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This is the most wonderful time of the year. Sure, there’s Christmas, the World Series and the Super Bowl. Each can rightfully stake their claim to being the best time of the year. One even has a song testifying to its wonderfulness.

But the true baseball fan knows that spring training has the unique ability to turn pessimism into optimism, disappointment into hope. It signals an impending change of season and of mood. All the bad memories from last year, or the frustration of the team doing nothing to improve in the off season, are replaced for at least 1 ½ months by the excitement of what the new year can bring.

We all become baseball gemologists in spring training, looking for the diamond in the rough. Maybe that young kid from AA will magically blossom under the nourishing Florida sun into the next Kirby Puckett. Or maybe the “can’t miss prospect” who has been riding the team’s bench for the last two seasons will finally have a breakout year.

Born from front office inactivity as well as an abundance of talent, there are several key positions and Twins players to watch in Ft. Myers this spring.

Setup Battles

When the biggest name acquired in free agency is a little-known reliever named Luis Ayala who posted an ERA of 5.71 in ‘08, it figures that he may not have the setup job sewn-up going into spring training. While we all wait for Pat Neshek to heal, Ayala’s competition will come from three sources.

Joe Mijares was the left-handed relief star of last September’s division championship run. He should be a strong competitor for the eighth-inning role. But along with considerable talent, he struggles with his weight and has had some character issues, including walking out on his team in Venezuela this winter.

The Jesse Crain watch will officially begin with the first spring game. The other right-handed setup man besides Ayala, Crain struggled at times in his first year back after major shoulder surgery in ‘07. If Crain rebounds to his 2006 form, the eight inning could belong to him.

The final candidate is left-hander workhorse Matt Guerrier. After receiving most of the setup work in the first half of last season, he definitely showed the wear in the second half, posting an 8.88 ERA after the All Star break. The Twins look for him to be rejuvenated.

Outfield’s Revolving Door

With the recent signing of Delmon Young to a one-year deal, it’s virtually guaranteed to be a four-way competition for the three prized spots. Both Carlos Gomez and Denard Span are sure to be locks. Gomez has too much talent to be allowed to sit in the bench, and he runs down almost anything hit his way in center. Span proved to be a spark plug hitting leadoff, someone the Twins have been trying to find for years. So the real competition figures to be between Michael Cuddyer and Young.

Cuddyer needs to show he can remain healthy for a season and recapture his valuable right-handed power role from 2006. If he does, Cuddyer will return to his mainstay status, probably in right field where he can best display his rocket arm.

The true bubble player may be Young, who needs to take instruction better and show more plate discipline this spring to unseat one of the other three competitors--most likely Cuddyer if he falters.

Youngsters To Watch

The prospect who could offer the most help to the Twins organization is third baseman Danny Valencia. Although the general consensus is that Valencia is still a year away, he will get a call up to show what he can do this spring. If he shows he can handle the thirds base job, he could full a major role on opening day or as a call up sometime during the season--especially since the third-base job remains unfilled in a meaningful way

Twins management says Anthony Swarczak is among the best of the Twins young starting arms. He is projected to start camp with the club and, if he impresses, he could be called up to replace a failing starter during the season.

Phillip Humber also figures to be given a chance to make the terms in spring, especially since he spent the entire season in AAA, is out of options and was one of the primary pieces in the Johan Santana trade last year. He won’t clear waivers and needs to show he’s ready to provide some return value for the all star pitcher the Twins gave up.

Free Agent Watch?

Rumors are once again circulating that the Twins remain interested in signing Joe Crede at third, with reports that the Twins are still talking with Crede’s agent, Scott Boras. Boras was quoted a saying a decision will be coming soon. And according to Twins writer Lavelle E.. Neal in today’s Star Tribune online, there may still be a possibility of the Twins trading for Arizona reliever Juan Cruz.

Stay tuned.

By Twins Blog Writer: Rick Jourdan
Make sure to catch Rick's column at every Monday!


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