March 23, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Yankees shortstop Eduardo Nunez (26) steals third as Minnesota Twins third baseman Sean Burroughs (37) applies the late tag in the fifth inning at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
With four unexpected names making the trip north with the Minnesota Twins in a few days, now is a good time to chronicle the circumstances that led to their rise. No roster decisions are made in a vacuum, especially on opening day, and these are no exception.
This isn't one of those "I can't believe Player X made the roster" posts. Rather it's the journey of four players who, for their own reasons, were not expected to crack the opening day roster for the Minnesota Twins. Every year fans around baseball look at their team, from October through February, and they try to figure out who they'll be cheering on as part of the home town nine the following April.
Suffice it to say that, realistically, these four guys weren't on most peoples' lists.
Hendriks made his Major League debut for the Twins on September 6, throwing seven innings of three-run baseball but taking the loss. He would finish the season with the Twins, being forced to come up to the majors after injuries which had also forced him into service at triple-A.
Hendriks had his moments, but the Twins knew he wasn't ready. They brought in Jason Marquisfor protection, giving the Major League team enough depth that would allow them to bring Hendriks along at the pace they dictated. Instead, Marquis has a family issue which may keep him out for some time, and Scott Baker will begin the season on the disabled list. Rather than shifting Anthony Swarzakinto the rotation for the short term, they're keeping him in long relief and are going back to Hendriks.
The choice is between Hendriks, a pitcher who is seen as a future cog of the rotation with some upside, against players like Swarzak or Jeff Manship; players who are serviceable enough, but whose value is largely tied up in being inexpensive.
Hendriks has appeared in seven games this spring, striking out 14 in 20 innings while allowing four runs off 14 hits and six walks. Is he ready for this step? Ideally, the Twins probably would prefer to not usher him to the hill in this fashion. But circumstances, as they will with every player on this list, dictate decisions.
The Twins' brass like Burroughs from the start, which gave him an inside edge in spite of the fact that he was a non-roster invite. He rewarded the Twins with a solid spring, having so far appeared in 17 games and hitting .333 with a .429 on-base percentage. Two doubles constitute the entirety of his extra-base hits, but he's never been a power guy. Versatility is in his favor: 19 innings at first, 71 at third.
What made this difficult was that Burroughs does a lot of the same things that Luke Hughes does. Hughes plays first and third, but he plays some second as well. Hughes was already on the 40-man roster, and was out of options.
Then the Twins made three unexpected decisions that made taking Burroughs possible. First they optioned Tsuyoshi Nishioka to triple-A, opening up a potential bench spot for a backup infielder. Next they announced that Josh Willingham would be their left fielder, moving Ben Revere (a true outfielder) to the bench and Trevor Plouffe (not a true outfielder) into right field. Then they committed to Justin Morneau playing a lot of designated hitter by keeping Chris Parmelee. Morneau to DH meant Ryan Doumit shift to the bench, eliminating the need for the team to carry a third catcher. Removing Nishioka from the equation and strengthening Plouffe's role as an outfielder opened up that second infield bench spot.
The second non-roster invite to make the roster, Burton had a lot to overcome. Matt Capps and Anthony Swarzak were right-handed relievers already in the bullpen. Terry Doyle was a Rule 5 draft pick, Jeff Gray was on the 40-man roster, Jason Bulger has had Major League success, Lester Oliveros is a good, young right-handed pitcher.
Burton out-pitched them all. He leads the team this spring in appearances with ten, a sign that the club wanted to give him an opportunity and that he continued to give them reason to do so. The seven strikeouts in ten innings is good, the five walks not so much, but he also allowed just four hits and a pair of earned runs. Doyle was subsequently sent back to the White Sox, Bulger was released and Oliveros was optioned to triple-A.
I always mention Burton in the same breath as Casey Fien, because they're both right-handed pitchers and non-roster invites who pitched better than any other right-handed reliever in camp. Burton made it over Fien, but I think both have a chance to make the Twins' bullpen better.
Like Hendriks, Parmelee was forced into service early. Injuries meant he had to debut earlier than the Twins would have planned, coming to Minnesota after hitting .287/.366/.436 in 610 double-A plate appearances. We all know what happened next: he tore the cover off the ball in September for the Twins, and all winter long the Minnesota front office had to warn people not to get too excited about a few late-season at-bats. They insisted he wasn't ready then, and that he wouldn't be ready in the spring.
His making the team can be broken down into two components: his performance, and Justin Morneau. Morneau's post-concussion career has started to take shape, and he understands that to maximize the rest of his career he needs to stay as fresh as possible. That means not playing in the field more often than absolutely necessary. The decision to shift the former MVP to designated hitter was made easier because of Parmelee's performance this spring: .290/.389/.597 in 21 games. Five homers, nine walks versus eleven strikeouts, some decent glove work at first base.
Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, Luke Hughes, Sean Burroughs and Trevor Plouffe were all logical alternatives to Morneau at first base. Mauer has been healthy behind the plate, Doumit on the bench allows the team to carry just two catchers, Plouffe will be seeing regular time in right field, and nether Hughes nor Burroughs looked anything as impressive as Parmelee this spring. Even if Morneau was always destined to be the Twins' DH this season, Parmelee played himself into this job.
Every spring, one or two players make the team that you don't expect. This year we get four unexpected faces to watch, and what's fun about it is that they all legitimately make the team better. There's no guarantee that they'll stick around, but you have to hand it to the Twins - this year they really did take the best 25 players.