It’s one thing to begin spring training wondering what the Twins’ Opening Day roster might look like. By now, Paul Molitor is used to that.
But Minnesota’s manager has never come to Florida wondering how many of his 25 eventual Twins are actually there.
“It’s going to be a little different. I can’t worry about what-ifs. I just have to prepare with the guys who are in camp, and be ready to [make changes] if the need arises,” Molitor said, pondering his fourth training camp as Twins manager. “Expect the unexpected, right?”
Something like that, yes. But this spring training camp, which opens Tuesday in Fort Myers, is unusual in more ways than one. First, there is the anticipation of adding players, perhaps headliners, as the spring goes along. That rare circumstance is a result of the most turgid free-agent market in 30 years, a stagnation that leaves more than 100 free agents, some of them Twins targets, still unemployed and available.
“I’d agree that there is more work to be done than is typical for this point on the calendar,” said Derek Falvey, Twins chief baseball officer. “But there still is plenty of time to sort everything out. The important part is [improving] your team, not the timing.”
Then there is the curious upside-down nature of the Twins’ biggest mysteries, and the fact that, like the free-agent decisions, the answers may lie with the roster builders — Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine — more than Molitor and his staff.
Under normal circumstances, particularly lately, the choices to be made in Florida have revolved around kids. Which prospects are ready? How good can the rookies be? When can they be counted upon?
But the Twins have long since committed to youth. Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios — these are the Twins you can expect to cheer for the next decade. The judgments left to Falvey and Levine over the next seven weeks, and the next seven months, revolve around several veterans, not youngsters, and those decisions might determine the Twins’ future while also revealing a great deal about their management style and strategy.
Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana, 30-something pillars of the 2017 team that ended a six-year postseason drought, reach career crossroads once the 2018 season ends. Phil Hughes, who at the moment has more future salary guaranteed him than any other Twin, is trying to reclaim his place in the team’s plans. And Fernando Rodney, a newcomer who will be the first 40-year-old to break camp with the Twins since Jim Thome in 2011, is aiming to fill the hyper-prominent role of closer.
Only at the Supreme Court do so many landmark decisions hinge upon such relative geezers.
While gloves are being oiled and infields are being dragged, here are a handful of questions to ponder about Twins camp 2018:
Who is in the starting rotation?
Berrios is a given after posting a 3.89 ERA in his first full season, and Kyle Gibson and Adalberto Mejia, coming off so-so seasons, are nevertheless favorites to retain their spots. Santana’s surgery last week on the middle finger of his pitching hand figures to cost him most of April, but the Twins don’t expect him to be gone any longer.
Trevor May returns from elbow surgery, Hughes from a second operation to correct thoracic outlet syndrome. Long reliever Tyler Duffey might be given another look, too.
But Falvey and Levine have made it clear all winter that they intend to add a starting pitcher — or two — via the free-agent market, and that plan hasn’t changed. “We’ve been on the record that we want to add to our pitching group,” Falvey said last week, “and we’re still on that path.”
Yu Darvish had been the most popular object of speculation, but the Twins were committed to attracting the Japanese star only at their price. On Saturday the Chicago Cubs and Darvish struck a deal for six years and $126 million. Lance Lynn could be a more affordable option, perhaps along with a second candidate like lefthander Jaime Garcia — a Twin for a week last July — or a reclamation candidate like ex-Oriole Chris Tillman.
“We’re having active conversations with multiple people every day,” Falvey said.
What is Sano’s situation?
Sano, an All-Star at third base, had been putting his surgically repaired shin through daily workouts in hopes of being ready when the season opens March 29 but is also waiting to hear whether he will be eligible to play.
Major League Baseball is investigating an alleged assault two years ago that came to light when a photographer posted on Twitter a description of an incident at Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka during the final weekend of the 2015 season.
Sano had surgery on Nov. 13 when a steel rod was inserted into his left shin to stabilize the bone, and there’s no guarantee he will be physically ready for the opener. Potential penalties for the 24-year-old under MLB’s two-year-old policy on violence and sexual assault have only added to the cloud surrounding him.
Under the policy negotiated between MLB and the players union, the teams have no role in the investigation; the commissioner’s office handles it, and Commissioner Rob Manfred decides whether to impose penalties, and what they will be.
The team would prefer a decision before the full squad reports Feb. 19, but that seems unlikely.
Goodbye for Mauer, Dozier and/or Santana?
Levine said the Twins intend to offer some of their young players multiyear contracts during spring training. But the Twins who face the most uncertain contractual futures are the team’s most visible players.
Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million contract expires in October. Dozier reaches free agency then, too, after earning a far-below-market-value $20 million over his four-year extension. And the Twins hold the right to renew Santana’s contract for $14 million in 2019 if the righthander fails to pitch 200 innings this summer.
All three have become iconic in Twins uniforms — Mauer and Dozier have never played anywhere else — and allowing any of the three to walk away would be a large disruption of this team’s identity. Dozier campaigned for an extension during his TwinsFest appearances in January, saying his status is “the elephant in the room.”
Santana’s future will be up to the Twins, making his status less urgent. But Mauer might present a conundrum for the Twins’ front office. If he wants to keep playing — and after posting an .801 OPS at age 34, why wouldn’t he? — how much of a pay cut would he accept? What is the appropriate price range for a franchise icon?
Is the bullpen already settled?
The Twins signed the soon-to-be-41 Rodney, and his 300 career saves, to a one-year, $4.5 million contract in mid-December. Rodney emphasized that he signed with Minnesota to be the closer, and Levine reaffirmed that commitment, even after signing another former closer, Addison Reed.
So it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the ex-Tiger/Angel/Ray/Mariner/Cub/Padre/Marlin/Diamondback isn’t Molitor’s choice for ninth-inning chores in April, if not beyond. It’s not without considerable risk, of course; Rodney carried a 4.23 ERA and blew six saves last season, and only five closers in MLB history have ever had a 20-save season after their 41st birthday — and four of them (Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Trevor Hoffman and Hoyt Wilhelm) are in the Hall of Fame.
Coincidentally, the fifth pitcher in that group, LaTroy Hawkins, will help Rodney settle in with the Twins this spring.
In Reed, however, the Twins secured a competent backup at the relatively bargain price of $17 million over two years.
Here’s what’s odd, however: A bullpen whose 4.40 ERA was the fourth worst in the AL might not have many spots available in camp. In addition to Rodney, the Twins signed Reed, an accomplished setup man with the Mets and White Sox, and Zach Duke, a lefthanded specialist most recently with the Cardinals, to the mix. Sidearmer Trevor Hildenberger, lefty Taylor Rogers and righty Ryan Pressly figure to be assured of relief roles, so the last few bullpen spots will be hotly contested.
Will John Curtiss or Gabriel Moya, who had intriguing moments in September, claim spots in 2018? Does J.T. Chargois or Alan Busenitz survive the spring competition?
What about the youngsters?
OK, enough about the veterans. There are a handful of young players in camp, too, trying to prove they’re ready to make the jump. Lefthander Stephen Gonsalves and righthander Aaron Slegers, coming off strong seasons in the minor leagues, could sneak into the rotation with a strong spring (though Gonsalves, with only four Class AAA starts, probably will start in Rochester).
Righty Fernando Romero, too, will get a serious look, with the Twins open to a call-up later this season.
Tyler Kinley, the Twins’ Rule 5 pick on the heels of his impressive 32-strikeout, 19-inning performance in the Dominican Winter League, must remain in the Twins’ bullpen or be offered back to the Marlins. And Curtiss and Chargois are in the mix for those scarce bullpen spots, too.