FORT MYERS, Fla.
Twins pitchers and catchers report to the CenturyLink complex Wednesday to begin spring training. After a 101-victory season, in which they hit a major league-record 307 home runs and won the AL Central title by eight games, they were swept in the American League Division Series by the Yankees to extend their postseason losing streak to 16. During the offseason, they signed 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson to take over at third base, moving Miguel Sano to first. They also reworked their rotation, although a snag in last week’s trade left Brusdar Graterol and possible addition Kenta Maeda in limbo. Here are five story lines to watch during the 47 days of spring training, which runs until March 23.
1. Byron Buxton’s recovery from shoulder surgery
When Buxton, a Gold Glove-winning center fielder, is healthy, he makes the Twins better. The injury-prone 26-year-old ran into a wall in Miami on Aug. 1 and finally had surgery on Sept. 10 to repair the labrum in his left shoulder. It’s scary to think what his presence would have meant in the playoffs. Cleared in mid-January to swing a bat, Buxton has been working out in Fort Myers for the past three weeks. Without setbacks, he could be ready for Opening Day. Twins fans will cross their fingers during every spring training appearance — especially when a collision with a wall looms.
2. Who fills out the starting rotation?
The big story of the Twins’ offseason was the team’s pursuit of starting pitching. The Twins came close on Zack Wheeler, who was one of the most sought-after free agents. Last week’s trade for Maeda gave them a No. 3 starter, but that situation remained unclear. They signed veteran free agents Rich Hill — a lefthander who is rehabbing from elbow surgery and will miss at least the first two months — Homer Bailey and Jhoulys Chacin. Michael Pineda will be in spring training but must serve the remaining 39 games of his suspension for using a banned diuretic. The top two starters, righthanders Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi, were All-Stars last season. Righties Randy Dobnak and Chacin and lefties Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe are the main contenders for the spot in the season-opening rotation behind Berrios, Odorizzi, Maeda (if he eventually joins the team) and Bailey.
3. Two guys for one spot?
The addition of Donaldson means the everyday lineup seems set, assuming Buxton will be OK. The Twins don’t have many decisions to make for what should be a four-man bench. One reserve will be catcher Alex Avila. One will be jack-of-all-trades Marwin Gonzalez. One should be infielder Ehire Adrianza. That leaves one spot open, with outfielder Jake Cave and utility hacker Willians Astudillo the main candidates. Good thing MLB rosters have been expanded to 26 players this season.
4. There will be eight, but which eight?
The Twins have 13 games scheduled over the first 14 days of the regular season, followed by 16 over the next 17 days. Consequently, they are preparing to break camp with a 13-man pitching staff. The core of the bullpen appears to be lefthander Taylor Rogers and righthanders Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard and Zack Littell. That leaves two spots. Cody Stashak, Fernando Romero and Matt Wisler will contend; if Graterol stays, he will be another strong arm.
5. How will the Twins deal with high expectations?
No one knew what to expect in Rocco Baldelli’s first season as manager, but everything seemed to work. Certainly no one saw the Twins winning 101 games, but they revved up the team’s analytical engines and introduced routines that got the most out of the players. And several players had career years. Now there are sky-high expectations, as well as the sting of a quick postseason ousting. Motivation and focus should not be a problem after last year, but all eyes are looking to see how players respond after a record-breaking 2019.