FORT MYERS, FLA. – Pitchers and catchers report Wednesday.
Those hallowed words of spring training make it seem as if it’s a landmark day. But if you took a trip around the CenturyLink Sports Complex on Friday, you would think the Twins already are in full-scale preparation for the 2019 season. Dozens of cars were parked near the workout fields and pitchers were throwing in the bullpen. The grounds crew manicured the Hammond Stadium field.
Derek Falvey has been in Fort Myers for most of the week, beginning his third season as Twins chief baseball officer.
There’s been something going on at the complex for most of the offseason, as the club did away with the traditional instructional league in October and November and instead switched to a series of minicamps designed for specific players. Pitchers showed up one weekend to work on mechanics. Others came in for conditioning drills — with infield prospect Nick Gordon making four trips to Fort Myers to sculpt his slender frame. Power-hitting development was the topic one weekend.
In more ways than one, baseball really has no offseason.
That’s definitely the case when it comes to player acquisition, as more than 80 free agents remain on the market. The Twins, coming off a 79-83 season that cost manager Paul Molitor his job, are at the end of a methodical offseason, one in which Nelson Cruz’s $14.3 million deal was their largest signing.
The Twins are just part of a trend in which teams are more reluctant than ever to hand out multiyear deals to free agents.
The club believes it will have a more productive offense, a steady rotation and a bullpen driven by young arms. This is all under the direction of 37-year-old Rocco Baldelli, whose next game as manager will be his first. The first workout is set for Thursday, when the Twins begin to see if they have indeed done enough.
As camp nears, let’s examine some key issues surrounding the Twins.
1. Are they done signing free agents?
This one is tricky. The Twins signed Lance Lynn and Logan Morrison after camp started last year, and didn’t like the results. They would prefer to be finished before camp opens and are in monitor mode at the moment. They could bring in a couple more pitchers, such as Ryan Madson or Jake Diekman, on minor league deals with invites to camp. Or someone else might fall into their laps. According to Sportrac, the Twins spent $27.6 million on free agency this offseason, tops among AL Central teams and 13th in baseball. But they certainly can take on more payroll if they choose.
2. What does Roccoball look like?
The new manager believes players will perform better when they are relaxed and having fun. Baldelli comes to the Twins with the reputation of being able to connect with all types of players. His communication skills as head of a team with several developing players will be critical to any progress the Twins make this season. “You have discipline, you do things the right way, you get your work in,” Baldelli said during the winter meetings in December. “But when you are out there, you find ways to have a good time with the people you’re with.” One subtle change already is in play: Workouts will begin later in the morning.
3. How long will that chip stay on Byron Buxton’s shoulder?
This is a massive spring for the young center fielder, who was not happy about not being called up to the Twins in September. Buxton didn’t sound pleased during a charity appearance in December, and he still sounded like a man on a mission during TwinsFest last month. He has added just over 20 pounds of muscle during the offseason, and he looks determined to prove that he was worth all the hype as one of baseball’s top prospects. The Twins could use a leadoff hitter. With a better eye at the plate — paired with his supersonic speed — Buxton could give Baldelli one less thing to worry about.
4. Does less weight equal more production?
Let’s be honest: Fat people have produced in baseball. From the Bambino to Prince Fielder to CC Sabathia, big bellies have not stopped players from putting up numbers. But when something goes wrong, weight is labeled the problem. By all accounts, Miguel Sano is in noticeably better shape than last season, when he weighed in at 290 pounds. Will Svelte Sano perform closer to 2015, when he posted a .916 OPS as a 22-year-old rookie? Or will it be more like the next three seasons, during which he struck out 466 times in 301 games with a .787 OPS?
5. What does the new pitching setup look like?
Wes Johnson takes over as the third Twins pitching coach in as many seasons, and he is attempting to make the jump from the college ranks to the majors — the first time it has ever been done. The Twins like Johnson’s enthusiasm and his ability to develop pitchers. That will be put to the test with a staff that has a few veterans but a bunch of arms in their mid-20s. Eddie Guardado has moved on to become a special assistant to the club president, so Jeremy Hefner comes in as bullpen coach. It’s about as creative as a club can be in handling the most important commodity in baseball, pitching.