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Jason Bartlett is back with the Minnesota Twins in spring training, attempting to land a roster spot as a utility infielder.
USA TODAY Sports Jason Bartlett is back with the Minnesota Twins in spring training, attempting to land a roster spot as a utility infielder.

Spring Training: Back with Twins, Bartlett sets off on comeback trail

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Coming into spring training, the position battle for Minnesota Twins starting shortstop may have flown under the radar with celebrated rookies Miguel Sano (third base) and Byron Buxton (outfield) in camp.

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But when incumbent Pedro Florimon underwent laparoscopic surgery to remove an inflamed appendix on Feb. 17, the battle for the position just got more interesting.

The team signed former Twins shortstop Jason Bartlett in the offseason, and minor leaguer Danny Santana was planning to make a push for a roster spot, as well. But in the wake of the news on Florimon, manager Ron Gardenhire tried to smolder the flames of a suddenly intensifying brushfire.

“(Florimon’s) our shortstop,” Gardenhire told ESPN. “(Jason) Bartlett is here to try and make the club, but Florimon is our shortstop.”

Florimon, 27, who hit .221 with nine home runs and 44 RBIs in 134 games with the Twins last season, had successful surgery and left the hospital on Feb. 18. He was expected to miss two weeks in recovery and then will have to play some catch up during the rest of spring training. And that creates an opportunity for the veteran Bartlett.

Bartlett was brought in to compete for a utility infielder job. After a year off from baseball due to a knee injury, Bartlett is back, refreshed and ready to try to make the Twins’ roster. He will battle Eduardo Escobar for the utility job, but depending on Florimon’s situation, there could be more in store.

“He brings some veteran presence and some leadership to the table,” assistant general manager Rob Antony told the Star Tribune. “We will have to see what he looks like in spring training. It’s an opportunity for him. If it works out, it will give us an experienced guy who knows what he’s doing and with the ability to play shortstop.”

In Bartlett’s last season on the field (2011), he had a batting line of .245/.308/.307 in 554 at-bats in 139 games. The Twins will likely hope for something closer to the .271 he hit in four seasons with the Twins (2004-07) before inserting him into the starting position. While those numbers came a while ago for the 34-year-old, Bartlett appears ready to try pro ball again after spending 1 1/2 years watching kids.

“I haven’t seen a pitch in a year and a half, but that should come naturally in spring training,” he said. “I feel good, man. I had lost that athleticism and that’s why I wasn’t having fun anymore. I’m now running around, doing jump throws.”

Bartlett will have his work cut out for him, and plenty of competition. Santana has been in the Twins minors since 2008 and last season recorded numbers of .297/.333/.386 at New Britain in the Class AA Eastern League. With the Twins on a youth movement, Santana will have every opportunity to show what he can do in spring training.

Bartlett took some fly balls in the outfield on Wednesday, as Gardenhire said he needs some versatility in his utility players (Escobar was scheduled to take some flies as well).

“I have never played the outfield, on any level,” Bartlett told the Star Tribune.

With Florimon out, Bartlett got the start at shortstop in the Twins’ opening game of spring training and went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. Santana came in for Bartlett and went 1-for-2 with an RBI in the Twins’ 8-2 win.

But Bartlett wants another shot at the big leagues, so he is willing to give outfield a shot. Making the team is his first goal. Then, he can worry about where and how much he plays.

Notes, quotes

n LF Josh Willingham is slated to start in left field this season (as he did in 2013), but the aging veteran’s status in somewhat in flux. Talk has arisen that he could become the team’s designated hitter. Last season, Willingham missed a chunk of the schedule due to injury, and at 35 years old, DH may become more of a possibility. Willingham has one year on his contract and has stated his desire to remain in Minnesota. Although he would rather play left, he is also reportedly willing to fill the role of DH.

n 2B Brian Dozier is not likely to qualify for salary arbitration until after the 2015 season, but he has made his feelings known that he would like to remain with the Twins organization.

“Man, I love it here,” Dozier told the Pioneer Press. “I want to stay here forever.”

When Dozier’s agent, Damon Lapa, comes to Fort Myers next Friday, it is possible that talks of an extension could begin. But at this time there has been no indication by the Twins that an extension is in the works.

n 1B Kennys Vargas has put on a power display thus far in spring training. A Class A player who had a .468 slugging percentage last season and led the Florida League with 93 RBIs, Vargas has demonstrated power from both sides of the plate.

“He’s a work in progress around the bag and has things to learn,” manager Ron Gardenhire told the Pioneer Press. “But he’s so strong he and can hit the ball a mile. He has a lot of talent.”

n 1B Joe Mauer could see more action on the basepaths now that he is playing first base. The wear and tear catching taken on his legs may have held him back. Gardenhire was asked if he would give Mauer the green light to steal. “If I give it to him, he’s not afraid to try,” Gardenhire said. “He’ll run and he’ll pick out his pitch. I think being out from behind the plate will help his legs and his body.”

n 1B Jack Barrie agreed to terms with the Twins, a contract in the $250,000 range, according to reports. The 18-year-old Australian is 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds had a strong showing in the Under-18 national championships in Canberra in January.

“He can hit,” Mike Radcliffe, Twins VP of player personnel told the Pioneer Press. “He just crushed the ball. That was somewhat of a surprise. That was what stirred everybody up.”

n RHP Alex Meyer has turned several heads in camp this spring. His stuff has been nasty at times, and certainly the players have noticed. Meyer has a ways to go, but his future in the Twins rotation may not be far off.

n The Twins announced Friday they agreed to terms with their remaining 27 players to contracts for the season. That includes projected starters RHP Samuel Deduno, 2B Brian Dozier, SS Pedro Florimon and OF Alex Presley. The team’s entire 40-man roster is under contract.

Quote to note

“I threw a lot of sliders last year. I’m hoping to get away from that a little bit. I feel like my curveball can be a better pitch than the slider was. I decided before I came to camp that I needed to get my curveball back to what it was. I got away from it last year, obviously struggling with what I was doing. So I talked to (pitching coach Rick Anderson) a couple of times this winter about what I wanted to do, and getting my curveball back was a big thing.” — Right-handed pitcher Phil Hughes told the Star Tribune about his plans for the season after having a down year (4-14, 5.19 ERA) last season with the New York Yankees.

Roster report

PROJECTED ROTATION:

RHP Ricky Nolasco

RHP Phil Hughes

RHP Kevin Correia

RHP Mike Pelfrey

RHP Sam Deduno

Pelfrey should be improved this season, as he came on strong at the end of last season. The staff in general looks better, but Hughes and Nolasco need to prove they have enough left to lead the staff.

The Twins are missing a left-handed starter and Scott Diamond, last season slated to be the opening day starter until he suffered an injury, will be working to bust into the rotation.

More than anything, the staff will need to do better than last season pitching late into games, and no one knows that more than the manager: “The way to protect your bullpen is by your starters going deep in the game and not having to eat up all those innings they ate up last year,” Gardenhire said. “We need depth in our starters. That’s why we went out and signed some guys we believe can (go deep in games).”

PROJECTED BULLPEN:

LHP Caleb Thielbar

RHP Anthony Swarzak

LHP Brian Duensing

RHP Casey Fien

RHP Jared Burton

LHP Glen Perkins

The Twins bullpen, arguably the strongest unit on the club, looks to be intact after another decent season. They were taxed in 2013 due to a weak starting rotation at times, but still fared well. Thielbar, who came up midseason and was a surprise addition, should slide into the spot vacated by Jeff Roenicke, who was sent outright to Class A Rochester during the offseason. Although Michael Tonkin, who came up late and pitched well, may have something to say about that before spring training if over.

Closer Glen Perkins had 36 saves in 61 appearances (62 2/3 innings) last season and has solidified himself in that role. He returns to once again lead the staff in hopes that the Twins starters will allow fans to see more of Perkins in save situations and less of the middle relievers pitching extended innings.

PROJECTED LINEUP:

1. CF Alex Presley

2. 2B Brian Dozier

3. 1B Joe Mauer

4. LF Josh Willingham

5. RF Oswaldo Arcia

6. DH Jason Kubel

7. 3B Trevor Plouffe

8. C Kurt Suzuki or Josmil Pinto

9. SS Pedro Florimon

The Twins’ lineup is still a work in progress as the team struggles to identify a consistent and productive leadoff hitter. Presley grabbed the role late in the 2013 season after coming over in the Justin Morneau trade, and he will likely begin there in 2014.

Dozier, who had several stints in the leadoff spot last season, is a better hitter in the two-spot and the Twins are hoping to bat him there, with Mauer returning to his natural third spot. Since Mauer is no longer catching (where the changing out of catching equipment prevented him from batting leadoff or second in the past), the team could experiment with him in the one and two spots this season.

The team will need better power numbers this year, and a healthy Willingham (who had midseason knee surgery last year) should help. The team will want to see another step forward from Arcia, who demonstrated great power last year, but struck out too often (117 strike outs in 351 at bats).

Likewise, the Twins are hoping that the return of Kubel will translate into some improved power numbers for the team, but it remains to be seen if his better days are behind him.

TOP ROOKIES: In addition to OF Byron Buxton and 3B Miguel Sano, who should make a splash this spring, RHP Alex Meyer may be ready to make the next step. The 6-foot-9 Meyer, 24, was 4-3 with a 2.99 ERA last year in the minors, and he was invited to spring training. RHP Trevor May is another young arm the Twins are waiting to make a move. He was a disappointing 9-9 with a 4.51 ERA in Double-A last season, but with another year of experience pitching his mid-90s fastball, May will be battling for a promotion this spring.

SS Danny Santana could make some noise by pushing incumbent shortstop Pedro Florimon this spring. Playing in the Double-A Eastern league, Santana compiled a .297/.333/.386 line with two home runs, 10 triples and 33 stolen bases. He is on the 40-man roster and will be looking for an upgrade.

MEDICAL WATCH:

n SS Pedro Florimon underwent successful laparoscopic surgery to remove an inflamed appendix Feb. 17. He left the hospital Feb. 18 and was scheduled to have two weeks off in recovery and then start working his way back into spring training activities. On Feb. 26, he rode a stationary bike.

n C Josmil Pinto missed three consecutive days of spring training drills because of a stiff lower back, but resumed limited drill work Feb. 25. On Feb. 26, he went through all the workout drills and then caught three innings in the team’s intrasquad game the following day. “It was nice to see him out there moving around,” manager Ron Gardenhire told the Star Tribune.

n RHP Matt Guerrier, who is coming off surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in August, threw all his pitches in his Feb. 24 bullpen session and plans to throw at least one more session Feb. 27 before facing hitters for the first time this spring. The Twins are looking at March 11 for his potential spring debut.

n RHP Kevin Correia was scratched from his scheduled batting practice session Feb. 24 due to a stiff neck. The Twins say the condition is minor and he pitched in an intrasquad game Feb. 27, throwing two scoreless innings.

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