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Nine questions answered as Twins workouts begin

Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor talks to the media during the MLB winter meetings at Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando in December. Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS—Questions, questions, questions. Everybody's got questions.

Here's nine — along with some of the usual optimistic, best-case answers — as the Twins open their fourth spring training under manager Paul Molitor.

Pitchers and catchers stage their first official workout Wednesday morning, Feb. 14, in Fort Myers, Fla. Opening Day in Baltimore, March 29 this year, is right around the corner:

1. Hey, where's the ace?

Ervin Santana? You probably won't see the 35-year-old right-hander on the mound for the Twins until late April or early May after he underwent Feb. 6 surgery on the middle finger of his pitching hand.

Still smarting from a two-inning drubbing in the wild-card loss at Yankee Stadium last fall, Santana needs to reach 200 innings for a second straight season — plus pass a year-end physical — in order to trigger a $14 million option for 2019.

Even if he fails to get there, the Twins still could decide to bring him back for a fifth season. He is coming off his first all-star appearance in nine years and has been a positive influence in the clubhouse.

2. Oh, sorry, you meant Yu Darvish?

Uh, he's in Arizona with the Chicago Cubs, who finally agreed to sign him over the weekend for six years and $126 million, with a chance to earn another $25 million or so through performance bonuses.

The Twins, as promised, chased the Japanese pitching star for three solid months before reportedly refusing to go beyond five years at around $20 million per season. Signing Darvish would have been a huge boost to the Twins' rotation but other options remain.

3. OK, so who will the Twins sign to help this modest rotation?

Or acquire. Don't forget the trade avenue, although the oft-rumored Tampa Bay Rays are far more likely to part with right-hander Jake Odorizzi, under control through 2019 via salary arbitration, than staff ace Chris Archer, whose remaining obligation of $34 million over the next four years makes him one of the game's most valuable arms.

Top remaining free agents include Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and ex-Rays right-hander Alex Cobb. Then there's the next tier that includes former Twins lefty (for one start) Jaime Garcia, Jason Vargas, Jeremy Hellickson, John Lackey and old friend Ricky Nolasco (sorry).

Anyone who is brought in would compete with the likes of holdovers Adalberto Mejia, Phil Hughes, Tyler Duffey, Aaron Slegers, Dietrich Enns and Trevor May for rotation spots behind potential Opening Day starter Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson.

Ex-Yankee Michael Pineda, working back from Tommy John surgery last July, hopes to be ready to help by September.

4. Will Miguel Sano be ready for Opening Day?

He should be, barring a setback as the slugging third baseman works back from his Nov. 13 surgery to install a titanium rod in his left shin. Then again, the Twins will be careful not to rush him back into the field too quickly, so more time at designated hitter would make sense, at least early in the season.

There's also the specter of Major League Baseball's investigation into freelance photographer Betsy Bissen's Twitter allegation of a 2015 assault against Sano. The league has made it clear there is no timeline for completing the investigation, which began immediately after the Dec. 28 public allegation and remains ongoing.

A fine or suspension remains possible for Sano under the sport's joint policy with the players' union on domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, but the Twins are well-covered with Eduardo Escobar, coming off a career-high 21 home runs in 2017, able to handle third base in Sano's absence.

5. Who are the spring phenoms?

If you're talking about which young arms could give Molitor and new pitching coach Garvin Alston something to wrestle with, look to Triple-A lefty Stephen Gonsalves and Double-A right-handers Fernando Romero and Zack Littell.

Gonsalves needs to show his pitching shoulder can hold up, but his results have sparkled at each level despite a lack of overpowering stuff. Romero has the big fastball and serious swagger to go with it, but a shoulder impingement landed him on the shelf last August for Chattanooga.

Littell, acquired from the New York Yankees in the Garcia deal last July, went a ridiculous 19-1 across three different leagues in 2017 and was added to the 40-man roster in November.

In the bullpen, funky lefty Gabriel Moya could push for a spot after impressing in a September audition, and John Curtiss, armed with future-closer stuff, could make things interesting for the setup crew.

6. How old is Fernando Rodney again?

At the moment, the Twins' new closer is 40. That odometer number, seemingly meaningless in his case, ticks to 41 on March 18.

That's one reason the Twins were able to sign him for one guaranteed year at $4.5 million with the chance to earn another $1.5 million through incentives. Rodney enters with 300 career saves, third among active relievers, and a reputation for eventful save conversions that has come to be known as the Fernando Rodney Experience.

Just in case, they went ahead and signed veteran Addison Reed (125 career saves) at $16.75 million over two years. Reed, who broke in with the Chicago White Sox and wanted to get back to the Midwest, could be used anywhere in the back third of the game, and he's fine with that.

There's also veteran lefty Zach Duke, brought in on a one-year deal to help young lefty Taylor Rogers get the ball to the closer(s).

7. Isn't it time to let Byron Buxton lead off?

You might think that, especially after the burgeoning young star was caught stealing just once in 30 attempts last season and reached base at a .347 clip in the second half. But the fact is that Brian Dozier, his fellow Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner, has shown repeatedly he hits best out of the leadoff spot.

Joe Mauer is going to hit second or third, so maybe Buxton fills the other spot and pushes Sano down into the cleanup role. Or, to take pressure off the notoriously slow-starting Buxton, maybe Molitor leaves him at the bottom of the order until he proves his progress made in the second half of 2017 will carry over.

8. What's this about PECOTA and what does it have to do with the Twins?

According to Baseball Prospectus' annual projection program, the Twins are looking at a break-even season of 81 wins, which would be four fewer than a year ago. That would leave them 16 wins behind the two-time division champion Cleveland Indians in the American League Central, and behind projected wild-card contenders in Boston (87 wins), Tampa Bay (84) and Seattle (83).

Then again, did you ever see Bill Pecota play infield for the late-'80s Kansas City Royals? There you go.

9. What are the chances this is 2016 all over again?

PECOTA aside, not too high. True, Molitor's 83-win debut club face-planted to a 103-loss disaster the following season, but that team was already reeling from the retirement of clubhouse leader Torii Hunter when three-time all-star closer Glen Perkins went down one week in.

Overall depth is much better on the 2018 Twins, who also have a young positional core with multiple seasons of experience from which to draw. Then again, as the late, great pitcher Joaquin Andujar liked to say, "There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, 'You never know.' "