Inbox: Nishioka move opens up utility role
Beat reporter Rhett Bollinger answers fans' questions
It's been a busy Spring Training for the Twins, who still have plenty of question marks heading into Opening Day.
The Twins have plenty of decisions to make regarding their roster, especially regarding their bullpen and bench.
There's been some big news this spring, including losing Joel Zumaya for the season to a torn ulnar collateral ligament and the decision to option Tsuyoshi Nishioka to Triple-A Rochester.
But the good news for Minnesota is that key players such as Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span have stayed healthy so far this spring.
As a result of the daily grind of Spring Training, it's been tough to find time to bring back the Inbox. But with the club's lone off-day of the spring on Tuesday, here is its return:
Have a question about the Twins?
E-mail your query to MLB.com Twins beat reporter Rhett Bollinger for possible inclusion in a future Inbox column. Letters may be edited for brevity, length and/or content.
Why did Nishioka get optioned to Triple-A Rochester? It seemed like he was having a fairly decent spring, and he could have been a nice bench player or pinch-runner. Is this for development?
-- Jonathan Z., Waconia, Minn.
Truthfully, Nishioka never looked very comfortable at the plate or in the field this spring. It appeared he was pressing after his well-documented struggles last season.
It was especially apparent in the field -- even though he wasn't charged with an error -- as he often appeared rushed and continued to have troubles fielding the ball with his backhand. At the plate, he fared a little bit better by hitting .240, but he also had just one extra-base hit.
The Twins are hoping that his stint in the Minors will help him relax and play more like he did in Japan when he was a five-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner.
But even general manager Terry Ryan admitted that Nishioka has a lot to work on before he gets another chance with Minnesota. So for now, the Twins have an open competition for a utility role, which could also come from outside the organization, according to Ryan.
There's also an outside chance that Brian Dozier wins the starting shortstop job and veteran infielder Jamey Carroll serves in a utility role. So it'll be interesting to see how the roster shakes out come Opening Day.
I know this winter you projected the outfield alignment as Ben Revere in left field, Denard Span in center and Josh Willingham in right. However, since Willingham has more experience in left, could they put Willingham in left, Revere in center, and Span in right? Or could they put Willingham in left, Span in center, and Trevor Plouffe in right?
-- Josh R., Saint Paul, Minn.
So far this spring, the Twins have stuck to the original alignment of Revere in left, Span in center and Willingham in right, and it appears that will be the alignment come Opening Day.
But manager Ron Gardenhire did say that he can make adjustments to the outfield, especially if Willingham finds he can't adapt to playing right field after playing almost exclusively in left during his career.
As for Plouffe, he can play either corner-outfield spot, and could serve as a platoon mate with Revere and start against lefties. In that scenario, Minnesota could start Plouffe in right field if Willingham is more comfortable in left.
With the season-ending injury to Zumaya, do you see the Twins cutting him or putting him on the 60-day disabled list? Also, many people were excited to see him pitch for Minnesota, so would it be a possibility that he signs a Minor League contract next year?
-- Clint B., Eau Claire, Minn.
The Twins only have to pay Zumaya $400,000 of his $850,000 contract because he didn't make the Opening Day roster, so it really doesn't matter if they place him on the 60-day DL or cut him.
Minnesota, however, will wait until Opening Day nears to make its decision, because the club will likely make a corresponding roster move to take Zumaya's spot on the 40-man roster. Zumaya can't be placed on the 60-day DL unless a corresponding roster move is made at the same time.
Why is it that the Twins don't receive the Rockies' first-round Draft pick plus a compensation sandwich pick? Instead, they only get the sandwich pick for a Type A free agent such as Michael Cuddyer?
-- Nathan B., Minneapolis, Minn.
The Rockies ended up signing Cuddyer to a three-year deal worth $31.5 million, but their No. 10 pick was protected, as are the top 15 picks in the Draft. Additionally, even if Colorado had, say, the No. 20 overall pick, it wouldn't have forfeited its pick because Cuddyer was a modified Type A free agent under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. In that scenario, the Twins would've received the pick in the slot just before the Rockies' selection.
Instead, Minnesota still gets two supplemental picks in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft as a result of Cuddyer signing with Colorado. The Twins get the first pick of the supplemental round (No. 32 overall) and the Rockies' pick in the second round (No. 70 overall).
Additionally, Minnesota gets the No. 42 pick as a result of Jason Kubel leaving to sign with Arizona. Kubel was a Type B free agent.
When will Nick Blackburn's reign of terror be over? He will have one decent game then a horrific game. If he can be steady, I think he would be a great asset to the Twins, but his ups and downs are getting old.
-- Bryan B., Pierre, S.D.
Blackburn is the first person to admit that he hasn't been consistent over the past two seasons. He's posted a 4.98 ERA over 309 1/3 innings over the past two years while battling elbow and forearm issues.
But let's not forget that Blackburn had a 4.04 ERA over 399 innings from 2008-09, and had a 3.15 ERA in his first 15 starts last year before he was plagued by a forearm injury that ultimately resulted in offseason surgery.
The right-hander has fared well this spring, tossing seven scoreless innings in Grapefruit League play, as he's healthy and made the adjustment to pitch from the middle of the rubber to help with his deception.
Of course, it's just spring, and Blackburn could revert to being inconsistent, but at least there's some reason for optimism for this season.
Although Mauer and others will certainly spend some of their time as designated hitter, who will solidify the role throughout the year?
-- Katie E., St. Paul, Minn.
Gardenhire made it clear early in Spring Training that Ryan Doumit will serve as the primary designated hitter this year, while also seeing some time at catcher and in right field.
But Mauer and Morneau will get their fair share of time at DH when they need a break from playing the field.
Morneau has seen plenty of time at DH so far this spring, but it's mostly been to get him as many at-bats as possible to get his timing back. He's hitting just 3-for-30 in Grapefruit League play, but the Twins remain optimistic his timing will come around and are pleased that he hasn't been held back by injuries.
Last year was an uncharacteristically horrendous year defensively for the Twins (28th in errors and fielding percentage, 30th in defensive efficiency). What are they working on during Spring Training to change that around for this year?
-- Daniel W., Fort Collins, Colo.
Well, the Twins added three extra days of practice this spring to work on defensive fundamentals after their struggles last year.
They also brought in Jamey Carroll to solidify the shortstop position after Plouffe's and Nishioka's troubles there defensively in '11. And with Revere and Span both slated to start in the outfield, they're both going to cover a ton of ground, which should make up for Willingham's lack of range.
Danny Valencia also worked hard this spring to improve his defense, and if Alexi Casilla and Morneau are healthy, they should provide solid defense as well. But needless to say, their defense is still a concern and something they need to remedy if they are to improve in the win column this year.