Man this is a great time of year. Those mountainous piles of snow are slowly melting, the heavy jackets are going away, and OH YEAH...TWINS PITCHERS AND CATCHERS REPORT TOMORROW!! Albeit, they are just practices, one can't help but get excited to see pitchers taking fielding practice or players taking swings in the cage down in Fort Myers, Florida. The Twins enter spring training as the two time defending central division champs., and hope to make it three in a row for the second time under Ron Gardenhire. Here are five things I am going to be watching closely this spring:
1. Who will win the closers job? Joe Nathan is returning from Tommy John surgery, that he suffered during 2010 Spring Training. La Velle E Neal of the Star Tribune has been reporting lately, Nathan has been getting 88-91 MPH on his fastball in some recent bullpen sessions (That was his average velocity before TJ surgery, this time of year). But those are just sessions, we won't know how he does until he steps on the mound against some live major league hitters. And if he struggles, Matt Capps is waiting behind him to step in and fill the role. But indications are, that unless Nathan has a setback in his return, he will be the closer on opening day. But don't forget Capps, he won't make Ron Gardenhire's job easy when it comes to picking a closer.
2. How much will Justin Morneau play? Everyone is very anxious to see Justin get back on the field for some Spring Training games. But realistically, I can't see him playing many games. For one, the Twins don't want him to have a setback with his concussion. Second, if he plays in some games and starts feeling good about his swing and timing, why have him play and risk other injuries? And if you remember in 2008, he struggled down the stretch due to fatigue. And the following spring really took a step back with his ST workouts. And he still was putting up great numbers before injuries derailed his seasons. So this spring, you should expect to see less of Morneau in the ST games this year. So don't panic about it.
3. Who can step up and earn their spot in the bullpen? Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch. The mainstays in the Twins bullpen in 2010. All now wearing a different uniform. Left to fill their shoes: Eric Hacker, Scott Diamond, Anthony Slama, Pat Neshek, Glen Perkins, Jeff Manship, Alex Burnett, and Jose Mijares. With Capps and Nathan on the back end, and Scott Diamond coming in as a rule 5 draft pick, they are slotted to make the opening day roster. And with Jose Mijares' being a decent lefty specialist, he is certainly a lock to make the roster. So that leaves 6 players battling for 3 bullpen slots. And don't forget that the Twins open camp with 6 starters battling for 5 spots in the rotation. So that could play into the bullpen as well. It is by far the most intriguing storyline this spring.
4. Can Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla communicate effectively up the middle? Last year the Twins were very solid up the middle with veterans Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy. Now entering 2011, they emphasized more speed up the middle by signing Japanese star Tsuyoshi Nishioka to play opposite Alexi Casilla. Its unclear who will play at second or short. And to me, communication between the two will be huge. But Nishioka speaks very little english, he requires a translator around the clock while he is in the states. Casilla, who is from the DR, can speak decent english. So communication between the two might be difficult at times. Hopefully, they can work it out during the spring. Otherwise its going to be a tough year for the two.
5. Kyle Gibson gets his first invite to big league camp. I know I'm leaving out the 6 starters for 5 slots, but I am very excited to see Kyle Gibson pitch in the big league camp this spring. Last year, in his first season in the minor league system, he was able to get to AAA Rochester by seasons end. His combined stats from 2010 were 11-6, 2.96 ERA, 126 K in 152 IP while jumping from A Fort Myers to AA New Britain to AAA Rochester. I can't see him making the team until late in the year, more likely when September call ups happen. The Twins could use him as a reliever late in the year once he reaches his innings limit like the Rays and David Price in 2008, or the Reds and Aroldis Chapman did in 2010. Certainly by 2012 he should be a starter in the big leagues. So it should be fun to watch him this spring.
As I post this I leave you with a picture of where it all starts. Every Spring for the big league, or every year new minor leaguers get their start right here. On the baseball fields in Fort Myers, Florida.