A year ago, the Twins went into the regular season with a bench consisting of Drew Butera, Jason Repko, Matt Tolbert and Jim Thome. In other words: three guys who possessed only defensive value, and one who possessed only offensive value. It was a pretty limiting group, and the lack of flexibility caused headaches for Ron Gardenhire with starters shuttling in and out of the lineup all summer.
Repko, Tolbert and Thome won't be back this year, and that's probably no coincidence. Nor is it coincidence that catcher J.R. Towles was signed during the offseason to give Butera some competition for the third catcher spot. The Twins will be hoping to boast a more well rounded bench this year, and that's definitely the right idea.
The two candidates who could be considered locks, presuming they're healthy, would be Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes. Neither is a stand-out defender at any spot, but both can play multiple positions and have the potential to provide legitimate value with the bat. That's what you look for in a solid backup.
If all goes to plan, Plouffe will draw occasion starts in the outfield and perhaps at DH, while Hughes will fill a Brendan Harris type role, subbing in against left-handers at various infield positions.
Butera is probably close to a lock, as the Twins are almost guaranteed to carry a third catcher and they're familiar with him, but team officials have been reluctant to anoint him. It would seem that the door is open for Towles to swoop in with a big spring, and while he's been a Butera-esque hitter in his big-league career up to this point, he's certainly got more offensive potential.
The end of the bench will be dictated by how many pitchers Gardenhire wants to carry, and by how comfortable he is with using Plouffe or Hughes at shortstop in a pinch.
My assumption is that 12 pitchers will come north, since that's how they Twins have generally operated in the past and they've got a whopping 33 hurlers in camp this year (several of whom are out of options and one of whom is a Rule 5 draftee). If that's indeed the route they go, there's only room for one more bench player beyond the three mentioned above.
Who will it be? That brings us to the matter of shortstop security. Jamey Carroll will need days off and could obviously get hurt, but I'd argue that the presence of Alexi Casilla along with Plouffe and Hughes – who both can play the position in an emergency – should be enough to offset any concerns. With that said, if Gardy is committed to having a true backup shortstop on his roster, he'll likely insist on carrying Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who started 59 games there as a rookie last year.
Does it really make sense to carry Nishioka as a utility man, though? He's not an asset as a pinch hitter, or pinch runner, or defensive replacement. And relegating him to a bench spot would seemingly indicate that the Twins have given up on developing him into a starter despite their $15 million investment.
Unless he shows significant advancement in his skills this spring, I think the Twins would be wise to start Nishioka in Rochester. That would leave an opening for the final bench slot, which could be used in a number of different ways. Sean Burroughs looks interesting as a potential platoon partner for Danny Valencia at third base and occasion fill-in at first and DH. Darin Mastroianni could fill the same fifth outfielder/pinch runner role that Jason Repko has in the past. Guys like Steven Pearce and Aaron Bates have the potential to provide some right-handed pop off the bench while serving as Justin Morneau insurance.
The composition of the bench may seem like an afterthought, but those four players that opened the season there last year wound up totaling 866 plate appearances. It's important to round out the roster with players that can be assets in a variety of ways. Fortunately, there are a number of candidates to do so this time around.