Minnesota Twins Spring Training Preview: Left Field

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be providing a rundown on who the Twins will have in Spring Training camp at each position, including projected starters and backups, as well as long shots to make the Opening Day roster.

Aug 17, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; MLB: Minnesota Twins left fielder Josh Willingham (16) hits a solo-home run against the Seattle Mariners during the eighth inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

More than half of the Twins positional starters are basically set in stone, but we’ll take a look at the contenders where there is competition; many of the more interesting battles in camp will play out for backup spots as the spring progresses. And while even a strong camp will still mean relegation to the minors for a lot of these guys, they’ll be just an injury away from seeing time with the Twins at some point over the course of the season.

So far, we’ve run down the catchersfirstsecond and third base, as well as shortstop. Today, we’ll look at the competition at left field as we move our way around the diamond over the course of Spring Training.

PROJECTED STARTER: Josh Willingham

If you don’t follow the Twins, or baseball in general, Willingham had a statistical monster of a season in 2012. Here’s the Crib Notes: he’s a right-handed slugger who strikes out too much and plays poor defense, but his bat plays well in Target Field, and he’s signed to a team-friendly contract through 2014. He won a Silver Slugger last year with 35 HR and 110 RBI last season.

Willingham would seem a top trade target for a number of teams but, at 33, and considering his pull power doesn’t play as well in many parks across the league as it does at Target Field, he seems to have more value to the Twins than perhaps any other team in baseball. As much as the trade scenarios make sense on paper, Willingham probably isn’t going anywhere before the 2014 trade deadline.

PROJECTED BACKUPS: Darin Mastroianni, Ryan Doumit, Brandon Boggs

Apr 25, 2011; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Brewers pinch hitter Brandon Boggs (12) bats during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Miller Park. The Reds defeated the Brewers 9-5. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

This is where projections get a little dicey because so much of what happens with the fourth outfielder spot will depend on how the Twins handle the competition at center field this spring. If Twins brass opt to have Aaron Hicks start the season in AAA in order to ensure an extra year of team control, which I think is likely, Mastroianni or Benson could keep the spot warm for Hicks for a month or so. If it’s the former who gets the job, Boggs probably has the best shot at the fourth outfielder spot at this point, but if Benson takes the job out of camp and runs with it, Mastroianni resumes his role as an ideal defensive outfielder and pinch runner off the bench.

Regardless of how the center field competition plays out this spring, there are a number of scenarios that could lead to Benson finishing 2013 starting in left field for the Twins: if Willingham is injured or traded, we could see Benson in left and Hicks in center; if Doumit is injured or traded, Willingham could move to DH and allow for the same outfield alignment; and a trade of Justin Morneau would mean a move to first base for Chris Parmelee and a potential outfield of Benson, Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia by season’s end.

All of these scenarios are just conjecture on my part, but the fact remains that Benson will get reps in left field this spring and, with Hicks and Arcia knocking on the door, Benson’s best shot at a long-term starting spot with the Twins is probably in left field. His performance will dictate his future with the club and again, if Mastroianni starts the season as the starting center fielder, Boggs is the most likely option in camp as a fourth outfielder because I think the Twins will want Benson playing every day.

Doumit can play left field, which is about the best that can be said about his defensive prowess in the outfield, but he started 16 games there last season and will most likely get a few starts there again in 2013. If you want to read more about Boggs, I wrote up an article on him here; we’ll look at Benson and Mastroianni early next week in my center field preview; and Doumit and Chris Herrmann are discussed in more depth in my preview of the catchers.

LONG SHOTS

While Herrmann holds great value for the team moving forward as a backup catcher and outfielder, I think future player-coach Drew Butera gets the third catcher spot out of camp. An injury to Joe Mauer or Doumit in 2013 would most likely mean starts for Herrmann behind the dish, and the team will want to see him in left field this spring, too, in order to gauge his potential beyond 2013.

Clete Thomas is a left-handed hitter who was claimed off waivers by Minnesota a couple of weeks into 2012, hit a home run in his first game, and was designated for assignment less than a month later. The 29 year old played more center field last season in Rochester than at any previous time in his career, suggesting that the Twins may have been prepping the former Tiger in the minors for competition at the fourth outfielder spot. Thomas has played well against the Twins in the past and passes the smell test as the type of player Ron Gardenhire would like to have on his bench so, while Boggs would seem to project as the better fourth outfielder, I would be far from shocked to see Thomas come north with the club.

Wilkin Ramirez will be in camp, but he’s primarily a corner outfielder and will have to prove he can hold down center if he has any hope of making the club as the team’s fourth outfielder. Ramirez was at one time a top prospect for the Tigers and has been hampered by injuries so, at 27, he’s one of those players you don’t want to completely write off. Brian Dinkelman is a strong organizational guy who has seen time with the Twins in the past and could see time again with the club as a stop-gap backup outfielder and second baseman, if injuries strike.

CONCLUSION

May 24, 2011; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins outfielder Joe Benson (63) against the Seattle Mariners at Target Field. The Twins defeated the Mariners 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

After Willingham’s 2012, there’s absolutely no competition in left field this spring. The fourth outfield spot is definitely up for grabs, though, and regardless of how the center-field competition plays out, Joe Benson could go a long ways towards reclaiming his career by playing well in left field this spring. If the injury-prone Doumit misses time at any point this season–precipitating a move to DH for Willingham–or if any number of trade scenarios go down, this spring could well dictate whether or not Benson’s number gets called.

 

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Topics: Josh Willingham, Minnesota Twins

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