Everyone is waiting for the Twins to add a quality starter after Ervin Santana had finger surgery that will keep him out until May. Santana’s absence allows Jose Berrios to practice being the staff ace for a while. After him, there’s Kyle Gibson and lefty Adalberto Mejia, both of whom started last season, and Phil Hughes, who missed most of the season and had thoracic outlet revision surgery in August. Top prospect Stephen Gonsalves should debut sometime this season, and the 97-mph fastballing Fernando Romero isn’t far behind. Until a new starter (or starters) is added, names like Aaron Slegers, Felix Jorge and Dietrich Enns must be considered in the mix.
Taylor Rodgers and Trevor Hildenberger showed last season that they can withstand the heat of the crucible. But the Twins still lacked some muscle, and that is why they added righthanders Fernando Rodney and Addison Reed. Rodney is the key to this whole thing. If he can succeed as the closer, leaving Reed to set up and Rodgers and Hildenberger to match up, then the Twins can be tough late in the game. New addition Zach Duke is this year’s Matt Belisle. Ryan Pressly has plenty of experience. John Curtiss and Alan Busenitz are young and talented. J.T. Chargois and Gabriel Moya are young options, too. Potentially, it’s one of their best bullpens in years. Potentially.
Jason Castro is the unquestioned starter. He doesn’t provide a lot of offense, but he handles pitchers well and can steal strikes with his pitch-framing acumen. What will be interesting is the arrival of Mitch Garver as his backup/protégé/heir apparent. Garver has some offensive ability — he had more triples than Eddie Rosario, for goodness sakes — and has improved his defense. The Twins want Garver to earn the job in camp, but who are they kidding — does anyone think Anthony Recker or Bobby Wilson is going to beat out one of their top 20 prospects?
Joe Mauer outperformed expectations last season, hitting .305 with a .384 on-base percentage. The Twins could use more run production from him, but his ability to get on base is a good fit in this lineup. The St. Paul icon is entering the final year of his contract but can make a case for the Twins to bring him back for a couple more years. Kennys Vargas figures to be his backup.
Brian Dozier is an elite second baseman. Let that swirl around your brain for a moment. He’s averaged 34 home runs over the past three seasons and is coming off his first Gold Glove award. He runs well, plays 150 games a year and can carry an offense. The leader of the Twins also is heading into the final year of his contract, creating the possibility of more Dozier trade deadline angst.
What a season 2017 was for Jorge Polanco. He was decent at the plate early, horrible in June and disgusting in July when he lost his starting job. Then he caught fire, batting .373 in August, and heads into this season as the unquestioned shortstop. Given the Twins’ depth at the position in the minors — and the possibility of Dozier leaving as a free agent after this season — Polanco still could end up at second. But this year isn’t that year. Handyman Ehire Adrianza backs him up.
Miguel Sano was an All-Star last season, but the second half led to trouble. First he suffered a stress reaction in his left leg that sidelined him down the stretch, and eventually resulted in surgery to put a rod into his left shin. Then he was accused on Twitter of assaulting a woman in 2015, resulting in a Major League Baseball investigation that could lead to a suspension. The 290-pound Sano — that’s what he weighed right before the injury — has some issues to deal with. Eduardo Escobar filled in for Sano last season and helped the Twins reach the postseason. And Escobar could be needed again.
You used to get Eddie Rosario out by throwing pitches neck high or ankle high and watching him swing and miss. He still does that sometimes, but one of the pleasant developments for the Twins last year was that Rosario began to show some plate discipline. His strikeout rate dropped from 25.7 percent to 18 percent as he hit 27 homers while batting .290. Again he’s not a finished product, but there are signs of some polish.
The Twins were encouraged in 2015 and 2016 when Byron Buxton’s late surge at the plate suggested that he had found his offensive game. But by May 2016 and 2017, Buxton was back hitting in the low .200s. Last year, he hit .387 in July and .324 in August and looked to have things figured out. His speed is unquestioned. His defense is spectacular. But he’s still trying to bring out his 30-homer, 30-steal talent. Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler can fill in whenever Buxton gets injured trying to run through a wall. And Zack Granite can play all three outfield spots.
Max Kepler once looked to be ahead of Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton on the development curve but now has become the guy the Twins continue to wait for. But he just passed 1,000 career plate appearances, which means he should be ready to show just what kind of player he can be. He has the swing, speed and arm to be one of the better all-around players on the team, and he could start showing that this season.
The Twins could still add a veteran masher to at least split duties here, but for now the job belongs to Kenny Vargas and Robbie Grossman. Grossman is not a prototypical DH but fits in the lineup for his ability to get on base. Vargas has tantalizing power but has yet to put it together. Since they aren’t everyday players, the Twins will use the spot to give Joe Mauer and Miguel Sano a break from playing in the field every now and then.