FORT MYERS, FLA. – Paul Molitor believes seven relievers are enough. His predecessor, Ron Gardenhire, felt the same way.
It seldom lasted.
Molitor said Tuesday he intends to fill out his 25-man roster with 13 position players and 12 pitchers.
“I don’t want to be hamstrung right out of the chute, positionally, and only have three guys” on the bench, Molitor said. “Right now, I’m picturing 12 pitchers,” including five starters.
He also intends to carry two catchers rather than three, keep an open mind about who might wind up on the bench, and designate a semi-permanent designated hitter rather than rotate the spot as a quasi-day-off, Molitor said in giving his first general — albeit tentative — breakdown of the Twins’ projected roster. And the oft-floated notion of rotation candidates Mike Pelfrey or Alex Meyer moving to the bullpen? Probably not going to happen, Molitor said.
“It would be tough because it would be so new. Mike traditionally has been a guy that takes some time to get ready, and it’d be a big transition for him to get up and throw 12 pitches and come into the ballgame. Alex is a very routine guy, and for a young kid, you work him in as a starter in camp and all of a sudden you go, ‘OK let’s give him a couple innings out of the pen here and then throw him into a major league game.’ It’s hard to see how that could happen in the short-term,” Molitor said. “We’re going to keep them in that starter’s role for now.”
When Molitor was a player, most teams were built quite differently than today.
“Ten and 15 for a long time,” he said of the standard pitcher-to-hitter ratio. But “that has evolved,” he said, into bullpens full of one-inning-or-less relievers who are called upon more frequently than in years past, necessitating more pitchers.
“Not very much flexibility that way,” Molitor said.
No, but as Gardenhire found out every year, flexibility eventually would be sacrificed for live arms. The Twins have opened every season since at least 2006 with a 12-man pitching staff, but over the past five years, they haven’t made it beyond mid-May without adding an eighth relief pitcher — and in two of the past three, the season wasn’t three weeks old before another arm had to be called up from Class AAA.
“I have a vision,” Molitor said of a four-man bench. But, he added, “Things can change.”
So can the lineup, but for now, Molitor said, the team appears set at six positions.
“Center fielder [and] shortstop is going to be competitive,” he said of the only real battles to be waged for starting spots. Aaron Hicks and Jordan Schafer are the chief candidates for the outfield, while Danny Santana, the incumbent in center, and Eduardo Escobar, the holdover at short, are competing for the latter’s job. Molitor has made it clear he wants Santana to play his natural position in the infield, and Santana has not taken part in outfield drills this spring.
The runners-up in those position battles will be the favorites for bench positions, but Molitor said he hasn’t yet determined how many players will be kept at each position, much less who they might be.
“Four outfielders, five outfielders, one utility guy in the infield, two utility guys? That will affect how [other bench positions] work,” Molitor said. “That’s why in today’s game, with as many pitchers as people carry, the versatility becomes a little bit more important.”
Still, he can make room for a non-versatile player such as Kennys Vargas, he said, if the huge Puerto Rican slugger follows up his electrifying debut last summer — nine homers and 38 RBI in 53 games — with a solid spring. Baseball managers, including Gardenhire, have increasingly used the designated hitter lineup spot as a chance to give position players a day off, often on a rotating basis.
But the Twins’ new manager would prefer to write in the same name every day.
“If you’ve got David Ortiz, he’s going to DH, right?” Molitor said, to use a particularly painful example for Twins’ fans. “Kennys’ obviously the leading candidate to fill a lot of those at-bats but he’s got work to do. We’re not going to hand him anything, even after a somewhat impressive debut last year.”
Still, the manager said, “hopefully he can play a position [first base, in Vargas’ case] at least enough to where you can rotate guys through there occasionally.”
Gardenhire annually wrestled with the decision whether to carry two or three catchers, feeling hamstrung in his ability to pinch-hit for a catcher because it left him without options in case of injury. Molitor said he is inclined to keep only one backup, presumably Eric Fryer or Josmil Pinto, each of whom held the job last year. In Pinto’s case, it may come down to a decision over whether he has improved enough defensively to earn the position behind Kurt Suzuki.