FORT MYERS, FLA. – Josh Donaldson put on a show during batting practice on Wednesday, blasting pitch after pitch over the outfield fence. During one stretch, he assaulted the batter’s eye with cannon shots, drawing applause from onlookers.
The Twins are at the point during spring training where they will begin to see Donaldson in action during games, offering tantalizing glimpses of what that power could do for a lineup that already has plenty of it. The Grapefruit League opener takes place Saturday when the Twins head to Bradenton to take on Pittsburgh. While eyes will be on Donaldson’s first games as a Twin, here are some other things to watch for as the final 26-man roster will take shape over these next 32 games.
Table for one: The top four of the starting rotation is pretty much set, with Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Kenta Maeda and Homer Bailey. That leaves four contenders for the final spot of the rotation. Righthander Randy Dobnak and lefthanders Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe are homegrown contenders. Righthander Jhoulys Chacin is a free agent who needs fixing and is one year removed from being Milwaukee’s best starter. This will be the classic pitch-off.
When will Lord Byron cometh? Byron Buxton, in the final stages of rehabilitation, is working on his swing in the batting cages and taking fly balls in the outfield. He looks ready to step into the lineup now, but is not expected to play in spring training games until mid-March. The Twins were 53-25 when Buxton was in the lineup in 2019, as he impacts the offense and defense. A Buxton sighting means Opening Day is not far away.
Looking for another lead protector: The Twins will likely open the season with a 13-man pitching staff, so eight relievers are required. Lefthander Taylor Rogers will close games. Righthanders Trevor May, Tyler Duffey, Zack Littell, Sergio Romo and Tyler Clippard look to be locks. That leaves two spots open. Righthander Matt Wisler is out of options and guaranteed $725,000. Righthander Cody Stashak does not like walking people. Righthander Sean Poppen has a live arm but needs to cut down on walks. Righthander Fernando Romero’s visa problems aren’t helping his chances. Whoever loses the battle for the last rotation spot could land in the bullpen too. This battle will last until the final hours of camp.
Sano to first: Miguel Sano has a minus-2 defensive runs saved total at first base in his career, minus-19 at third. So the Twins are better off with him at first, right? Let’s watch it play out, because playing first base is not that simple. He must perfect his positioning in the field and around the bag. His footwork is better than his predecessor, C.J. Cron. But can he scoop throws out of the dirt like Cron? His middle infielders will bounce a few over there.
Who sits on the four-man bench? Actually, there might be only one seat available. Marwin Gonzalez will be the super-utility player. Ehire Adrianza should grab a spot because he’s the most sure-handed throughout the infield spots. Alex Avila will be Mitch Garver’s primary backup. That leaves one spot. Jake Cave, who can play all three outfield positions, is a candidate. Willians Astudillo, who has been used at catcher, first, second, third and the outfield, is a clubhouse chemistry guy.
• I have not asked Miguel Sano what he weighs, but he looks to be in the best shape I’ve seen in the last three years. Don’t get me wrong, he’s never going to shed those thunder thighs, but his upper half looks leaner and his face a little thinner.
• Josh Donaldson is backing up what he promised during his introductory news conference: Passing down the lessons he’s learned throughout the organization. For instance, he’s been mentoring young players in camp about the proper approach to hitting.
• This camp has an interesting blend of players reaching their peak years and an influx of savvy veterans. Donaldson, Rich Hill, Tyler Clippard, Sergio Romo and Alex Avila have been added since the start of last season. All have multiple seasons of playoff experience.
• Righthanded relief prospect Dakota Chalmers stunningly resembles Brewers star Christian Yelich.
• A year ago, there was a bullpen spot for the taking and Fernando Romero pitched himself out of camp. There’s another opportunity for him in this camp but he remains in the Dominican Republic because of visa issues. He could be a difference maker in that bullpen.
FIVE YOUNG PLAYERS TO WATCH
Nick Gordon: The infielder was limited to 70 games last season because of injuries, but hit .298 with an .801 OPS. He plays both short and second and could be useful if the Twins have injury issues.
Brent Rooker: Can play first base or outfield, and reached Class AAA last season. Has legitimate pop and improving strike zone knowledge.
Alex Kirilloff: Perhaps the best hitter in the minor league organization, the corner outfielder hit .311 with a .851 on base plus slugging percentage in August. That late surge sets him up well for a look if the Twins need him.
Jhoan Duran: A righthander with an upper 90s fastball and a funky split fingered-sinker hybrid called the, ‘splinker.’ Duran had a 4.86 ERA in seven games at Class AA Pensacola. His walk rate and WHIP were better than they were at Class A Fort Myers earlier in 2019.
Royce Lewis: Appeared in just two spring games last camp due to an oblique strain. The young shortstop hasn’t had many chances to show the major league staff what he can do, but has added 25 pounds of muscle to his athletic build.