Spring is in the air and with it comes the hope of a new baseball season. Pitchers and catchers have already reported to spring training and this gets fans excited for the beginning of a new year. For Twins fans, there are a multitude of story-lines to watch as spring begins to unfold. Here are five headlines I will be watching as the team prepares for Opening Day.
Fifth Starter Battle
One of the biggest battles in camp will be for the final rotation spot. Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco, and Kyle Gibson should have the first four spots locked up barring any injuries. This leads a large cropping of players fighting to make the 25-man roster.
Last season Kyle Gibson separated himself from the pack and won the final rotation spot. This year a group of players including Trevor May, Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey, Alex Meyer, and Tim Stauffer will all have a chance to follow in Gibson's footsteps. At this point, it seems like Milone will have the edge heading into spring but anything can happen before the year starts.
Center Field Up for Grabs
The Twins used Danny Santana in center field for a large chunk of last season and the team seems set on moving him back to shortstop, his natural position. This leaves Aaron Hicks and Jordan Schafer fighting for playing time in center field. Hicks has won the job the last two years with impressive springs but he's failed to consistently produce at the MLB level. Schafer will have an opportunity but he seems more likely to fill a fourth outfielder role.
Byron Buxton is lurking in the wings but an injury plagued 2014 season means he's probably a full season away from making his debut. That's good news for Hicks and Schafer but it might be bad news for the rest of Twins Territory. With Torii Hunter and Oswaldo Arcia manning the corner outfield spots, the Twins need a strong defensive center fielder to take the job and run with it.
Danny Santana Shortstop?
Santana was a breath of fresh air in 2014 but many expect him to come back down to earth during his sophomore season. In his first taste of the big leagues, he hit well above his minor league track record and he accomplished this while playing a new defensive position. This year he will be penciled in as the everyday shortstop and fans are going to expect big things from Mr. Santana.
The biggest question will be if he is able to stick defensively at shortstop. Ron Gardenhire and his departed coaching staff didn't seem too worried about getting Santana a ton of reps at shortstop last season. Paul Molitor and the new regime are going to give him ample opportunities to succeed at a position that has annual been a weak spot in the Twins line-up.
Top Prospects Health
Going into last season few could have foreseen how terrible the year would turn out for many of the Twins best prospects. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, the team's top two prospects, combined to play in 31 games (all by Buxton). Pitching prospects Kohl Stewart, Alex Meyer, and Lewis Thorpe missed playing time with various ailments. Eddie Rosario also missed the beginning of the season because of a 50 game drug suspension.
The beginning of a new year means that many of the top prospects have had the off-season to relax and recover. Buxton, Sano, and Rosario should be primed to be back on the field for an entire season. Meyer and Stewart should be ready to take the next step. Thorpe is the lone questions mark as the organization contemplates whether or not he will need to have Tommy John surgery and miss all of 2015.
Mauer's Return to Glory
Call it a hunch but Mauer is due to get back to his former playing greatness. It is going to change some continued growth on the part of Mauer but he's concerned about his historical place in the game. He's already started to develop a relationship with new manager Paul Molitor, a player that had to change his style throughout his Hall of Fame career. If Mauer can rely on his new manager and his baseball acumen, he should get back to being a top tier player.
He's only two seasons removed from posting a .300 batting average and he lead the American League in OBP during the 2012 season. He's no longer playing behind the plate so fans are going to expect him to produce on the offensive side of the ball. With 1540 career hits, he's half way to the 3,000 hit mark for his career. If he wants in the Hall of Fame, he's going to need to make some strides towards that total.