The Minnesota Twins and their fans got they some bad early news in spring training.
They were looking forward to top prospect Miguel Sano as he prepared for what might have been his rookie season in the majors. Instead of becoming the team's top story for his performance, Sano became the top story of the spring because of an elbow injury that will require season-ending Tommy John surgery.
On Feb. 27, Sano felt some pain in his right elbow after making a throw across his body in the Twins' intrasquad game. The following day, he had an MRI that showed damage to the elbow. The result is Tommy John surgery for Sano and one of the biggest attractions at spring training shelved for the season.
"It's rather unfortunate," assistant general manager Rob Antony told FSN Sports. "During the intrasquad game, Miguel came in on a slow roller (and made a throw). He felt pain in his elbow and came into the dugout and told us. So we did an ultrasound and MRI and the doctors all looked at it and (decided) he has to have Tommy John surgery."
Where the story gets interesting and has created some consternation from fans is that Sano and the Twins knew about the injury in November, when Sano first complained about elbow soreness.
"In November, Miguel notified us that he was having a little bit of elbow issues," Antony said. "We flew him in from the Dominican and he had an ultrasound and MRI. There was a noticeable tear in the UCL of his elbow, but our doctors consulted (and we got an opinion from orthopedic specialist Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala.) and they all concurred that the best course of action would be to try to rehab.
"So he did that over the course of the winter. And we knew that it wasn't until game started and he had to start making throws from different angles that we were really going to find out whether it was the holdup are not."
The most recent MRI showed similar damage to the elbow (as in November), but it had not gotten worse. Now, however, he faces surgery in March rather than four months earlier. Fans and media have questioned why the team chose rehab rather than surgery for Sano in November.
"The number one thing is if you can avoid surgery that's the best case," Antony said. "Especially, since if he would have had it (in November), he would have missed the entire 2014 season. By waiting and trying the rehab route, we had a chance of maybe being able to playing through this thing. If he has it now, he'll still be ready for 2015. So I think that it was worth the gamble and worth waiting and being patient on that."
Sano had not expected to return up north with the club when spring training ended, but there was plenty of speculation that he might be there by June, so the injury is a blow and delays the development of one of the team's future stars.
For the present, however, Trevor Plouffe is the incumbent third basemen. Before Sano's injury, Plouffe was expected to be challenged by Sano. Plouffe had a less-than-stellar 2013 campaign (he batted .254 and had 13 fielding errors) and was considered by some as a placeholder unless he took another step in his own development this season.
It's early, but thus far in spring training, Plouffe is trying to make that move. He is 3-for-10 (.300) in five games, including 1-for-2 in his most recent outing on March 7.
"I think this is a big year for (Plouffe)," Antony told the Star Tribune. "Defensively, he has shown flashes. Defensively, he's improved some. I think he still has room to improve. He works at it every day. I think he wants it, and I think he's starting to learn how to become a good major league player."
In addition, non-rostered invitee Brandon Waring (a former Oriole) has received some attention for starting strong this spring with a batting average of .300 (3-for-10) that includes a home run. On March 7, he came into the game as pinch runner, went 1-for-2, had an RBI and scored two runs. The Twins have to like what they see so far in Waring.
The position is Plouffe's to lose, but many fans were hoping to see Sano in spring training and up with the team by midsummer. Because Sano is not a pitcher, his rehab time should be shorter -- eight months rather the typical 12-plus months for a pitcher.
Antony said there is a chance that four months after surgery (which is scheduled for March 12 in New York) Sano might be able to swing the bat and potentially DH. He could DH in some minor league games if the team chooses to do so.
But look for him to shut things down this season and prepare for a big year in 2015. The Twins are not giving any consideration to moving him to a position such as first base, where he would not throw as much.
"We think he can be a very good third baseman," Antony said. "He's a big man but is very athletic, very agile and we think once he gets this arm straightened out and healthy again that he can be a very good third baseman."
--RF Chris Parmelee hit his first home run of spring training. He blasted a three-run shot into the right field seats on March 1 against the Red Sox. Parmelee had eight home runs last season while he spent some time in the minor leagues because of midseason ineffectiveness. Now in his fourth season with the Twins, Parmelee needs to make a jump in productivity to solidify a position with the team.
--C Jose Pinto saw his first action in the Grapefruit League on March 1. Pinto had been out with back soreness and returned to the lineup as an in-game substitution for Kurt Suzuki. Pinto, whose chances of making the team hinge more on his offensive production than his ability behind the plate, doubled in his first at-bat. He was 1-for-1 in the Twins' 6-2 win. He is now 2-for-4 in three games.
--RHP Ricky Nolasco, who has the biggest free agent contract in team history, made his Twins debut on March 2. He pitched two scoreless innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in a 6-3 Twins loss. "He was free and easy," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire told reporters. "You can see he moves the ball up and down the zone and changes speeds. He's going to be fun to watch."
--RF Oswaldo Arcia hit his first home run of spring training on March 2 -- a solo shot over the left field fence after Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Adam Liberatore threw two pitches near Arcia's head. It was a good sign for Arcia, who last year hit his share of homers (14) but also struck out 117 times in 97 games. Pitchers were going inside him on last year, but this time he responded. "If you don't like people buzzing your tower, then there you have it," manager Ron Gardenhire told the Star Tribune. "You have to hit in the seats. That's what I told him on the bench. Two bow ties and (Liberatore) had to go get a new baseball."
--CF Byron Buxton, the No. 1 prospect in baseball, was hitless in his first start on March 4 against Miami. Buxton batted leadoff and went 0-for-5. He was a little disappointed with his performance. "Not even close," Buxton told reporters. "But it's baseball. I've got to keep working on it." The 20-year-old Buxton is not expected to make the club this year, but manager Ron Gardenhire said he hopes to get him a few more cracks at it with the major league team before he has to make a roster move on March 10. On March 7, Buxton got another shot in a B-lineup game (0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts) and a late substitution into the A game (0-for-2). He is 2-for-14 (.143) so far this spring.
--The Twins and the Toronto Blue Jays were the first teams in major league history to use the new replay system that will instituted league-wide this season. In their March 4 spring training game, the system was put to the test. Two calls at first base were reviewed in the game and neither was overturned.
--RHP Phil Hughes worked his first 2-1/2 innings as a member of the Minnesota Twins. He started against the Miami Marlins on March 4 and gave up one earned run, two hits and one walk and had three strikeouts in the Twins' 3-1 loss. "I was just getting my stretch down a little bit better," Hughes told the Star Tribune. "It's tough sometimes in the bullpen -- you don't get those game situations with guys on base. Just finding a good rhythm and a good sink out of the stretch was a little tough (Tuesday), and it showed with my command."
--CF Alex Presley is in a battle with Aaron Hicks for the starting center field position. Presley, who came over in a trade late last season, finished as the starter, but his bat struggled thus far in spring training. He went 1-for-3 against the Pittsburgh Pirates on March 7, which raised his batting average to .200 (3-for-15) -- down from his average of .283 in 28 games for the Twins last season.
--RHP Vance Worley, who made the big club last season but then was sent down to the minors, credits Triple-A pitching coach Marty Mason with helping him find his old arm slot and pick up some velocity last summer. But that did not help him in latest game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on March 7. Worley started the game and gave up five runs and seven hits in 1 1/3 innings pitched. Worley told the Pioneer Press that his "fastball command was down."
--1B Chris Colabello went 3-for-3 in the Twins' 6-5 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday. Colabello lined a ninth-inning RBI single to center field. Colabello, who came into the game for Joe Mauer, also scored twice in the game. He is battling to make the team as Mauer's backup at first base.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When (Blue Jays manager John Gibbons) came out and they went to the replay, I was thinking, 'Maybe I'm the first one. This could be kind of cool. I might get on ESPN or something.'" -- OF Chris Rahl (to the Star Tribune) on being involved in the first replay review in major league history.
RHP Ricky Nolasco
RHP Phil Hughes
RHP Kevin Correia
RHP Mike Pelfrey
RHP Sam Deduno
Pelfrey should be improved this season, as he came on strong at the end of last season. The staff in general looks better, but Hughes and Nolasco need to prove they have enough left to lead the staff.
The Twins are missing a left-handed starter and Scott Diamond, last season slated to be the opening day starter until he suffered an injury, will be working to bust into the rotation.
More than anything, the staff will need to do better than last season pitching late into games, and no one knows that more than the manager: "The way to protect your bullpen is by your starters going deep in the game and not having to eat up all those innings they ate up last year," Gardenhire said. "We need depth in our starters. That's why we went out and signed some guys we believe can (go deep in games)."
LHP Caleb Thielbar
RHP Anthony Swarzak
LHP Brian Duensing
RHP Casey Fien
RHP Jared Burton
LHP Glen Perkins
The Twins bullpen, arguably the strongest unit on the club, looks to be intact after another decent season. They were taxed in 2013 due to a weak starting rotation at times, but still fared well. Thielbar, who came up midseason and was a surprise addition, should slide into the spot vacated by Jeff Roenicke, who was sent outright to Class A Rochester during the offseason. Although Michael Tonkin, who came up late and pitched well, may have something to say about that before spring training if over.
Closer Glen Perkins had 36 saves in 61 appearances (62 2/3 innings) last season and has solidified himself in that role. He returns to once again lead the staff in hopes that the Twins starters will allow fans to see more of Perkins in save situations and less of the middle relievers pitching extended innings.
1. CF Alex Presley
2. 2B Brian Dozier
3. 1B Joe Mauer
4. LF Josh Willingham
5. RF Oswaldo Arcia
6. DH Jason Kubel
7. 3B Trevor Plouffe
8. C Kurt Suzuki or Josmil Pinto
9. SS Pedro Florimon
The Twins' lineup is still a work in progress as the team struggles to identify a consistent and productive leadoff hitter. Presley grabbed the role late in the 2013 season after coming over in the Justin Morneau trade, and he will likely begin there in 2014.
Dozier, who had several stints in the leadoff spot last season, is a better hitter in the two-spot and the Twins are hoping to bat him there, with Mauer returning to his natural third spot. Since Mauer is no longer catching (where the changing out of catching equipment prevented him from batting leadoff or second in the past), the team could experiment with him in the one and two spots this season.
The team will need better power numbers this year, and a healthy Willingham (who had midseason knee surgery last year) should help. The team will want to see another step forward from Arcia, who demonstrated great power last year, but struck out too often (117 strike outs in 351 at bats).
Likewise, the Twins are hoping that the return of Kubel will translate into some improved power numbers for the team, but it remains to be seen if his better days are behind him.
TOP ROOKIES: In addition to OF Byron Buxton and 3B Miguel Sano, who should make a splash this spring, RHP Alex Meyer may be ready to make the next step. The 6-foot-9 Meyer, 24, was 4-3 with a 2.99 ERA last year in the minors, and he was invited to spring training. RHP Trevor May is another young arm the Twins are waiting to make a move. He was a disappointing 9-9 with a 4.51 ERA in Double-A last season, but with another year of experience pitching his mid-90s fastball, May will be battling for a promotion this spring.
SS Danny Santana could make some noise by pushing incumbent shortstop Pedro Florimon this spring. Playing in the Double-A Eastern league, Santana compiled a .297/.333/.386 line with two home runs, 10 triples and 33 stolen bases. He is on the 40-man roster and will be looking for an upgrade.
--3B Miguel Sano (elbow) will undergo Tommy John surgery March 12 in New York. He is expected to miss the 2014 season. Sano will remain in New York for a few days after the surgery and then report to Fort Myers, Fla., to begin his eight-month rehabilitation program.
--RHP Matt Guerrier, who is coming off surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in August, is being brought along slowly in spring training. He threw live batting practice March 5 and had a bullpen session at camp March 7. The team hopes that he will be available March 11.
--SS Pedro Florimon underwent successful laparoscopic surgery to remove an inflamed appendix Feb. 17. He left the hospital Feb. 18 and was scheduled to have two weeks off in recovery and then start working his way back into spring training activities. On Feb. 26, he rode a stationary bike.
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