The Minnesota Twins generally break camp with thirteen position players and twelve pitchers. The number of catchers and -- surprisingly -- the number of outfielders that go north will have a big affect on whether that tradition holds in 2012.
The Minnesota Twins have consistently left Spring Training and gone north with 13 position players and 12 pitchers, at least as far as recent history is concerned. One of the reasons for this split was because the starting pitchers aren't completely stretched out come Opening Day, and the extra bullpen arm helped buffer the rest of the relief corps as they picked up a few extra innings in the opening weeks of the year.
The Twins have also had the luxury of breaking camp with 12 pitchers, however, because of the versatility of both their bench and the team's starting position players.
This spring there are some familiar themes: Trevor Plouffe has been tabbed as a left fielder, but is certainly still capable of sliding to shortstop, second base or, in a potentially dire emergency, a corner infield spot. Tsuyoshi Nishioka can play second, short, and has taken some reps at third base this spring. Jamey Carroll can play all of those positions. Alexi Casilla? Second and short. Luke Hughes? Second, third, first, and in a pinch a corner outfield spot.
Then comes Ryan Doumit, though, which is where and why this becomes an interesting question. While Doumit can backup first base and has taken some time in the outfield this spring, the Twins have publicly been of the opinion that he'll be Joe Mauer's backup behind the plate. But when he isn't catching, he's also a popular choice to be the team's primary designated hitter.
Therein lies the rub.
If the primary catcher needs to leave the game and the backup is the designated hitter that day, the team loses their DH by shifting him to catcher, forcing the pitcher to take at-bats. Astute Twins fans will recognize that Ron Gardenhire isn't a fan of that scenario.
Common sense dictates that a third catcher is just a short flight away, and that losing a designated hitter for a few innings in one game is unlikely to have an effect on the fortunes of a season, much less a single game. Nevertheless, Gardy likes what Gardy likes and the Twins are an organization that will allow their Major League manager to have an equal say on who makes the Opening Day roster.
Drew Butera has been the team's second catcher for most of the past two seasons, making his way entirely on defensive reputation. He's hit just .178/.220/.261 in 409 career plate appearances, which is what you'd expect from a guy who batted .214/.296/.317 in 1,630 minor league plate appearances. Fellow Twins system catcher Rene Rivera's triple slash lines are shockingly similar in both instances, although he's not on the 40-man roster this season.
Then there's J.R. Towles, who also isn't on the 40-man. Towles has toiled away down in Houston, making token appearances with the Astros since 2007 when he was just 23 years old. Between injuries and the Astros refusing to give him a shot over Brad Ausmus and Humberto Quintero, he's seemingly never had an opportunity to latch onto a regular spot in spite of owning a career minor league line of .295/.394/.465. Scouting reports call him athletic, a catcher with a good arm and a frame for power; it just hasn't happened in the Majors.
One of these three players will make the team as a third catcher, although a move would need to be made to make Rivera or Towles eligible. On top of that, Hughes and Plouffe are out of options and will be exposed to waivers unless they makes the trip north. Nishioka has been preparing for a utility role and doesn't seem to be a likely candidate to head to Rochester with the money that's been invested in him. Throw in the customary fourth outfielder, and your bench is at five players.
The only way Minnesota doesn't start the season with a five-man bench is if Gardenhire and the front office believe they don't need to carry another outfielder. If they believe that Revere can backup Span in center, if they believe Plouffe and Doumit can backup in the corners, then perhaps a guy like Rene Tosoni or Joe Benson won't be needed.
This is where it actually gets interesting, in the second instance. If we know that the Twins are likely to carry three catchers, and they are, then the construction of the Opening Day pitching staff will have more to do with how many outfielders the team carries than the number of catchers. And that's just a little bit unexpected by your's truly.