February 16, 2009

Early Roster Outlook

Another long offseason finally came to an end Sunday when pitchers and catchers reported to camp and spring training games begin next week, so it seems like a good time to examine the Twins' roster. We're still about seven weeks away from Opening Day and that time will be filled with talk about players battling for jobs, but while that makes for some nice intrigue in reality it looks like 22 of 25 roster spots have essentially already been accounted for unless the Twins make some last-minute moves.

The rotation is set with five 27-and-under starters because for once the Twins resisted the annual urge to bring in some washed-up veteran to provide "leadership" in the form of a 5.50 ERA. The bullpen also has five spots locked in after the Twins signed Luis Ayala last week to join Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, and Craig Breslow in front of Joe Nathan. Setting aside the fact that a 12-man pitching staff is overkill, if the Twins go with a dozen pitchers that would leave them with two bullpen spots up for grabs:

SP   Scott Baker             CL    Joe Nathan
SP Francisco Liriano RH Jesse Crain
SP Kevin Slowey RH Matt Guerrier
SP Nick Blackburn RH Luis Ayala
SP Glen Perkins LH Craig Breslow

Maybe: Boof Bonser, Philip Humber, Jose Mijares, Bobby Korecky, Jason Jones

Jose Mijares was called up in mid-September and was the Twins' primary setup man two weeks later, yet the team seems to be leaning toward sending him back to Triple-A. Because he has minor-league options remaining Mijares can be stashed at Rochester for a while, whereas Philip Humber and Boof Bonser both would need to pass through waivers before a trip to Triple-A. Humber and Bonser being out of options also hurts Bobby Korecky, who's beyond deserving of an extended chance at this point.

Rule 5 pick Jason Jones will also be in the mix because the Twins must offer him back to the Yankees if they don't keep him on the 25-man roster, but he projects as a marginal mop-up man and is clearly a long shot. It would have sounded implausible back in September, but right now the odds are probably in favor of Bonser and Humber making the team while Mijares and Korecky head to Triple-A. However, trading Bonser or Humber is possible and Mijares can probably pitch his way into a job.

Part of the problem with a 12-man pitching staff is that there simply isn't enough consistent work to go around, but the other issue is that it leaves room for just four bench players. Three of those spots are reserved for the backup catcher, the non-starting half of the third-base platoon, and the guy who draws the short straw in the outfield jogjam. All of which leaves room for exactly one position player to actually win a spot on the Opening Day roster during spring training:

C    Joe Mauer                C    Mike Redmond
1B Justin Morneau IF Brendan Harris
2B Alexi Casilla OF Delmon Young
SS Nick Punto
3B Brian Buscher
LF Denard Span
CF Carlos Gomez
RF Michael Cuddyer
DH Jason Kubel

Maybe: Matt Tolbert, Jason Pridie, Matt Macri, Steven Tolleson

Matt Tolbert has to be considered the overwhelming favorite for the final bench spot after spending the bulk of last year with the Twins while predictably earning Ron Gardenhire's love as a poor man's Nick Punto. Tolbert is also a switch-hitter who can play just about anywhere defensively and that versatility is valuable on a four-man bench. Steve Tolleson is similarly versatile, but there's little reason to think that the Twins would choose him over Tolbert, and Matt Macri is superfluous with Brendan Harris around.

Jason Pridie is probably as ready for the majors as he ever will be and has the skills that many teams value in a reserve, but the odds of the Twins going with six outfielders seem slim considering that one starter will already be on the bench at all times. Third catcher Jose Morales could factor into the bench equation if Joe Mauer has a setback in his recovery from kidney surgery and Alejando Machado may join Tolleson in the fight to unseat Tolbert if his arm strength has returned following shoulder surgery.

If the Twins were to sign Joe Crede that would make him the everyday third baseman, push Harris into a full-time bench role, and probably leave Tolbert fighting Brian Buscher for the final bench spot. Short of that or a Delmon Young trade there may not be much intrigue down in Fort Myers as far as the roster is concerned, but between the crowded outfield and unsettled bullpen picture there will be plenty to talk about in terms of how that roster is utilized.

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