Fort Myers, Fla. – What I heard, saw and thought during a week at Twins spring training camp:
Smart and sensible
The divergent and sometimes contradictory worlds of social media and reality are on display at Twins camp.
Read social media posts, and all that matters is that the Twins are not willing to spend another $100 million on player payroll. The signings of Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez are viewed as penny-ante, and the unwillingness to compete for Bryce Harper, Manny Machado or Craig Kimbrel is viewed as proof that the Pohlads don’t care about winning.
Talk to veteran baseball writers, scouts and Twins officials, and you hear something completely different. You hear that the Twins have built a team capable of contending without tying itself down with long-term contracts that could prove onerous in the future.
The Twins have been unpredictable the past four years, producing winning records when they didn’t appear promising and flopping when facing expectations. This year’s team has the makings of a contender and isn’t burdened by outside pressure. That combination has worked before for this franchise.
Closing the gap
Cleveland’s rotation is one of the best in baseball, giving the Indians an advantage over the Twins, but most experts I spoke with believe the Twins have the better overall roster. If Martin Perez pitches during the regular season the way he has in camp, he could narrow the rotation gap.
Whoa, easy on Sano
Fan anger at Miguel Sano is, in this case, misguided. He got himself into excellent shape this winter, played well in winter ball, and cut his heel on metal stairs during a celebration.
He should have received better medical care in the Dominican Republic. Losing him for the first month or so of the regular season is a serious blow to the team, but this injury shouldn’t be considered a piece of his past problems.
Sano’s problem in the past was failing to take care of his weight and conditioning. This is not that. This is a combination of bad luck and unfortunate geography.
For openers, no openers
Twins General Manager Derek Falvey said he doesn’t plan on the Twins using an opener — a pitcher to handle the first inning or two of a game before yielding to the pitcher who would pitch most of the game.
He noted that the Tampa Bay Rays used the strategy — to great effect — because they lacked starting pitchers who were equipped to pitch the bulk of the team’s innings. He thinks the Twins rotation is strong enough to keep the team from using openers … but he’s willing to keep an open mind about the strategy depending on the situation.
Life without Joe
Leadership in baseball can be overrated. Sometimes, leaders are retroactively identified when a team succeeds.
Joe Mauer wasn’t a vocal leader but was respected by teammates. With him gone, is there a leader in this clubhouse?
Byron Buxton could eventually take the role if he plays well, but you can’t lead while you’re trying to prove yourself, so at the moment Nelson Cruz is the likely candidate. He handles himself like a professional and encourages others to do the same.
What’s interesting is that the team features so many Spanish-speaking players that a Latin American player who speaks English might be in the best position to lead. Cruz fits that description.
Buxton is having a productive spring and has taken a new, fiery approach to re-establishing himself as one of the best young players in the game.
There are two concerns: 1) He is so intent on proving himself with a fast start that a season-beginning slump could be deflating. 2) However motivated he is, he’ll have to think situationally in the batter’s box. He should bunt for hits regularly, and his eagerness to drive and pull the ball shouldn’t keep him from recognizing that a lot of pitchers are going to try to get him out by throwing down and away.
Perhaps the most notable sight of the spring was Buxton not just hitting but launching home runs. You can’t hit the ball 450 feet without exceptional bat speed. You also can’t hit the ball 450 feet without confidence.
The Twins will have seven players hit 20 or more home runs.