Twins camp report: Likes and Dislikes
What I like, and dislike, about the Twins. I like Mauer, Morneau and Willingham. What I don't like: the pitching situation.
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- What I like, and dislike, about the Minnesota Twins :
• For all the talk about his assorted injuries and Target Field sapping his power, All-Star catcher Joe Mauer produced a very nice year during a very tough season for the Twins in 2012. Mauer played in 147 games, led the American League with a .416 on-base percentage and ranked fourth in the AL with a .319 batting average. He was in the lineup as catcher in only 72 of those 147 games, and though time at first base and DH with his lack of power makes that $184 million deal all the more glaring, the Twins have to do what they have to do to keep in him healthy and in the lineup. Oh, and one more thing: Mauer, 29, and his wife are expecting twins. How All-American is that? Twins for Mr. Twin.
• Huge deal that Justin Morneau , 31, played in 134 games and compiled 570 plate appearances last summer after a concussion and concussion symptoms limited him to 69 games in 2011 and 81 games in 2010. Target Field and his health issues have reduced the pop of the 2006 AL MVP, but Morneau did produce 19 homers and 77 RBI last summer. The hope is that with another healthy year, Morneau can at least be that player, and perhaps more.
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• Probably too much to expect left fielder Josh Willingham , 34, to replicate last season's memorable Twin Cities debut (35 homers, 110 RBI), but count him as one free-agent signing that far exceeded expectations. As weak as the Twins were in last summer's 96-loss debacle, there are far worse starting points than a projected lineup featuring Mauer, Morneau and Willingham in the middle.
• Center-field prospect Aaron Hicks . He's the reason the club felt comfortable dealing Denard Span to the Nationals and Ben Revere to the Phillies over the winter in a desperate quest for pitching. The Twins' first-round pick in the 2008 draft (14th overall), Hicks had a breakout season at Double-A New Britain in 2012 with 13 homers and 61 RBI. He can fly, he's terrific in center field and the biggest question this spring is whether, at 23, he can make the jump from Double-A into a major-league opening day lineup. Early line: It absolutely is possible.
• You can't look at this pitching situation and feel good. Battling numerous injuries and overexposed young starters, the Twins surrendered more runs last season (832) than all but the Indians and Rockies. The Twins' 5.40 ERA ranked worst among AL starting rotations, and their 880 innings pitched ranked last among AL rotations. Only the Rockies' starters (765) produced fewer. To that end, the Twins signed veterans Kevin Correia and and Mike Pelfrey (who is returning from Tommy John surgery) and acquired Vance Worley from the Phillies in the Ben Revere deal. They're holding their breath.
• More pitching concerns: Pelfrey and prospect Kyle Gibson (the Twins' first-round pick in 2009) are coming back from Tommy John ligament transfer surgery, and Worley and Scott Diamond each had chips removed from his elbow. The good news is that all are doing fine -- Diamond is a little behind the others -- but after last season's train wreck on the mound, you'll forgive the extra hyper concern.
• Unproven prospects are on deck at a few key positions, including center field (Hicks, Darin Mastroianni and Joe Benson ), shortstop ( Pedro Florimon , Eduardo Escobar ) and right field (Chris Parmelee). "There's not a lot etched in stone," said the legendary Tom Kelly, in camp as a special instructor. "There are opportunities. Opportunities to show the manager what you can do." Ron Gardenhire is watching. He loves the way Florimon plays shortstop (that's why the kid finished 2012 as the Twins' shortstop) and he thinks Parmalee will hit enough to gain a stronghold on the right-field gig.
• With Span gone to the Nationals, the Twins lost a very versatile leadoff man. With Revere gone to the Phillies, they traded the next in line to become leadoff man. Which leaves them ... where? Hicks or Mastroianni are the best fits, if one of them wins the center-field job (though that is a lot of pressure to put on Hicks, who is young and hasn't even played at the Triple-A level). And if Benson wins the center-field job? Then the leadoff man becomes: Staff. Wide open.