La Velle E. Neal III
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Cattle used to graze on the field beyond the left field wall at Hammond Stadium, the Twins' spring training home. An alligator occasionally emerged from a pond behind the right field wall to grab some sun. A van full of inmates wearing orange jumpsuits would pull up at times, and they would get out to pick up trash along Six-Mile Cypress Parkway, which runs along the complex.

The joke was that some of them had just been cut from camp.

Fort Myers, Fla., has come a long way since 1998, my first spring training on the Twins beat. The cows are gone, replaced by an office park. The gator, probably tired of being pelted with Justin Morneau home runs, left long ago. Inmates no longer clean up that road by the park.

The traffic, though, is as bad as ever, I've been told. Some things haven't changed as the 64th season of Twins baseball approaches.

As in most years, the team this spring thinks it's going to be good. And, as in most years, there are holes somewhere on the roster. At spring training, we get to figure these things out while reaching for sunblock.

This week, I am headed down there for my 27th Twins training camp. I'll arrive full of questions. Yes, these Twins should be good in 2024, but there are concerns. Here are five things in particular I'll be looking for during my stay in Fort Myers.

1. Is the rotation still a strength? The Twins did not adequately replace righthander Sonny Gray, a decision they likely will have to revisit much later this summer before the trade deadline. We are left with a couple of pitchers who have a chance to step up in Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober, who are close to putting it all together. How much have they closed the gap?

Chris Paddack believes he has a new elbow, and he looked good in the postseason, but time will tell. And how many innings are the Twins comfortable with him throwing this season? Starting rotation depth will be important this year, so who are the next two or three men up when someone is injured or falters?

And will Louie Varland start or relieve? Baldelli's eyes sparkled when he talked about how Varland's stuff ticked up as a postseason reliever.

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The starting rotation can be volatile from year to year. A lot of things went right last season; that can't be expected every season. How the Twins address issues will be vital to their success.

2. Resting No. 25, right? I don't want to watch Byron Buxton play more than once. By all accounts, Buxton looks healthy, feels healthy and sounds happy in this camp following offseason knee surgery. He's played two games in the outfield, so far. I would play him in one or two more games, then lock his platinum glove in a box and stamp "Do not open until Opening Day" on it.

The man has not played defense in the majors in more than 500 days. He played in 85 games as a designated hitter last season, but wasn't much of one. Despite this, the Twins won the AL Central and knocked the Blue Jays out of the postseason. Buxton was a 0.8 WAR player last season after being at least 4.0 the previous two seasons. If Buxton is on the field, the Twins operate on another level. I don't need to see him play until March 28 at Kansas City.

3. How close is Lee? I am looking forward to watching Brooks Lee play. It might not happen much this season, but the Twins infield of the near future will have Royce Lewis and Carlos Correa on the left side and Lee and Edouard Julien on the right. Lee didn't hit that well last summer at Class AAA St. Paul following a promotion. But he just turned 23, so the massive upside remains. I want to see how he plays second base, but it shouldn't be a difficult adjustment for him because he can pick it at short. I'm also interested to see if he's made adjustments to hit lefties better. There was a reason he was the eighth overall pick in 2022.

4. How does Julien look? If Lee is the second baseman of the near future, what about the current second baseman? Although Edouard Julien might become a first baseman sooner or later, I'm looking forward to watching improved defense from him. There are indications he's better than he was at the end of last season, which is encouraging because the rough edges with his glovework at second were on display frequently. Apparently, he has addressed this. Now he gets to show in camp that he's met the challenge.

5. Who are these guys? Half the bullpen might be unrecognizable this season. (First of all, where is my man Emilo Pagán? Just joking.) But the Twins signed Josh Staumont and Jay Jackson while Justin Topa and Steven Okert arrived in trades. So who are these guys and how much will they strengthen the bullpen?

I will spend the next week trying to determine the potential of this relief corps, because it might be needed to bail out a weakened starting rotation.

These are the items on my to-do list as I brave the elements and get acclimated to southwest Florida weather in March. Wish me luck as I pack my Tommy Bahama shirts.