MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Twins have carried plenty of depth in their outfield for years. They’ve also had their share of uncertainty about who’s playing where and when.
Well, manager Ron Gardenhire sure quashed any lingering intrigue about this season’s lineup. Denard Span is the centre-fielder. Ben Revere will play left. Josh Willingham is in right.
Revere played so well in centre in relief of Span last year, using his exceptional speed to make all kinds of gravity-defying catches, that the Twins could have moved Span to right. He thrived there as a rookie in 2008 when Michael Cuddyer was hurt. Willingham, the team’s highest-profile and highest-paid free agent signing, has rarely played right — only 19 complete games out of 799 in the majors.
But Span, long groomed to inherit the position from Torii Hunter, is not moving. Gardenhire made that clear this weekend at the team’s annual fan festival.
“He’s going to lead off and be my centre fielder. That’s my expectation,” Gardenhire said. “If somebody were to tell me that he’s not able to do that, then we’d have to ad lib. But if Denard comes in healthy, then he’s my centre fielder.”
Span played in only 70 games last season because of concussion and migraine problems. He said he feels now as good as he has in two years.
“Everybody knows I waited a long time to play centre field. I’m very passionate about it. There’s a piece of me out there in that area,” Span said, making clear he’s willing to play right if the Twins preferred.
They don’t, and Revere doesn’t mind. His weak throwing arm is better protected in left field, and he has played there often in the minor leagues. Revere said he’s been doing long-toss drills with a football with his older brother to help build more strength in his arm.
“Denard, he’s our centre-fielder, and I want to play beside him, because we can cover so much ground,” Revere said. “We’ve played a bunch of games together so we know each other so well. OK, he can get that, and I can get that. I know in the back of my mind. Usually, I can kind of take a peek at him a little bit, and he knows when I’m going to go and get it.”
As for Willingham’s ability to grow comfortable in right field?
“I’ll let you know after spring training,” he said.
When told he had appeared in 35 games in right with the Washington Nationals in 2009, Willingham’s eyes widened.
“Thirty-five games? Shut the front door. Really? I had no idea,” Willingham said. “Hopefully this spring I’ll just get a lot of reps out there and get comfortable. That’s the goal. Playing on the opposite end of the field, it’s different the way the balls come off the bat, so it’ll just take a little bit of time to get used to.”
He was signed to get on base and hit home runs, though.
“We’ll swing at ’em and see what happens,” said Willingham, who homered 29 times last year for the Oakland Athletics.
Since Hunter left as a free agent following the 2007 season, the Twins have used several combinations of players in the three outfield positions, plus at designated hitter. Injuries played a part in the shuffling, as did slumps and versatility.
Carlos Gomez, Delmon Young, Jason Kubel and Cuddyer have all moved on now, leaving this unique trio to patrol the grass and produce runs at the plate. Trevor Plouffe will also see some playing time at the corner positions, and Rene Tosoni could carve out a roster spot as a backup. Top prospect Joe Benson will be pushing for time, too. But for now there’s no mystery about who plays where.
“That’s exactly what I want. We’ve got enough question marks. We’ve got to figure enough things out,” Gardenhire said.
NOTES: Joe Mauer said “this is the best I’ve felt in a long time.” Mauer didn’t want to put a number on how many games he’d like to catch this season, but after soreness and weakness in his legs that wouldn’t go away and a number of illnesses he dealt with in 2011 he said he feels “night and day” better now than he did at this point last year. … Gardenhire also left no doubt that Jamey Carroll would start at SS with Alexi Casilla at 2B. Both of them and Tsuyoshi Nishioka can play each spot. The Twins haven’t given up on Nishioka, but he’s not guaranteed a place on the team. Gardenhire said he hopes Nishioka, who struggled with offence, defence and health in his first major league season, comes to spring training “with a better idea of what we do and how we do things.” … Gardenhire said RHP Carl Pavano will be the opening-day starter on April 6 and RHP Scott Baker will take the mound for the first home game on April 9.