After almost 10 years in Minnesota, outfielder Torii Hunter packed his bags and headed west this past offseason, signing a five-year, $90 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. His departure has left a huge hole in center field for the Twins, where he was valued not only for his great defense but also for his offense. Last year was his career season with the Twins; he hit .287 with 28 home runs, 107 RBIs and scored 94 runs.
The Twins do not have anyone on their roster that will put up numbers like that this season. However, they do have plenty of players that will try. Due to prospect Denard Span's slower-than-expected development, the team brought in outfielder Carlos Gomez from the New York Mets and outfielder Jason Pridie from the Tampa Bay Rays this past offseason. They have also signed outfielder Craig Monroe, who spent time with both the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs. Although Gomez seems to be the favorite for the position, all four players will enter camp competing for the job to replace one of the most recognizable Minnesota athletes of the past decade.
Gomez was one of the prospects that came over in the deal that sent pitcher Johan Santana to the New York Mets. Of the four players, he is considered the closest to being ready for the majors. He spent the early part of last season with the Mets' Triple-A affiliate in New Orleans, where he hit .286 with two home runs, 13 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in 36 games, before being called up. Gomez struggled initially upon reaching the big leagues, hitting just .172 in May, but he was finally hitting well in June (.299 batting average) before going down with a hand injury. Upon his return he struggled again, hitting just .118 in September. Some scouts reportedly believe he is still having trouble with breaking pitches.
You might now be asking what the Twins see in Gomez that makes him worth keeping around. While he is does not have the same power as Hunter, he should be able to steal more bases than Hunter did while also providing solid defense. With the hitters behind him (catcher Joe Mauer, outfielder Delmon Young, first baseman Justin Morneau and outfielder Michael Cuddyer), he should score a lot of runs, provided he gets on base first. He is not the finished product that Hunter was in center field, but of all the Twins' prospects at this position, Gomez is the most likely to grab the starting job because of his speed and defensive ability. That should give him the time he needs to sort out the breaking pitches.
Could Pridie Be the Downfall?
The main competition with Gomez will be Pridie. Pridie has not been given much of a chance to grab the starting job from Gomez, largely due to his lack of experience at the major league level. In a season split between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham last year, Pridie hit .304 with 14 home runs and 66 RBIs. He also stole 26 bases.
Heading into camp, it appears as if the only way Pridie will get the starting role is if Gomez continues to hit below .200. Even then, the team will likely give Gomez a long leash if they want to show they got some kind of immediate return in the Santana deal. For fantasy purposes, Pridie is worth next-to-nothing, unless he impresses early in camp.
The other option in the outfield is Craig Monroe. The soon-to-be 31-year-old has experience in the American League Central, having played with the Tigers for six seasons. Monroe finished 2007 hitting .219 with 12 home runs, 59 RBIs and 53 runs in a 122 games split between the Tigers and the Cubs. However, it is hard to see the Twins using Monroe in the outfield when he does not bring much more to the table than Gomez.
If anything, he is below Gomez defensively and has better value as part of a platoon at the designated hitter spot. Against left-handed pitchers last year, he hit .309 and will likely see most of his at-bats against southpaws. He has little fantasy value.
Can Span Pan Out?
The next two prospects are both players at different stages of their career: one coming, one going. Span was the team's first-round pick in 2002 but has taken a slow path to the majors and is only now being considered for a starting job. He spent the whole season with Triple-A Rochester last year, hitting .267 with three home runs, 55 RBIs and 25 stolen bases. However, he has entered camp talking big and "ready for war," despite not even earning a late September callup. A few things to note regarding Span: First, his struggles came early on last year, which was part of the reason for his low average. In August, he hit .330, although it didn't earn him a callup.
Second, he has hit well in spring training before, batting .306 in 2007, although because Hunter was around, he did not stay with the club. Finally, he has never spent more than one season at any other level. While this will likely be the year he breaks that run, he is someone the organization still hopes will live up to his status as a first-round pick. He has no fantasy value at this point.
As stated above, this is likely Gomez's job to lose. He will likely be given a long leash at the position. His steal potential makes him attractive as a late-round pick-up, although you will need to look elsewhere to boost your average and power numbers. Pridie, Span and Monroe are only worth selecting in the deepest fantasy drafts.