Joe Mauer enters his 13th season, his third as a full-time first baseman. The premise that playing first base would lead to more production has not played out. Mauer hit .265 last season with a career-high 112 strikeouts. The Twins would be happy if he could revert to 2013, when he posted a .404 on-base percentage. Byung Ho Park and Trevor Plouffe can spell Mauer at first. So could Kennys Vargas, a long shot to make the team.
All-Star Brian Dozier belted a career-high 28 homers last season but slumped during the second half, posting a .639 OPS. A hip problem likely affected his production, but Dozier avoided surgery and reports to camp ready to play. Eduardo Nunez is around as a backup. And Danny Santana could play there if he lands a spot as a reserve. If Dozier lands on the DL, look for prospect Jorge Polanco to get another look.
In his fifth season with the Twins, Eduardo Escobar is being handed the SS job. He’s going to strike out a lot for a middle infielder, but he had a career-high 47 extra-base hits last season as he separated himself from Eduardo Nunez during the playoff push. Danny Santana, last year’s Opening Day shortstop, is out of options but can make the team as a backup infielder and outfielder. Nunez has experience at short. Jorge Polanco can play there as well, although some think second base is better for him.
Some thought the Twins would move Trevor Plouffe during the offseason to clear a space for Miguel Sano, but the club held on to its leading run producer from 2015. Plouffe hit 22 homers with 86 RBI, and his 2.5 WAR was the highest among Twins position players. So the club opted to keep him. Sano could play third if Plouffe is out, but Sano’s focus will be on learning right field. Eduardo Nunez can fill in as well. Plouffe grounded into 28 double plays last season, the most in baseball.
Eddie Rosario was called up early in the 2015 season and showed all-around ability, hitting 18 doubles, 15 triples and 13 homers. He added 16 outfield assists, showing off an arm that was strong and accurate. There is concern over his patience because he walked just 15 times and has the strike zone of a doorway, but there is plenty of promise. Danny Santana could back him up. So could Oswaldo Arcia, if he makes the team.
The Twins want Byron Buxton to earn the job this spring. Baseball’s top prospect had a rough debut, batting .209 in 46 games and missing time with a thumb injury. Truthfully, the Twins need Buxton to win the job, or else it creates upheaval in the outfield. Eddie Rosario could play there, but then who plays left? It’s one reason Danny Santana will come to camp with an outfield glove after moving through the system as a shortstop. Prospect Max Kepler could also play there.
The MLB Network recently ranked Miguel Sano as the game’s ninth-best right fielder — even though the next inning he plays there will be his first. It’s all because of his explosive bat that debuted last season. There’s risk in putting a 263-pound man in the outfield, so his every move will be watched this spring. Oswaldo Arcia, in terrific shape after spending all offseason in Florida, also could play in right, and Max Kepler will be in the wings.
Kurt Suzuki batted .240 last season — 48 points lower than in 2014. That put more focus on his work behind the plate, where he didn’t throw out a lot of would-be base stealers and is considered a below average pitch framer. So the Twins sent center fielder Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for John Ryan Murphy, who will share time with Suzuki. Former backups Josmil Pinto and Chris Herrmann are gone, and prospects Stuart Turner and Mitch Garver aren’t quite ready yet.
By now, plenty of folks have seen Byung Ho Park’s home run videos on YouTube. His swing is easy. He can drive the ball the other way. But he’ll have to face pitchers who throw 5 to 7 miles per hour harder than the ones he saw in Korea. He will be one of the most closely watched players in camp as he transitions to Major League Baseball. Miguel Sano, Oswaldo Arcia and Kennys Vargas could all slip into the DH role if Park struggles.
The Twins won’t have problems assembling a starting five if everyone is healthy. Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana and Kyle Gibson should be locks. Tyler Duffey, who was impressive during a second-half promotion, should earn a spot. Tommy Milone is lefthanded and can weave his way through a batting order when he’s on. That leaves Trevor May and Ricky Nolasco. May is needed in the bullpen, and Nolasco has had two rough seasons and was injured last year. Look for him to land in the bullpen as well. Top prospect Jose Berrios deserves a shot but will likely open the season in the minors.
If Ricky Nolasco and Trevor May are in the bullpen, that leaves five open spots. Lefthander Glen Perkins, hampered by back and neck problems last season, returns to the closer role he relinquished late last season to righthander Kevin Jepsen. This year’s plan calls for Jepsen to be the setup man for Perkins. That leaves three spots. Righthander Casey Fien has been reliable, likely leaving righthanders Ryan Pressly, J.R. Graham, Michael Tonkin and Alex Meyer in the mix for the final two spots. One problem: a lack of another lefty other than Perkins. Prospect Taylor Rogers and minor league free agent Fernando Abad could be options. Nick Burdi leads a handful of hard-throwing relief prospects who could debut at some point.