Every year around this time the talk is about how hope springs eternal; how the slate is wiped clean and every team is 0-0; how every club is tied for first place.
For these 2013 Twins, optimism is noticeably subdued. For most people, a realistic form of “hope” involves approaching a .500 record and avoiding the cellar for a third straight year. The Twins have more question marks dotting their roster than perhaps any other team in the American League.
The odds are against them this season. Literally. Vegas set the over/under for Minnesota at 64.5 wins. Ouch.
There's too much talent on the roster to call this team hopeless, but in order to be true contenders in the AL Central, the Twins will need several core players to put forth optimal seasons. They’ll need prospects to emerge and make an impact. They’ll need multiple injury flyers to pan out.
Likely? Not especially. There's not much margin for error. But this is spring, so we can hope. Grapefruit League results and reports from Ft. Myers will give fans a window to the early progress of some players who could prove pivotal to this year's effort.
Here are six key storylines worth following over the next six weeks leading up to Opening Day:
1) Center field
Fittingly it will be the center of attention in the coming month, as three contenders vie for the billing as starting center fielder and, in all likelihood, leadoff man.
These are big cleats to fill. Nearly each man who has spent significant time roaming center field in Minnesota over the past decade – be it Torii Hunter, Carlos Gomez, Denard Span or Ben Revere – has gained notoriety with highlight reel catches and a dynamic offensive game.
It seems clear that ultimately the next in that line will be Aaron Hicks, who has all the skills necessary to generate excitement in the same way as those listed above. The only question is whether he’s ready, with no experience above Double-A. As such, he’ll be under a microscope in camp.
He’s likely the leading candidate right now, but if he falters the door will be wide open for Darin Mastroianni or Joe Benson. It will be interesting to see how Hicks responds to this pressure in what could be a defining point in his young career.
2) Who rounds out the rotation?
The new-comers are all but locked in. Kevin Correia and Vance Worley are sure bets to claim spots, and all reports indicate that Mike Pelfrey will surprisingly be at full tilt by the start of April. That leaves two rotation slots up for grabs, with organizational incumbents largely comprising the candidates.
Scott Diamond would have probably been Opening Day starter if recovery from elbow surgery hadn’t pushed back his timeline, leaving his status for the start of the season in doubt. Kyle Gibson and Liam Hendriks, the Twins’ best MLB-ready pitching prospects, are the leading contenders for the final two spots if Diamond can’t go, but Hendriks’ struggles last year and Gibson’s surgically repaired arm could come into play. Beyond these three, there are a number of fringe contenders – such as Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn, Rich Harden, Sam Deduno and Cole DeVries – that cannot be discounted.
3) Keystone questions
We find four players in the middle infielder mix: Brian Dozier, Pedro Florimon, Jamey Carroll and Eduardo Escobar. It’s not a particularly intimidating assembly but the Twins seem comfortable with what they’ve got. At this point it appears that Ron Gardenhire favors Dozier and Florimon as starters, with Carroll and possibly Escobar serving in utility roles, but you’d have to assume that’s subject to change, based on the fact that neither Dozier nor Florimon has accomplished anything to earn the honor. No scholarships, right?
4) Pen pals
Every year there are a few spots at the end of the bullpen up for grabs and this year is no different. Beyond Glen Perkins, Jared Burton, Duensing and maybe Anthony Swarzak, this unit appears to be wide open. Last month, I ran through all the candidates to fill those remaining spots.
5) Rehab central
The Twins gambled on several pitchers recovering from major injuries during the offseason. Pelfrey is the headliner, and while all signs have been positive that's almost always the case in February. Still, he remains a far safer bet than Rich Harden, whose shoulder woes have limited him to 174 innings over the past three seasons, or Rafael Perez, a formerly dominant left-handed reliever who underwent his own shoulder surgery in September and will apparently be tried as a starter.
The chances of either Harden or Perez sticking in the rotation are extremely low, but both carry intriguing upside, even as potential bullpen options. The way they're throwing this spring should give us a good idea of what can realistically be expected.
6) How will the Opening Day roster shake out?
This will be dictated by health, performance and circumstance over the coming weeks. Here's my mid-February guess at how the roster and batting order will come together on April 1:
CF: Aaron Hicks
C: Joe Mauer
LF: Josh Willingham
1B: Justin Morneau
DH: Ryan Doumit
3B: Trevor Plouffe
RF: Chris Parmelee
2B: Brian Dozier
SS: Pedro Florimon
C: Drew Butera
IF: Jamey Carroll
IF: Eduardo Escobar
OF: Darin Mastroianni
SP: Vance Worley
SP: Kevin Correia
SP: Mike Pelfrey
SP: Liam Hendriks
SP: Kyle Gibson
RP: Glen Perkins
RP: Jared Burton
RP: Brian Duensing
RP: Casey Fien
RP: Alex Burnett
RP: Anthony Swarzak
RP: Rafael Perez