and J.T. Chargois could claim spots, and the runners-up in the rotation race could easily be repurposed as relievers.
“It’s going to be a real, I guess you’d call it a tap dance for the first few weeks, to get everybody enough work. As much as people want quick answers right this second, you can’t even start to judge their work until they’re stretched out a little bit,” Allen said. “But it’s a good group. Some good additions. [There are] going to be some hard decisions.”
On the offensive side, the battles are mostly for backup spots, though Jorge Polanco will have to reassure Molitor that he’s capable enough at shortstop.
And Kennys Vargas may be the projected DH, but Byung Ho Park is confident that he’s ready to reclaim his major league role, too.
“[Vargas] realizes this might be the first time he’s pretty high up the chain of guys who could break through and see consistent at-bats throughout the course of a season,” Molitor said.
Journeyman catcher Chris Gimenez is an experienced backup and a coach in shin guards, but he’s got a pair of younger candidates to contend with: John Ryan Murphy, whose first season as a Twin was a disappointment, and 26-year-old prospect Mitch Garver.
Robbie Grossman likely has an edge on a bench spot, especially after posting a team-high .386 on-base percentage in 2016. But if his defense isn’t strong enough for that role, Molitor could consider rookie Zach Granite, slugger Daniel Palka or veterans Drew Stubbs and J.B. Shuck.
And Eduardo Escobar, the Twins’ starting shortstop for large chunks of four consecutive seasons, heads the candidates for a bench role in 2017. Giants veteran Ehire Adrianza, a glove-first utility man, also will get a look.