La Velle E. Neal III's Twins Insider: There are reasons to gripe, but also for optimism

  • Article by: LA VELLE E. NEAL III , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2014 - 8:06 AM

That woeful rotation has been upgraded. Now as for that lineup …

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The Twins are counting on veteran starters Mike Pelfrey (37) and Ricky Nolasco to help stabilize a rotation that was horrendous in 2013.

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– There’s a right way and a wrong way to gripe about the 2014 Twins roster.

The wrong way is to become violently ill over the addition of Jason Bartlett, a career shortstop recast as a super utility player after a year and a half away from the game. Sure, he’s batting .098 this spring after going 1-for-5 Friday, but most utility players can’t hit. If they could, they would be starters. This is the year you give Bartlett a chance to make a comeback. He’s the 25th player on the roster.

This is also the year that you give someone like Can-Am League veteran Chris Colabello a chance, too. His swing might be geared for the opposite field, but he’s 30 years old and tore up the International League last season. Fire him out there against lefthanded pitching and in late-game situations and see what he does.

For a team that would consider .500 to be quite an achievement this season, bringing back Bartlett and giving Colabello a shot are reasonable moves.

Here are some other observations on the roster as the Twins prepare for their 54th season in Minnesota.

1. The pitching staff should be reliable

It might not challenge for the American League ERA title, but the upgrades in the starting pitching — and the addition of Samuel Deduno to the bullpen — could keep the Twins in more games. The Twins were fifth in the AL and 14th in baseball with a bullpen ERA of 3.50 last season, and that was despite leading all bullpens with 579⅓ innings, 24 more than the next club.

Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco and Kyle Gibson open the season in the rotation and are an upgrade from last season. Deduno can enter the rotation if needed. Alex Meyer is on simmer at Class AAA Rochester. Not only are they better now, their potential replacements are better than last year’s (Liam Hendriks, Pedro Hernandez). The bullpen won’t be overworked.

“The way guys are going right now,” Hughes said, “we have a chance to be pretty good.”

What you can gripe about: Deduno not being in the rotation. The Twins believed he was a better fit for the bullpen because of his recent shoulder surgery and history for breaking down. But the man has put up a 1.76 ERA this spring and might have been the most talented starter on the team last season. And Michael Tonkin pitched very well this spring — sometimes hitting 96 miles per hour on the radar gun — but he’s starting the season at Class AAA Rochester.

2. There’s definitely good and not-so-good about the defense

They will be strong up the middle. Suzuki is not a star but is a steady catcher. Shortstop Pedro Florimon and second baseman Brian Dozier ranked among the best defensive players at their positions for most of last season. Hicks covers the ground any way you want it in center field. He needs to hit the relay man more, though. You want the spine of your defense to be strong, and the Twins have that.

Florimon got a late start to spring because of appendicitis and is still trying to find his swing at the plate. But he looks smooth in the field.

“When Florimon is out there, our infield looks pretty good,” manager Ron Gardenhire said.

What you can gripe about: Trevor Plouffe will miss the occasional grounder at third, but his glove would look better if he hit more balls over the fence. Josh Willingham doesn’t have a lot of range in left field, but his bat is vital to this offense, so he should start at designated hitter frequently this year.

3. The offense is under construction

The Twins were shut out for the first time this spring in Friday’s 4-0 loss to the Red Sox — but they have been held to one run eight times. They are batting .229 with runners in scoring position. Their 13 homers are tied for last in baseball. They have let rallies die, like twice Friday when they got the first two batters in the fourth and fifth innings on base but failed to score them. Willingham is batting .049, and observers have noted how he looks baffled. Jason Kubel is batting .186 but said he feels good at the plate. Oswaldo Arcia is batting .234 and has struck out a ton, again. Where do you bat Joe Mauer?

Gardenhire is going to be challenged to come up with a consistent lineup.

“Yeah, we’ve tried a lot of different lineups,” he said. “But ultimately it gets down to having a bunch of different guys together all hitting, when they’re doing that, then you’re going to say, ‘Wow, this worked.’ If we get on a hot roll here, which I hope we do right out of the chute, you guys won’t even talk about it, who’s hitting first or second.”

What you can gripe about: That time machines don’t exist, or we could leap forward a year, when Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario are being called up to boost the offense.

 

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

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