The Twins may not be much closer to feeling good about filling their
final two bullpen spots, but they seem to be closer to a decision.
When left-hander Darrell May, a minor league free agent, was
released Sunday, that left just three pitchers in the hunt for the two
spots, and one of them, lefty Francisco Liriano, is still considered a
candidate for the fifth starter job.
Rookie right-hander Willie Eyre and veteran left-hander Dennys Reyes, both of whom have struggled lately, remain in the hunt.
The Twins don't have a returning left-hander in the bullpen, and
Reyes and Liriano are their only two remaining candidates from the left
"I think that everybody was rooting for him," general manager Terry
Ryan said of May. "He's a good person on a club, he's a good human
being, and he's left-handed, which we were looking for that type of
guy. Unfortunately, it didn't work out."
The moves Sunday almost assure that the team will break camp with
Liriano, despite Ryan's trepidation over having Liriano in the bullpen
instead of starting every fifth day (even if it's at Triple-A
But if Liriano doesn't overtake right-hander Scott Baker for the
rotation spot, he has looked much better than either Eyre or Reyes.
The Twins know they have the frontline pitching to
compete for not only a division title but also for a possible deep run
into the postseason.
But, like last year, the left side of their infield remains a major
question mark, and there's nothing that's happened in spring training
to make fans feel secure the team's overall run-production ability has
improved enough over last year's AL-worst run scoring to make this team
Shortstop Jason Bartlett, who failed to hold onto last year's
starting job six weeks into the season, was supposed to return bigger
(by 15 pounds of muscle) and better (by that season of experience and
adversity), but he has raised more questions than created answers of
late, looking shoddy in the field in recent games despite looking
decent at the plate.
That has allowed injury-prone infielder Nick Punto to sneak into the
mix for the Opening Day job as camp wound down.
Meanwhile, veteran third baseman Tony Batista is probably an upgrade
over the revolving door at third last year, but his pudgy midsection
and middling batting average this spring has done little to inspire
confidence that much has changed on the left side.
Second baseman Luis Castillo has looked like the All-Star he was
advertised to be, upgrading the Twins there. And center fielder Torii Hunter seems to be healthy after missing the last two months of 2005
because of a broken ankle -- automatically shoring up the
Newly acquired DH Rondell White has looked strong at camp, promising
a productive bat in the middle of the order.
But other questions linger: right fielder Michael Cuddyer looks like
he'll open the season on the disabled list (oblique), so how much depth
does that leave the Twins in the outfield if rookie Jason Kubel or
journeyman Lew Ford is in the lineup?
And will first baseman Justin Morneau figure out big-league pitching
and take the step forward this year that all that hitting talent
promises (the 30-plus homer, .280-plus average stroke)?
And what will the Twins do for a lefty in the bullpen? Left-hander
Dennys Reyes, a veteran the team brought in to compete for a relief
job, had not stepped up as camp neared its end, leaving rookie lefty
Francisco Liriano as the best-looking candidate for a job. The front
office is strongly opposed to keeping him in the bullpen, wishing
instead to have him stay on an every-fifth-day starting schedule at
Triple-A if he doesn't make the Twins' rotation.
And then there's right-hander Brad Radke's pitching shoulder -- the
one that bothered him much of last season, eventually causing him to
shut it down once the team was eliminated. He elected against surgery
to fix the minor tear, in part because he has considered making this
the final year of his career.
The bottom line for Twins' optimism this year might, indeed, be the
bottom line. Six members of the starting rotation or projected Opening
Day lineup are in contract years, and four more are coming up on
arbitration winters after the season.
PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON:
RHP Kyle Lohse beat the Twins in
arbitration for the second year in a row, winning a $3.95 million
contract, and he has looked like the best starting pitcher in camp. A
turnaround May last year in which he began focusing on throwing three
pitches instead of five gave him success and confidence he appears to
be taking into this year.
ON THE DECLINE:
LF Shannon Stewart has been slowed by injuries since
joining the Twins in a midseason trade in 2003, limited to 92 games in
2004 and playing with a sore shoulder and foot and leg issues last year
that led to his lowest full-season batting average (.274 in 132 games)
of his career. His heel has bothered him some this spring, and the turf
at the Metrodome doesn't figure to make things any easier on his
32-year-old body this season.
NOTES, QUOTES:RHP Juan Rincon fared well in bullpen sessions over the weekend
and has been scheduled to make his first Grapefruit League appearance
Tuesday. Rincon, who had bone chip surgery on his elbow, has been
sidelined because of soreness in the muscles near the elbow. He's
scheduled to pitch three times over the final week of the spring, also
Thursday and Saturday, with the expectation that those three outings
would be enough to prepare the eighth-inning specialist for the season.SS Jason Bartlett suffered a hamstring strain over the weekend
that throws more uncertainty into an already shaky battle for the
Opening Day shortstop job. Bartlett said he doesn't expect to miss
enough time to warrant being placed on the disabled list, but his
injury could open the door wider for SS/2B Nick Punto or veteran SS/3B
Juan Castro.OF/PH Ruben Sierra took batting practice Saturday for the first
time in almost a week since suffering a quadriceps injury, and the
switch hitter experienced pain only when batting from the right side,
not the left side. That suggests the possibility that Sierra, who was
signed over the winter to be the team's top left-handed bat off the
bench, might be recovered just enough by week's end to open the season
with the club.INF Jason Hart, a power-hitting prospect; OF Josh Rabe and OF
Andres Torres were reassigned to minor league camp Sunday.OF Michael Cuddyer (oblique) is scheduled to hit off a tee Monday
and will take batting practice Tuesday if all goes well.
BY THE NUMBERS: 18 -- Consecutive seasons the Twins have gone
without a player hitting 30 home runs, more than three times the length
of the second longest streak (five, by Kansas City and San Diego).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I hear those sarcastic remarks throughout the game.
People say that the Twins got a bad batch and all that. I hear that
stuff. But who cares? All I care about is winning." -- General manager
Terry Ryan on the fifth-longest streak of seasons without a 30-homer
hitter (18) since the dawn of the live-ball era in 1920.
The Twins could open with two rookies if Baker wins
the fifth-starter job, as anticipated, and the team decides to go
against its preferred plan and keeps Liriano for the bullpen. As camp
neared its close, OF Jason Kubel had an outside shot at landing a
roster spot, but after missing all of last year with a severe knee
injury and with a less-than-dominating spring, he's more likely to open
at Triple-A. But look for Kubel, the organization's top
big-league-ready hitting prospect, to rejoin the team by midseason.
OF/PH Ruben Sierra (quadriceps) and RF Michael
Cuddyer (oblique) are expected to open the season on the 15-day DL. RHP
Juan Rincon's sore right elbow bears watching in the early going after
he was sidelined by the irritation much of spring training. And 2B Luis
Castillo, who has a balky hip and hamstrings, has expressed concern
over the Metrodome's artificial surface.