Righthander Phil Hughes returns after missing most of last season because of thoracic outlet syndrome. Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson and Hector Santiago figure to take the next three spots. Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey figure to fight for the fifth spot, but Adalberto Mejia, Trevor May, Nick Tepesch, Ryan Vogelsong and even prospect Stephen Gonsalves will be looking to impress, too.
Glen Perkins, recovering from shoulder surgery, likely won’t be ready for Opening Day. Brandon Kintzler is in line for the ninth inning again. Ryan Pressly had a strong 2016 while appearing in a career-high 72 games. May could land back here. Free agent Matt Belisle, 36, should help. Michael Tonkin and J.T. Chargois throw hard and are working on precision. Craig Breslow, Taylor Rogers, Buddy Boshers and Ryan O’Rourke will fight for lefthanded spots.
In an effort to improve the pitching, the Twins upgraded the catching by signing free agent Jason Castro. He will throw out a few basestealers, but his best skills are framing pitches and calling games. John Ryan Murphy and Chris Gimenez will battle for a backup role.
The expectations never have been as low for Joe Mauer, who batted .261 with 11 home runs and 49 RBI last season. He heated up last August and looked ready for a strong finish before he scored from first on a double Aug. 17 and limped the rest of the season, batting .146 over the final 22 games. Now in the seventh year of an eight-year, $184 million contract, Mauer will need to DH a couple of times a week. Hitting lefties used to be a strength; last year, he hit .224 against them.
Brian Dozier belted 42 home runs in 2016 and immediately landed in Hot Stove League trade talks. He was told late last month that he wasn’t going to be dealt before the season and returns as the marquee name in the lineup. Dozier was an unstoppable force in the first half of 2015 and the second half of last season. Eduardo Escobar or Ehire Adrianza could fill in on the few days Dozier takes off.
Jorge Polanco appears to profile better as a second baseman than a shortstop. His Ultimate Zone Rating of -10.9 was 30th among shortstops who played as many innings at the position as he did. His arm isn’t the strongest, but the Twins remain committed to helping him get better. He hit .282 in 69 games, so the Twins love his offensive potential. Escobar or Adrianza could spell him. Prospect Nick Gordon could debut this year, too.
Miguel Sano began last season in right field, which was a disaster. He was moved back to his regular position, third base. That was a disaster, too, as he posted an .896 fielding percentage. He’s in better shape than a year ago and has had an offseason to work out at third. How much will that help? Sano is expected to see time at DH, so Escobar or Adrianza could see action there on those days. But Sano’s big bat needs to stay in the middle of the order all season.
Eddie Rosario was terrific in left field in 2015 but wasn’t as sharp last year and spent some time in the minors. He can sting the ball but often chases pitches out of the zone and needs to fine-tune his pitch selection. He has good range and a fairly accurate arm (26 assists over the past two seasons). Robbie Grossman backed him up last year, but he’s not very polished in the field. Danny Santana, J.B. Shuck or Drew Stubbs could emerge as backups.
Byron Buxton hit .287 with nine home runs in September and October. If he drives the ball like that, watch the extra-base hits pile up. “September was a month I just told myself not to think about anything anymore. Just go out and have fun and play baseball,” Buxton said during the winter caravan. He’s a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder, with the chance of being the best the Twins have ever had. The team is hoping for a healthy season from No. 25 so he can take the next step in his development. Rosario and Shuck can spell him in center. So can Santana.
Max Kepler hit 17 homers last season, a career high for any level. He also batted only .235 and struck out 93 times in 113 games. But the potential is there for him to become a major run producer. The outfield of Rosario, Buxton and Kepler gives the Twins three fleet runners with arms that range from above average to elite.
Mauer and Sano will need days at designated hitter. But the confirmed hackers — Kennys Vargas and Byung Ho Park — could be in the mix as well. There should be no full-time DH in 2017 and this spot will float among Mauer, Sano and probably Vargas. Park, for whom the Twins bid $12.85 million, is back after being demoted to the minors, then having his season cut short by wrist surgery. He’s the big wild card.