Neal: Time for Twins to see what they have

They will use Grapefruit League games to evaluate their many pitchers and also to determine who will be playing up the middle.

FORT MYERS, FLA. -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is tired of reading scouting reports on the new players in camp. He is ready to identify firsthand who can help him win games, a process that begins Saturday when the Twins travel to Sarasota, Fla., to face the Baltimore Orioles in the Grapefruit League opener.

"I'm making my own decisions," Gardenhire said. "I haven't seen these guys enough to sit there and read reports and have somebody tell me this or that. I want to see them. I need to see these guys. I want to make my own decisions."

As Gardenhire begins the task of choosing players to help the Twins rebound from 195 losses over the past two seasons, let's examine some key battles about to begin:

Starting over

Lefthander Scott Diamond, who went 12-9 as a rookie last season, is the most successful returning starter but could miss the first week or two of the season after having December surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow. That makes things interesting in trying to figure out who gets the Opening Day assignment.

Former Mets righthander Mike Pelfrey has looked strong in his comeback from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. Look for Pelfrey or righthander Vance Worley, who came in a trade with Philadelphia, to start the April 1 opener vs. Detroit.

Righthander Kevin Correia is expected to stabilize the back end of the rotation. Spring might be the wrong time to evaluate his two-year, $10 million deal because he is going to leave camp after two starts to be present for the birth on his new child, not to mention that he has a career 5.75 ERA in spring training.

That leaves two spots open until Diamond is ready. Righthander Kyle Gibson looks ready for his major league debut. But in addition to his Tommy John surgery in 2011, he only has 275 2/3 innings as a pro, and team officials might want him to spend some more time at Class AAA Rochester.

Besides Gibson, several holdover starters, such as Cole De Vries, Liam Hendriks, Samuel Deduno, P.J. Walters and others, remain to battle for any remaining spots.

Rich Harden, who missed all of last season due to shoulder surgery, is a long-term project and won't be ready for Opening Day.

Center of attention

Darin Mastroianni will start in center Saturday, the first of the three center-field candidates with a chance to impress. He has plenty of speed but has to prove he can be an everyday player after hitting .252 in 77 games last season.

Aaron Hicks is a 2008 first-round draft pick with all the tools. Gardenhire has received assurances from General Manager Terry Ryan that he can take Hicks north if he earns the job, but are the Twins really ready to do that?

Joe Benson is a physical specimen who struggled and was hampered by injuries last season. But he can run and throw and hit the ball a long way when he makes contact.

The Twins could decide to give Hicks some time at Class AAA Rochester and split early duties between Mastroianni and Benson.

Manning the middle

Gardenhire is starting Pedro Florimon at short and Brian Dozier at second Saturday -- suggesting that is his preferred middle-infield pairing. He definitely wants them to get used to playing together. If you consider the middle of the field the spine of a team's defense, the Twins' only sure thing is Joe Mauer behind the plate.

Gardenhire likes Florimon's range and arm at short, but isn't afraid to insert Jamey Carroll or move Dozier over if Florimon has a poor spring. Dozier has some pop in his bat and could thrive as a second baseman, but Carroll could step in if Dozier plays poorly this spring or falters during the regular season.

Bullpen construction

Five spots appear almost set: Glen Perkins as the closer and Jared Burton as the main set-up man comprise the critical late-inning spots. Lefthander Brian Duensing and righthander Alex Burnett are in front of them, and righthander Casey Fien is coming off a solid season. If the Twins go with a seven-man bullpen, that leaves two spots available -- one thanks to Anthony Swarzak cracking two ribs while horsing around in January.

Righthanders Tim Wood and Josh Roenicke are out of options. Wood is a two-time reliever of the year in the International League. Roenicke posted a 3.25 ERA last season with Colorado and logged heavy innings (88 2/3) for a reliever. There's also Rule 5 pick Ryan Pressly. Lefthander Tyler Robertson debuted last season, and lefthander Rafael Perez -- who owned the Twins while healthy for Cleveland -- had his shoulder scoped during the offseason.

Plenty of competition at several spots, and plenty of spring games to play. It's time for Gardenhire to put down the reports and start making his own decisions. Let the battles begin.

La Velle E. Neal III • lneal@startribune.com

  • TWINS SPRING TRAINING • First exhibition: 12:05 p.m. today • vs. Baltimore • Sarasota, Fla. • Radio: 96.3-FM

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