Baseball once envisioned the July 4th weekend to be a celebration of the return of sport, but salary negotiations scotched those plans. Instead, the Twins convene training camp on Friday, hoping to make this bizarre coronavirus summer memorable for an entirely different reason.
Here are five questions for the Twins to answer over the next three weeks at Target Field:
How will this work?
The Twins know how to run a training camp, but not one like this. MLB's manual dictating how baseball will be practiced and then played amid a pandemic runs more than 120 pages now and is so specific, it includes graphics to illustrate where everyone should stand to remain socially distanced when they are, for example, doing bunt-defense drills, hitting the cutoff man or just standing in the dugout.
Workout sessions will be staggered in order to keep the number of player interactions low, with pitchers and position players working at different times of day. "The workouts will look different from normal workouts, in order to keep people separated," Rocco Baldelli said. The Twins' manager visited St. Paul Saints' training camp last week to observe their workouts and get some idea of what works and what doesn't.
There are plenty of new on-field rules to follow, too, starting with: no spitting, a change that's difficult to imagine in a sport with a chewing-tobacco or sunflower-seed habit. No touching your face, licking your fingers or whistling with your fingers. Coaches can't stand next to a baserunner, and baseballs are tossed out of play if touched by multiple fielders, to be picked up by someone wearing gloves.
The virus will form the backdrop of every day of this 2020 season, and testing will be a daily fixture. Nobody knows what happens if the virus infects multiple players on a team, or if a player or coach becomes seriously ill. "But we understand that we all are responsible to each other," Baldelli said.
How fast can pitchers get ready?
Spring training camps closed on March 12, so this break is roughly the same length as a full winter. But instead of seven weeks to prepare, pitchers will have three.
Most Twins pitchers had a month of ramp-up time in Florida and have continued throwing during the break, so they figure to be further along than when they arrive in mid-February. Jose Berrios left camp vowing to stay ready, and posted videos on Twitter in April and May of him throwing at close to full speed.
Similarly, Jake Odorizzi said in late March that his intention was to throw 70 "live" pitches once or twice a week, simulating breaks between innings, to remain stretched out enough to pitch five innings once camp reopened. "I want to stay in that good spring shape, so I can start strong," Odorizzi said. "I'm hoping I won't need more than one or two [weeks] to ramp up to game shape."
Since those are the Twins' top two starters, there is reason to be optimistic about the rotation. But 16 weeks is a long time without structured workouts, and the Twins have a broad mix of potential starters — veterans Homer Bailey, Kenta Maeda and Michael Pineda, all in their 30s, along with technically-still-rookies Devin Smeltzer, Randy Dobnak and Lewis Thorpe, all 25 or younger. And Rich Hill is 40, coming back from offseason elbow surgery.
With so little time, many teams are openly talking about starting the season with a six-man rotation, and the Twins may join them. "We've certainly kicked it around," President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey said. "It's going to be important for us to monitor — how does Jose feel as he's building up? Do we need to manage him in the early going? Same with Jake, same with Kenta, same with everybody."
Will game speed be a problem?
From a preparation standpoint, this is the biggest difference between spring training and summer camp: exhibition games. In Florida, the Twins play 35 games each spring, giving players plenty of time to recapture their timing and internalize the daily rhythm of the game. But teams will be allowed to schedule only three preseason games this month, right before Opening Day. The Twins, who haven't yet finalized any games with another team, plan to begin playing intrasquad games shortly after camp begins in order to fill that gap.
"We'll do what we can to simulate game conditions," Falvey said. "But we've got to be mindful of where each pitcher is in his own process."
For as much worry as teams have about pitching arms, Baldelli points out that pitchers don't need to face hitters to prepare physically. "Sometimes it's actually harder to do as a position player," Baldelli said, since they will have gone months since seeing their last 95-mph fastball.
What roster questions remain?
The Twins broke camp with 23 or 24 roster spots settled, but a 30-man roster for the season's first two weeks, with 59 players available, creates new opportunities. It seems like a chance to add more pitchers, but Falvey said the ease of moving players to and from the taxi squad may make that unnecessary.
Decisions must be made about whether Willians Astudillo makes the team as a third catcher (more likely now) and which outfielder, Jake Cave or LaMonte Wade Jr., assumes the role of backup outfielder (or perhaps both).
But the pitching staff is the unsettled part, beginning with those eight (not counting the suspended Pineda) starting pitchers. Former Brewer Jhoulys Chacin was still in the mix when camp broke, too, and Baldelli and Falvey will have to decide whether any of the starters could come out of the bullpen.
Tyler Clippard, Tyler Duffey, Zack Littell, Trevor May, Taylor Rogers and Sergio Romo all have claims on relief roles, leaving two or perhaps three spots available for Matt Wisler, Cody Stashak, Jorge Alcala and nonroster veterans such as Caleb Thielbar, Ryan Garton, Cory Gearrin and Danny Coulombe to battle over.
Is this team as good as it looks on paper?
Six months after signing Josh Donaldson to supercharge an already-potent lineup and stabilize the defense, the Twins will finally get to see him hit in Target Field. Miguel Sano will man first base, and Luis Arraez gets a full season to follow up on a thrilling rookie season. Byron Buxton is healthy again, and the perpetually pitching-short Twins suddenly find themselves with an array of options.
"In Florida, you could tell there was an optimism among the group. We took really good steps last year and wanted to build off that," Falvey said. "I don't think there's a change in that feeling. … It's going to be more a sprint than a marathon. Everybody has to approach it with the idea that every game is going to matter that much more this year, and we need to be ready to go from the outset. We have high expectations and hope for our team this year."