Spot at top of Twins' order wide open
Center-field candidates in running for Minnesota leadoff role
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire isn't afraid to take risks when it comes to his leadoff hitter.At the start of the 2002 season, his first year as Minnesota skipper, Gardenhire told Jacque Jones he was going to bat leadoff. While Jones had some experience in the role, the outfielder didn't quite match the prototypical model of a table-setter.
"Everybody thought I was nuts. I am nuts, but that's OK," Gardenhire said of that decision.
"He got those at-bats, and it was fun to watch. We called him 'one to nothing' halfway through the season," the manager added, referring to Jones' ability to help his club take an early lead.Gardenhire's leap of faith with Jones did pay off over the course of the season. Jones adapted well to the leadoff spot, hitting .303 that season with a .346 on-base percentage. Now, the Twins are facing a similar experiment at the top of the order. With no true leadoff hitter on their roster, the Twins are looking at their three center-field candidates -- Carlos Gomez, Jason Pridie and Denard Span -- as potential options for the spot. The expectation is that whoever wins the role in center will be the Twins' table-setter for the '08 season. So far this spring, every game has featured one of the young candidates hitting at the top of the order. Taking a risk on a young hitter for such an important role could be considered a bit dicey, especially considering that none of the three has hit leadoff at the Major League level. But Gardenhire isn't too concerned about it -- at least for right now. "Sometimes with young hitters, people say they're not ready to be a leadoff hitter -- his on-base percentage, whatever," Gardenhire said, "but sometimes with young hitters it's better to get them 500-550 at-bats rather than worry about that on-base percentage, and just let them play." Perhaps the player who has brought the most intrigue to the spot so far this spring is Gomez. The 22-year-old who was acquired in the Johan Santana trade hasn't hesitated to let people know what he can bring to the position -- in both his play on the field and his words off of it. That was evident on Friday, when Gomez batted in the leadoff spot in a 4-0 split-squad victory over Toronto. Gomez went 2-for-5 at the plate with an RBI triple, a bunt single and two runs scored. His day also included a stolen base in the first inning that set up Minnesota's first run. After the win, Gomez was asked about hitting in the leadoff spot and his ability to get into the pitcher's head when he was on base. "That's good," Gomez told reporters. "When the pitcher thinks only about the leadoff hitter, he doesn't think about the other guys. Like [Justin] Morneau -- probably this year, he has a better year because [the pitcher] thinks more, 'Gomez, Gomez.'
"They're scared when I am on the bases," he added. "[The pitcher] has to be quicker, and he throws more fastballs to the catcher. You know, he's scared [of the] breaking ball [because] I [can] steal second [easier]. Now I'm at second -- whatever, base hit, I score."Gomez's brashness certainly is evident in his words. But that bravado got him in a little bit of trouble during Friday's contest with the Blue Jays. Toronto starter A.J. Burnett apparently didn't take well to the fact that Gomez not only successfully laid down a bunt to start the game, but that he tried to square his bat around again in his second at-bat. Gomez then was brushed back off the plate with a few pitches down toward his feet from Burnett. So while the Twins seem to appreciate that slightly cocky edge the outfielder currently possesses, the club understands that not everyone might feel the same way. "There are things we have to calm down," Gardenhire said of Gomez on Saturday. "Some things that he brings to the table when walking to the plate, well, there are going to be a lot of guys being knocked on their [behinds] if you do that in this league. You're a little brash, and then balls start coming behind your [head] and behind your back. So we'll calm those things down." Gomez certainly has made the race for the center-field spot interesting very early this spring. But whether it's Gomez or Pridie or Span who ends up winning the job, Gardenhire knows his leadoff spot almost surely is going to be a bit of a wild ride this season. "Sometimes you just have to go against the grain a little bit, and obviously this year we'll probably end up going against the grain with a leadoff guy," Gardenhire said. "The one thing you won't want to miss is that first at-bat. We don't know what's going to happen with it, and I'm sure no one else will either."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.