FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins begin playing spring training games Friday, which means that we should stop paying attention to everything that happens from now until the regular season begins.
Remember, the Twins came out of spring training last year with Aaron Hicks as their hottest hitter, and Vance Worley as their Opening Day starter, so we might as well make our judgments today, before our minds are cluttered by a month of meaningless games.
So let’s make our judgments now, before we get fooled again. Here are my answers to the questions most frequently asked about the Twins:
Q: When will the Twins’ top prospects make it to the big leagues?
A: The short answer is that once a top prospect conquers Class AA he is, as Twins VP Rob Antony said, “a phone call away.”
Byron Buxton is 20 and has never played above Class A. He’ll probably start the year at Class AA. If he excels, he could be called up later this season, but the goal is for him to be the Twins’ starting center fielder in 2015. Buxton has followed the same career arc as Angels star Mike Trout.
Remember: Trout struggled when first called up, before becoming the best all-around player in the game during his rookie season.
If Miguel Sano takes better at-bats at Class AA and handles third base well, he could be in the majors by midsummer. If top pitching prospect Alex Meyer pitches well at the beginning of the season he could be the first starting pitcher called up.
Q: Does Kennys Vargas really look like David Ortiz?
A: They’re hardly twins, but Vargas has a similar build and similar raw power. Vargas hits the ball a long way from both sides of the plate. Once a project, he now is a prospect, after hitting 19 homers in 520 at-bats last year at Class A.
Q: After winning 66 games last year, can the Twins win this year?
A: It would be difficult for them to contend, but they could threaten .500. Look at it this way: Their Class AAA rotation this year could be better than their major-league rotation was last year.
Adding Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and eventually Meyer will give them a dramatic upgrade over last year when they tried out Worley, Cole DeVries, Liam Hendricks, Andrew Albers and Pedro Hernandez.
Q: Any sleepers in camp?
A: Lefthanded reliever Kris Johnson has a live arm. Outfielder Alex Presley has excellent speed, and the Twins hope working with Paul Molitor will help him translate that speed into steals. He could be the centerfielder if Aaron Hicks falters again, although Presley will have to improve his career on-base percentage of .304. Reliever Michael Tonkin has dominant stuff and could rise quickly.
Q: What Twins prospect doesn’t get mentioned enough?
A: Twins shortstop Pedro Florimon, for all his flash in the field, is not close to being a competent offensive player. Danny Santana is the shortstop of the future and that future could arrive any time this season.
Q: Is the ballpark really upgraded?
A: Definitely. The berm in leftfield, the outfield seating, the standing-room area, the tiki bars, the ability to walk around the outfield while still seeing the game will make this a much better place to watch a game.
Q: Should the Twins have signed A.J. Pierzynski?
A: Yes, and they tried, but he chose Boston to give himself a better chance to win. Pierzynski would not have tolerated some of the lax play we’ve seen from the Twins the last couple of years.
Q: They signed two expensive pitchers, so why didn’t the Twins upgrade what last year was a terrible lineup?
A: To sign a premier hitter, they would have had to commit to big money over multiple years. They didn’t want to waste money on a player who might not be needed once the Twins’ best prospects arrive over the next two seasons. If they think Santana is better than Stephen Drew, why would they sign Drew?
Q: What’s the Twins’ grand plan?
A: To be competitive enough this year that they retain and encourage their fan base, and to be in position to contend in 2015.
Q: Is that realistic?
A: The Twins stunk in the ’80s before winning two World Series in five years. They stunk in the ’90s before winning for most of a 10-year span. Their latest downturn has been ill-timed and relentlessly ugly, but it yielded the draft pick that landed Buxton. Losing occasionally has its privileges.
Q: Who are the Twins’ most important players right now?
A: Assuming Joe Mauer adapts well to first base and playing every day, and Josh Willingham has a representative season, Hicks will be the most important position player. If he can bat leadoff, get on base, and play every day in center field, the lineup and outfield defense could fall into place. If he can’t, the lineup will again be weak at the top and they’ll be holding tryouts in center until Buxton is ready.
The most important pitcher is Nolasco. If he can pitch 200-plus quality innings and pitch like a top-of-the-rotation starter, the Twins will be immediately improved.