FORT MYERS, FLA. – One is built like a power hitter, 6-2 with Popeye biceps and a talent for depositing balls in the bleachers. One is built like a marathon runner, perhaps 5-8, lean and wiry but with surprising strength.
Both have spent parts of the past three seasons in Yankees uniforms, trying to fight their way onto a roster brimming with more-experienced options. And now both Tyler Austin and Ronald Torreyes are with the Twins, trying to prove the Yankees made a mistake by choosing others instead.
“I was happy in New York, but now I’m here, and that experience is going to help me,” said Torreyes, a 26-year-old infielder best remembered for filling in for Didi Gregorius in 2017 when the Yankees shortstop missed the season’s first six weeks because of a strained shoulder. “They gave me a chance, and I am thankful for that. But the Twins are giving me a chance now, and I want to show them I can do whatever role they want me to do.”
Same for Austin, who opened last season as the starting Yankees first baseman when Greg Bird was injured, but was included in the trade-deadline deal that sent pitcher Lance Lynn to New York.
“I know I’m fighting for a spot on this team, but I’ve been in this position for the past few years, so there’s no pressure on me,” said Austin, 27. “I want to be on this team. I love it here. That’s all I’m focused on. And if it doesn’t happen, I’ll figure out the next move then.”
Truth is, both are fighting some discouraging roster numbers this spring, a multitude of competitors who could crowd them off the roster even though they both have made positive impressions on their new team.
Torreyes, traded in November to the Cubs, who then didn’t offer him a contract, signed with the Twins as a potential challenger to fellow Venezuelan Ehire Adrianza as a backup infielder. Torreyes has proved he can play three infield positions this spring, has four extra-base hits to go with a .286 average in 15 games and has earned admiration for his baseball instincts. Playing second base last week, Torreyes had the presence of mind to cover third when it was left open on a play down the left-field line, a heads-up play that turned a defensive scramble into an out on the bases.
“He’s one of my favorite players in this camp. He has a great attitude, is extremely sure-handed in the field and is very consistent,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “If every guy approached the game and played it the way Ronald does, it would make my job very easy.”
He also hits the ball unusually hard for a small player, and became popular in New York as a “small slugger” alongside huge teammates Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.
“New York fans are tough to please, and I was proud to know they embraced me when I was there. That actually helped me to be exposed a little more, for fans to get to know a little more about who I really am,” said Torreyes, who hit three home runs in 2018. “It was fun to be around those guys, Stanton and Judge. We had good times playing together.”
Said Twins hitting coach James Rowson: “His hands and wrists are unusually strong. He can really snap the barrel onto the ball, and you go, ‘How does he do that?’ ”
But Torreyes also has a minor league option remaining, and with Adrianza having a good spring, might wind up in Class AAA Rochester as ready-when-needed depth.
Austin made a strong impression in his two months with the Twins last year, hitting nine homers in only 35 games. But he also had a 30.9 percent strikeout rate, prompting the Twins to sign C.J. Cron and Nelson Cruz as potential starters at his principle positions. They even brought in veteran Lucas Duda on a minor league contract.
Was he shocked to be fighting for a job again? “I’m not surprised at all. These guys are established big leaguers,” Austin said. “They had an opportunity to add talent — I’d do it, too. I can see the talent in this room. I don’t blame anybody.”
Austin is out of options, so if the Twins don’t keep him, they will have to expose him to waivers and risk losing him for nothing. With a .390 average this spring, plus three homers and two doubles, the righthanded slugger is increasing the odds he would be claimed.
“Any team would be comfortable with him sitting somewhere in the middle of their lineup. And he’s made a great impression on top of that, with a great personality,” Baldelli said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen [with the roster], but he’s proven he’s a big-league hitter.”