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The Backup Plan

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: February 15, 2011 - 10:35 PM

Thursday marks the deadline for Twins pitchers and catchers to report to camp in Ft. Myers. It's an annual holiday for baseball fans, and this year it will serve as prelude to a very interesting six weeks leading up to the start of the regular season. Rarely has a Twins team entered spring training with as many questions needing to be answered as this one.

How will Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer look after going through minor offseason knee surgeries? How will Scott Baker's arm look after reports of a setback in his recovery from a seemingly minor elbow surgery? Can Joe Nathan return to form just 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery? How will the middle infield and bullpen shake out?

Order the MSP Twins Annual 2011

All important questions, to be sure, but without a doubt the most discussed topic over the next month-and-a-half will be Justin Morneau. Trying to return to baseball for the first time since suffering a concussion over seven months ago, the first baseman will have his every move and word  closely scrutinized, especially with club officials hinting at the possibility that he might not be ready for Opening Day.

Everyone hopes for the best with Morneau this year. But there's a realistic chance that he suffers a setback and the team is forced to open the season without him in the lineup.

It's important that they have a plan in place for that scenario.

Last year, the Twins got by fine without Morneau by sliding Cuddyer to first, Jason Kubel to right, and Jim Thome to regular DH duty. Those players all return this year, but it's awfully optimistic to expect that plan to pay the same kind of dividends, especially if Morneau will be missing months and not weeks.

Cuddyer and Kubel are defensive liabilities when venturing out of their expected roles, and over time such liabilities become magnified. Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine Thome, who will turn 41 this season, playing almost every day without breaking down.

There's really no candidate other than Cuddyer to play first base (which makes one wonder what Ron Gardenhire would do if both he and Morneau were unavailable) but the Twins can limit Kubel's exposure in right field, which will help both his knees and their defense. Jason Repko is available, but Gardenhire will want to avoid writing his punchless bat into the lineup too frequently.

The door would be open for Ben Revere.

If the 22-year-old outfielder has another hot spring (last year he hit .326 in exhibition play) he could put himself in line for a quick call-up should Morneau open the season on the disabled list. Revere could serve as part-time right fielder, representing a massive defensive upgrade over Kubel and an offensive upgrade over Repko (especially against right-handed pitching). This would allow Thome to be used more as a bench bat and occasional DH, increasing his odds of staying healthy and productive throughout the summer.

The Twins would benefit from getting an extended look at Revere in the big leagues. Kubel and Cuddyer will both be free agents after this season, and Delmon Young could be due for another significant pay raise. There's a good chance that the team will have an opening at one or both of their corner outfield spots, and I'm sure the organization would like nothing more than for the inexpensive, speedy and likable Revere to step in. Gaining some valuable experience this year would help prepare him for the challenge.

Revere looked pretty raw in his first sampling of the majors last September, and he has yet to spend any time above the Double-A level in the minors. But, if he looks the part this spring, there's no denying that he's an appealing option should Cuddyer be forced to serve as the team's first baseman.

If he's able to make meaningful contributions to the big-league club in just his fourth year after joining the pro ranks,  Revere would go a long way toward proving wrong those of us who doubted the Twins' wisdom when they reached for him in the first round of the 2007 draft. 

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The image in this article is the first page of a story I wrote about Morneau and concussions for the Maple Street Press Twins Annual 2011, which can be ordered here. This is your chance to get it before it even hits newsstands. Thanks to all for the support!

 

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