It's back, baseball is finally back. On February 13 the Minnesota Twins pitchers and catchers officially report to Fort Myers for Spring Training, and the club will hold it's first workout on Valentine's Day. With position players largely following them, and expected to arrive en masse shortly, it's time to take a look at a few storylines worth monitoring over the exhibition slate.
Coming off of a Postseason berth, and a Wild Card appearance, Paul Molito's squad is looking for an opportunity to take the next step. With the young core another year older, they should be expected to carry an even larger part of the load. While results can be scrutinized and picked apart in Grapefruit League action, it's what takes place beyond the box score that's generally the most telling. Those scenarios are what highlight the early slate, and that's what we'll take a look at below:
Does Kennys Vargas survive the roster crunch?
Currently slotted in as the backup first basemen and rotational bench bat, Vargas is out of options for the Minnesota Twins. The power stroke is very real for Vargas, but he's fallen a bit short when putting it all together. After an .833 OPS across 47 sporadic games in 2016, Vargas dipped back to a .758 OPS across 78 sporadic outings in 2017. In 2018, it's do or die time, but it may already be too late.
You have to go back to 2015 to find what I think may be a turning point in Vargas' production. After making the roster out of the gate, Vargas slumped mightily through April. In 12 games from May 1-17 though, he put forth a .956 OPS and was among Minnesota's hottest hitters. With just two homers through that time period however, Terry Ryan set him back to Triple-A searching for power. Since that point, Vargas has seemed to settle in, and his opportunities have been limited at best. In a reserve role, his bat has to be consistently ready to go, and the glove needs work. Right now, the Twins probably don't have anyone ready to come in and take his job, but it's hardly a given that they don't find a suitor by the end of March.
Grossman, Granite, or your best guess?
Looking at how the 25 man is shaping up from a 1,000 foot view right now, it appears Minnesota will carry just four true outfielders. With Robbie Grossman being extended a new contract for 2018, he's the front runner for the designated hitter and rotational outfield role. While his performance wasn't abysmal in the grass a season ago, 2016 could rear it's head at any moment. There's no doubt that the position is Grossman's to lose, but the emergence of other names is a real possibility.
On the 40 man roster, only Zack Granite is on the outside looking in among the outfield group. His .611 OPS in his first 40 MLB games leaves plenty to be desired, but should also be expected to rise. At the minor league level, Granite was an average hitter, and also an on-base asset. Postin a .347 OBP at Double-A, and a .392 OBP last season at Triple-A, his speed was allowed to be unleashed on the basepaths. Grossman has more pop than Granite does, but expecting Zack to contribute at a similar OBP level is hardly a reach. The dark horse in this competition is LaMonte Wade, and while he has yet to play above Double-A, he could make a big leap sooner rather than later.
Rotation, staff, and the Alston advantage.
At this moment, the Twins have yet to address their most glaring need of the offseason, a starting pitcher. By the time the team breaks from Fort Myers, I expect that scenario to have been handled. The Twins will be rolling with Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Adalberto Mejia, an acquisition, and a question mark when the regular season opens. The 5th spot in the rotation is up for grabs, and while Phil Hughes' contract will afford him first crack, the emergence of Aaron Slegers, Stephen Gonsalves, Fernando Romero, or a host of other names would be welcomed competition.
The bullpen has been shored up, and Addison Reed was one of the best gets of the offseason across the entire landscape of the league. New pitching coach Garvin Alston will begin to put his philosophies on display both in game and off the field of play. Watching the bullpen take shape, as well as its usage and construction will be worth monitoring. As the Twins seek more strikeouts, and a pitching staff that climbs the league ladder, it will be extremely important for Alston to make a more significant mark than his predecessor.
Homegrown gems making their mark.
Each year, there seems to be a few players that come in without a big league job, that end up leaving a lasting impression. Looking at the group of 13 non-roster invitees for 2018, there's a trio of homegrown prospects that have me intrigued.
Starting on the mound, you have to look at reliever Jake Reed. The hard thrower was left unprotected and went undrafted in the Rule 5 draft. He has the makings of a strikeout reliever with strong velocity, and an ability to kick the door in to the highest level. He got just 4.0 IP during spring training last year allowing four runs on six hits with a 3/2 K/BB ratio. His season also started with an injury occurred during the last game in Fort Myers. A strong showing could put him right back on the radar for an early season promotion.
In the infield, you look no further than former 1st round pick Nick Gordon. Heavily scrutinized as a shortstop, Gordon has yet to be pushed over to second base. He'll get his first real big league test in March this year, and should spend the majority of the season at Triple-A. After a hot start at Double-A, his season took a dive down the stretch and he posted a .749 OPS when things were said and done. How he handles big league pitching this spring, as well as what he shoes with the glove, could go a long ways to give us an idea of what and how he'll contribute for the Twins.
Wrapping up the group is a guy behind the plate that deserves more attention, Brian Navarreto. While the bat has lagged significantly for the 2013 6th round pick, he's been great as a defender. Across 127 stolen base attempts in his 290 games behind the dish in the minors, he's thrown out a ridiculous 50% of runners. Regarded as a strong receiver and a trustworthy game manager, Navrreto will get a chance to showcase his worth as a potential big league backup down the road.