5 intriguing Twins storylines to watch this spring

February 24th, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Twins eased into their Spring Training schedule with an eight-inning exhibition game against the University of Minnesota on Friday night, which they won, 13-2, but they’re plowing into their Grapefruit League schedule at full speed starting Saturday.

Not only are Royce Lewis and a bevy of big leaguers expected to play immediately, but manager Rocco Baldelli has indicated that a healthy Byron Buxton should get into games within the first week, all of which should help the team start to draw some early conclusions about some of the storylines that could be intriguing this camp.

Here are a few to watch:

1. How often is Buxton playing center field?
It’s not a question of if at this point, with Buxton a full participant early in camp in fielding, baserunning and live batting practice. It becomes more of a question of how frequently Buxton is in center field, particularly later in the spring.

It’s certainly an encouraging sign for the Twins that Buxton’s previously troublesome right knee is enduring the early days of camp well, but the real test comes when he stands in center field on a regular basis, makes plays out there and tests out how it responds to playing center for the first time since 2022.

Given the way the Twins like to spread around rest days and play matchups with their lineup, the ability to have more flexibility at DH -- with Buxton in that slot less often and in center more often -- would have a significant trickle-down impact on their lineup.

2. Where is Austin Martin playing?
In particular: How much left and center field is Martin playing, and how does he look at those spots alongside the big leaguers? In the Twins’ current roster composition (if they don’t add another center field-type defender), there’s a good chance they’ll count on Martin as some level of insurance for Buxton.

It’s likely that he’ll be counted on for some degree of super-utility role this season, with the ability to play second base and outfield. But the details of where the Twins see that fit -- whether as true center-field depth or more as a super-utility fit to perhaps platoon with Matt Wallner in left and plug all around the diamond -- could be clarified a bit by seeing how they use him.

3. How is Louie Varland’s sinker?
Varland is the first line of defense in the Twins’ rotation depth, and there’s little question he’ll be called upon at some point this season to pitch significant innings out of the rotation.

The answer to this question could play a significant role in how effective Varland can be when the time comes. That’s because right-handed hitters crushed Varland with a .275 average and .843 OPS last season, and he says it’s because they could sit on outside pitches, since he didn’t have a good pitch to use on the inner half. If the sinker can be that pitch, it could pave the way for a more effective Varland than the one who posted a 5.30 ERA as a starter in ’23.

4. How is Jorge Alcala’s consistency?
Alcala was sitting 97-98 mph with his fastball in his most recent live batting practice, which is promising after two seasons almost fully wiped out by injuries -- but he’s almost certainly on the outside looking into a crowded bullpen picture, having been unable to build on his 2.63 ERA in 2020 and 3.92 ERA in ’21.

Baldelli noted that there isn’t concern about Alcala’s health; rather, it goes back to the issues that had previously stopped him from taking the next step: Can his changeup be a consistent tool against left-handed hitters, and can he consistently locate?

The raw stuff has always been there; can Alcala finally harness it and work himself back into the Twins’ bullpen picture?

5. Does Trevor Larnach’s swing look more controlled?
Larnach was leapfrogged in the “slugging left-handed corner outfielder” order by Wallner last season, and he again enters camp without a clear path to consistent playing time.

Health issues and struggles against non-fastballs -- of which Larnach sees a ton -- have limited his ability to take advantage of the opportunities that do come. This spring, Larnach has adopted a wider stance without a leg kick, because his big motion out of a relaxed stance in the past would have him off-balance and leaning when trying to hit slower pitches.

Can this help the former first-rounder show more consistency in the big leagues when the opportunity presents itself?