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Five Twins with something to prove in spring training

Entering spring training this week, the Twins' roster is relatively straightforward. There are few obvious roster battles for key roles, and the core group is mostly intact from last season's playoff run.

There will likely be a competition for the last spot in the starting rotation. The bullpen may have a couple of openings. There are a few ways the Twins can fill out their bench for position players.

Injuries, unfortunately, are inevitable and there are always a couple of players who are surprises, but it's a solid place to start. Still, there should be a good amount of intrigue in camp. Here are five players who have something to prove:

BYRON BUXTON

Buxton declared he was back to playing center field during TwinsFest, and he'll have a chance to show it during spring training. Buxton hasn't played center field in an MLB game since Aug. 2022 and a full-time designated hitter role didn't work out well for him.

"What makes me so sure?" Buxton said in January. "My body tells me that. I wouldn't have said that if I wasn't sure."

If the 30-year-old Buxton can return to center, it's a major boost to the Twins lineup. He provides game-changing defense, and he hits better than almost all center fielders. He hit .250 with seven homers and 17 RBI in April last year, helping the Twins jump out to a strong start.

Still, there are reasons for skepticism. The Twins planned for him to return to center field at some point last year, and it never happened. He hasn't played more than 92 games in a season since 2017.

How often can Buxton play center field in a week? Will his knee affect his Gold Glove defense? The Twins are hopeful they'll have an answer to those questions soon.

LOUIE VARLAND

The Twins caught a glimpse of what Varland could look like out of the bullpen at the end of last season, and it was electric. He struck out 17 of the 42 batters he faced in September with his velocity ticking up around 100 mph.

Varland is expected to return to the rotation to begin the season — which is his preference — and it may be his last shot to stick as a starting pitcher. He'll likely compete with Anthony DeSclafani for the last spot in the rotation, assuming the rest of the group is healthy.

If Varland doesn't win a spot on the Twins' starting staff during camp, he could begin the year with the Class AAA St. Paul Saints, so the Twins can keep their starting depth for injuries.

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There have been internal debates about which role Varland is best suited to, but pitching coach Pete Maki told manager Rocco Baldelli he believes Varland can be an impact starter. During Varland's 10 starts last year, opposing hitters had a .214 batting average in their first plate appearance, a .282 batting average their second time against him and a .327 batting average when they faced him a third time.

JOSÉ MIRANDA

A shoulder injury during spring training last year may have been the root of Miranda's lost 2023 season. He hit .211 with three homers and 13 RBI in 40 games before he was demoted to Class AAA in May, and he returned for only five more games.

"My swing felt a little bit different," Miranda said at TwinsFest. "I don't know if it was because of the shoulder. Something felt weird when I was extending my arms."

One year after Miranda was looking to build on a solid rookie campaign, he's on the fringe of the roster, especially after the Twins signed Carlos Santana to play first base. Miranda had shoulder surgery to clean up scar tissue around his rotator cuff and labrum in October, avoiding a more extensive procedure, but this spring could lead into a make-or-break year.

JORGE ALCALÁ

The Twins added four relievers this winter — Justin Topa, Jay Jackson, Josh Staumont and Steven Okert — and that probably turns Alcalá into a long shot for the Opening Day roster. Alcalá, who was not on the postseason roster after recovering from a forearm strain, needs to prove himself after two injury-plagued seasons just to land back on the big-league radar.

Alcalá can light up a radar gun and shows flashes of his potential. Pitching in the Twins' regular season finale, he struck out four batters in two innings, topped out at 99 mph, and overpowered hitters with his slider.

The question is whether he can do that consistently, or if he'll be buried on the bullpen depth chart.

SIMEON WOODS RICHARDSON

The Twins need starting pitching depth, and the 23-year-old Woods Richardson risks being passed over if he doesn't pitch well in camp. He made two appearances in the majors over the last two years, and he struggled to a 4.91 ERA in 113 2/3 innings at Class AAA last season.

Once a consensus top-100 prospect, Woods Richardson has seen his stock plummet because his velocity has ticked down compared to earlier in his pro career. It's far too early to write him off, but the Twins are hoping they will see signs of a bounce-back during camp.