FORT MYERS, FLA. – Sunshine soaked Hammond Stadium on Sunday as catcher Mitch Garver slipped on a pair of shades and looked out at some of his Twins teammates as they went through drills before their game against Toronto.
The batting order included Garver, Josh Donaldson and Miguel Sano. It was Donaldson’s Grapefruit League debut with the Twins, while Garver and Sano were key players in the rise of the BombaSquad in 2019.
“It’s a pretty good lineup,” Garver said of Sunday’s starting nine.
But those three were the only regulars in a lineup of mostly minor leaguers. There will be many days of this during the initial phase of spring training games as manager Rocco Baldelli balances his evaluation of younger players with making sure his regulars stay on the right progression toward being ready for Opening Day. That second part can be tricky, as each veteran prepares at a different rate.
For those eager to see what BombaSquad 2.0 looks like — in terms of watching their favorite players getting reps in as well as deciphering clues as to what Baldelli is considering for an Opening Day lineup — the wait can be agonizing. But it is part of the pace of spring.
Before Baldelli can explore lineup combinations — it sure sounds like he has thought about some — he has got to get his horses on the track. Some will play early, some will not.
“We do it overall on a pretty individual basis,” Baldelli said of his plan to rest some players early. “So there could be some guys that may fall into these categories that you might not think about at first, but whatever each guy needs is what we’re going to give them, so that’s kind of the way we think about it.”
The tiers of availability appear to be in three groups. Veterans such as Donaldson and Nelson Cruz might not play in many games early. Cruz, for instance, appeared in only one of the Twins’ first 13 games last spring.
“Donaldson and Nellie will ramp up on a different schedule,” Baldelli said.
The second group includes players who battled some injuries last season and need to be eased into action. Byron Buxton, recovering from shoulder surgery, might not play until mid-March. Marwin Gonzalez was hampered by a hamstring strain in the middle of last season and oblique issues late in the season. Jorge Polanco was banged up from June on and played through it the best he could.
“I don’t think it’ll be too, too long before we see Marwin in games,” Baldelli said. “Although he’ll be a little bit behind most of the group. Polo will probably be after that and Buck will be after that as far as when these guys are probably going to take the field.”
There will be a point in March at which Baldelli will have close to his full first team squad at his disposal, and then he will be able to experiment with his lineup card.
Nearly everyone responsible for setting the single-season major league home run record of 307 in 2019 is back, plus Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP. Debates should rage on throughout the next several weeks about how Baldelli should craft his lineup. Heck, there might not be a consensus on a leadoff hitter.
Baldelli could stick with what worked last season and primarily use Max Kepler, who produced a .252 batting average, 36 homers, 90 RBI and a .336 on-base percentage — while missing 28 games.
Baldelli could go with the new hotness in second baseman Luis Arraez, who reached the majors and batted .334 in 92 games last season with a delicious .399 on-base percentage.
“It’s something you certainly think about,” Baldelli said of using Arraez at leadoff. “The guy went out and had a .400 on-base percentage for us last year. It’s a tremendous option for us and we also had a guy who hit 30-some-odd home runs and had the best year of his career offensively hitting in the leadoff spot too. We’ll have plenty of options.”
He even used Garver as a leadoff hitter against lefthanded starters last year, watching him hit 12 homers in 26 games in that spot while posting a 1.080 on base-plus-slugging percentage.
“Mitch handled it great,” Baldelli said, “and truthfully, the quality of the at-bats was so good that we didn’t want to take him out of that spot.”
Does Cruz return to the No. 3 spot? Who will bat in front of Buxton, who is expected to be the No. 9 hitter? What happens to Polanco? When Gonzalez plays, how does that impact the batting order?
“I think he can close his eyes and pick out of a hat,” Garver said of Baldelli. “He would be happy with anybody.”
Baldelli does understand that what happens one season might not continue to the next. Hitters continue to grow. Some regress. Some are more productive in some spots than others. Baldelli will figure it all out once he gets his players in games. And there might not be such a thing as a set lineup with this group.
“We’ve talked to our guys already this spring about the type of team and the type of lineup that we could have,” Baldelli said, “and that guys could be hitting in spots that they might not be totally familiar with because we have to.”