If you were at Twins Fest this past weekend — and judging by social media, plenty of you were — you may have noticed a couple of familiar faces returning to the Twins fold.
Infielder Jason Bartlett was signed to a minor league contract back in November and given an invite to Spring Training for a shot at making the big league club. Outfielder Jason Kubel was signed to a similar deal in December, and both were available for pictures and autographs at the Twins annual winter festival.
Then Wednesday, it was announced that the Twins had signed relief pitcher Matt Guerrier — also to a minor league contract with an invite to Fort Meyers.
So are the “Home 9” getting the band back together? What’s next, a trade for Nick Punto?!
(Cue snarky Twins fans nodding their heads vigorously.)
While it’s not unheard of for players with minor league contracts and Spring Training invites to make the club, it virtually never happens three times in a single season.
So which (if any) of the three has the best shot at making the big club? Let’s review a little of their history and assess their chances.
Bartlett came to the Twins in July of 2002 in a trade for outfielder Brian Buchanan. He played in parts of four seasons for Minnesota, hitting .272/.341/.362 in just over a thousand at-bats before being shipped to Tampa as part of the “Garza-for-Delmon” deal that fans are so fond of.
That deal appeared to favor Tampa in a big way when Garza broke out, and Bartlett became an All-Star in 2009. But the Rays have written the book on trading players at their peak value, so after a slight down-tick in Bartlett’s numbers in 2010, off he went in a trade to San Diego.
With the Padres, Bartlett struggled, posting a .245/.308/.307 slash line in 2011, and playing only 29 games for the team in 2012 before being put on the DL with a right knee strain, and being granted his unconditional release in August of that year.
Bartlett sat out all of last season, which has its good and its bad points. On the plus-side his knee should be as rested and rehabbed as possible. On the negative side, a full year away from the game creates a LOT of rust, and at 34-years-old, that’s going to be very difficult for him to shake off.
If — and it’s a sizable “if” — he can hit enough to warrant a spot on the 25-man roster, he should be able to play enough defense to fill a similar utility role to the one occupied by Jamey Carroll the last couple of seasons.
Kubel was a born and bred Twin. Drafted by Minnesota in the 12th round of the 2000 amateur draft, Jason made his Major League debut on Aug. 31, 2004.
His rise to an every-day player was interrupted that Fall, however, when he suffered a serious knee injury in the Arizona Fall League which would cause him to miss all of 2005.
He spent the bulk of the next five years patrolling the Twins outfield or DH’ing, compiling a slash line of .271/.334/.459.
After the 2011 season, Kubel became a free agent, and with only lukewarm interest emanating from the Twins front office, he agreed to a 2-year $15 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
While Kubel’s powerful left-handed swing seemed destined to send home runs splashing into the pool in Chase Field, he joined an outfield that was already full-to-bursting with talented players, and — without a DH spot to use for at-bats — never really settled into an every-day position with the D’backs.
Kubel was designated for assignment in August of last year, and traded to the Cleveland Indians three days later.
Cleveland declined to pick up his option, making him a free agent.
Kubel probably has the best shot of the three to make the 25-man roster. He’s only 31 years old (he’ll turn 32 in May), he hit 30 home runs, 30 doubles and slugged .833 just two seasons ago, and has the flexibility to play either corner outfield spot, or he can DH.
With questions surrounding Josh Willingham’s health and his ability to play every day in the field, Kubel could be counted on to bolster an outfield corps that could certainly use more serviceable bodies with power potential.
Though he wasn’t drafted by the Twins, Guerrier made his MLB debut with Minnesota after bouncing around the White Sox and Pirates minor league systems for several years.
Guerrier worked out of the Twins bullpen from 2004 to 2010, pitching 472 innings over seven seasons with a 2.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an ERA of 3.38.
The Twins have a history of opting for less-expensive bullpen talent, however, so when Guerrier became a free agent after the 2010 season, he left for the sunny pastures of L.A., signing a 3-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers.
2011 went well for Guerrier, but early in 2012 he experienced right elbow inflammation, and ended up appearing in just 16 games for the Dodgers that season.
He came back in 2013 and pitched in 34 games for L.A., but managed only a 4.80 ERA before being designated for assignment and eventually being traded to the Cubs, who declined to re-sign him after the season.
Guerrier is perhaps the most intriguing name of the three. When healthy, he’s been an absolute horse. For five straight seasons (’07 to ’11) he pitched in at least 70 games, threw at least 66+ innings, and only once walked more than 25 batters.
But as we’ve seen so often with pitchers, when the arm starts to break down, it’s very rare that they get it back.
Add to that the fact that the Twins bullpen was actually pretty good last season (leading MLB in Innings Pitched, 4th in Strikeouts and in the upper half of all bullpens in ERA), and it becomes difficult to see Guerrier finding a spot when the team wraps up Spring Training.
So, no, we’re not likely to be destined for a reunion of the mid-2000’s Twins roster. But when the team breaks camp and heads north to begin the 2014 campaign, one or two of the names might spark memories of a time when the Twins were winning division championships.
And that can hardly be a bad thing.