Monday, March 23, 2015

The Position Battles Are Decided For The Twins

This spring training we have heard plenty of news about the Twins and the positional battles the team would be focusing on. From the outfield, to shortstop, to backstop, Minnesota has plenty of options to explore. There's no doubt that having options is a great thing, but a few weeks away from Opening Day, it's time to decipher the fact that the positional battles are likely already decided.

Knowing that Paul Molitor and Terry Ryan are continually evaluating all of the competitions throughout the spring, nothing is yet set in stone. As long as things continue to progress and trend down the path that they currently are, we should have a good idea where everything is going to end up. Looking away from the rotation and bullpen, Minnesota will be making three key decisions in the coming weeks.

Mar 9, 2015; Bradenton, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks (32) pops a ball up to third during the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports 
Centerfield

Update: On Saturday morning, the Twins sent both Aaron Hicks and Eddie Rosario to Triple-A Rochester. Shane Robinson and Jordan Schafer will now take over centerfield for the immediate future. As seen here, I'm not sure who missed more on this decision. Me for suggesting the wrong guy, or the Twins for going through with it.

Starting the furthest from the plate, the Twins went into camp wondering who would be their Opening Day centerfielder. With Aaron Hicks looking like the odds on favorite, he would be given the first crack, and that should likely stick heading north as well. Is it fair to be down on the production that Hicks has shown at the major league level thus far, of course. That being said, 2015 represents a new opportunity for the former first round pick. Never before in his career has he been given the opportunity to progress from Double to Triple-A in succession, he did so last season and had solid results.

This spring, Hicks has had a few mental lapses while producing at a very mediocre level at the plate. The statistical results mean very little (remember he made the club from Double-A due in part to a massive spring training in 2013), but the mental mistakes need to cease. Out of the gate however, it should and will be Hicks starting in center. This is his last chance, and the Twins can't afford to ignore the production put up through normal succession a season ago.

Jordan Schafer is a prototypical fourth outfielder and isn't going to bring much more to the table. His speed is an asset, but probably more a luxury than anything. Eddie Rosario has played himself into the conversation this spring, but the Twins would be best to hold off. With the ability to play all three outfield positions, he is an ideal fit on the 25 man. However, he needs to be able to see significant playing time, and that can't take place until the Twins can make a decision on Aaron Hicks. Ideally, Hicks plays well out of the gate, and Rosario forces the Twins to make a decision on a much less talented Schafer.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Shortstop

Don't be fooled, Danny Santana is the Minnesota Twins starting shortstop when they take the field against the Detroit Tigers on Opening Day. That's not to say Eduardo Escobar has not had a great spring, but instead that the Twins are best utilizing all of their options.

Last season, Santana had the third highest batting average on balls in play since 1961. With that number, there's reason to believe that his average is not something he's going to replicate in 2015. Terry Ryan and Paul Molitor both seem realistic in understanding that fact. However, given his production, there's no reason to pull him from the lineup at this point. Although he played centerfield a season ago, putting him there this year amongst other more capable options, would be indicative of overvaluing his ability at the plate. Santana has earned the right to start at short, and will for the forseeable future.

That brings Escobar front and center. Over the course of spring training, next to no one has been more impressive than the Twins return for Francisco Liriano. Escobar has been an RBI machine, shown positional flexibility, and continues to get it done at the plate. Those reasons all add up to why the Twins can't force him into the starting shortstop role when they head north. As a utility player, Escobar gives the Twins the ability to put him all over the diamond, and see no dip in production no matter where he plays. Instead of having a defensive-minded utility guy, the Twins have someone who can get it done in the field and at the plate in Escobar, an asset they haven't seen in a while.

Over the course of the 2015 season, Escobar will be given plenty of starts at shortstop, but allowing Molitor to use him as a utility man makes the Twins better as a whole.

Mar 17, 2015; Sarasota, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins catcher Josmil Pinto (43) prepares to hit in the batting cage before the start of the spring training game against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports 
Catcher

As fluid as the game of baseball is, the backup catcher took another interesting turn over the weekend as Josmil Pinto was shelved with concussion-like symptoms. After taking a backswing from Adam Jones to the head, the leader in the backup catcher race now finds himself recovering once again.

Having missed time out of the gate with a leg injury, and now dealing with the head injury, Pinto has to be considered somewhat of a longshot to break camp on the 25 man roster. He would likely need to be fully cleared with over a week's worth of games left to enter back into the conversation. While that isn't out of the realm of possibility, it would also appear to be an uphill battle at this point.

If Pinto isn't the guy behind Kurt Suzuki for the Twins, Molitor would be forced to turn to the likes of Eric Fryer or Chris Herrmann. Neither player is an ideal big league fit, but of the two, it's Herrmann that probably makes the most sense. Having flexibility to play other positions as well, Herrmann allows Molitor some options. Having caught seven games this spring, and hit .400 across 20 at bats, Herrmann could be said to have played himself into this position.

On the flip side, Fryer has struggled in Fort Myers for the Twins. Across nine games, he has hit just .190 and offers very little upside. While Herrmann isn't a major league mainstay either, Fryer hasn't done enough to warrant consideration as a placeholder for the Twins. Behind Suzuki, the backup catcher needs to bring as many tools to the table as possible, and Fryer simply doesn't have enough.

Minnesota should be expecting Suzuki to take steps backwards offensively on his own this season. He had a career year a season ago, and expecting that to continue is probably far-fetched. Not a defensive wizard, Suzuki is average on his own, and the Twins will need some production out of whoever they slot in behind him. The ideal scenario would have been the power hitting Pinto, but his recent injury may have to change their way of thinking.

What this all boils down to is that while the Twins are continuing to find themselves for the upcoming season, the positional battles seem all but determined. Expecting a major shift to take place with just a couple of weeks before Opening Day probably isn't going to happen. While the grips on the roles may not be lock tight, I feel confident in suggesting that they are as stated above. The Twins will be as good as their worst player, and this year they are in a better spot than any of the previous four. It would be beneficial if it would stay that way.

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