Big stars back, Twins primed to rebound
With Mauer and Morneau, Minnesota to show '11 an aberration
Perhaps the best that can be said of Ron Gardenhire these days is that he feels more like a manager, not just some middle man regurgitating and reacting to medical reports."Doctors were in control last year," Gardenhire said the other day. "That's not a good thing." And it's still a sore subject.
"Doctors not even in the same city," he continued. "Doctors in other parts of the country, trying to get me to put players in night games, and it doesn't even get dark until 10 o'clock. 'We're gonna let him play a night game tonight.' 'Well, doc, that means I have to put him in the ninth inning to get him under the lights.' That's what I put up with last year. ... Not naming names."But hey, Gardenhire handled it well. "Oh, yeah," he said sarcastically. "I've handled it really good." The Twins, obviously, were not very good last season. Their fall from grace was a remarkably rapid one -- back-to-back division champs one minute, 99-game losers the next. Unfortunately, their return to coherence in the American League Central can't be counted on to happen quite as quickly. If only it were so simple. But health will help, no question. And though we won't know anything concrete until it counts, the Twins are encouraged by the progress of the two most prominent names from last year's medical report -- Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Morneau began camp stating the obvious -- if his post-concussion symptoms don't stop hounding him, his baseball career could be cut short. Mercifully, though, his spring has been a success from a health standpoint, and if his .471 average with three homers and two doubles over his last five Grapefruit games is any indication, his swing is coming along quite nicely, thank you. It's possible that many of Morneau's swings this season will come in the designated hitter role -- a role he's filled in Grapefruit League play because the Twins haven't wanted to take any chances with his body. "We started out going full bore," Gardenhire said. "We backed off the defensive part of it to let him get his swings in and try to get everything healthy. He's still doing treatments for his wrist and the surgeries he had [last season]. We don't want to irritate those. I don't want him to do something silly and dive around. I know he can catch the ball. He was out there and felt good. So we're going to back off and see how it goes here in the last week." Without a full-time DH, the Twins can use that spot for flexibility with Morneau, and Mauer can, of course, fill in at first base -- the position he played 18 times last year. But Mauer, of course, wants to catch. And he wants to catch a great deal more than the 47 games he started behind the dish last season, when he was plagued by vague forms of "weakness" that either kept him off the field or sapped his power when he was on it. And as with Morneau, the news on Mauer has been positive. "Full go," Gardenhire said. "No backing off anything." So there you go. Anything could change at any moment, but right now the Twins expect to have their two biggest stars -- the guys who account for about 40 percent of their player payroll -- on the field regularly in 2012. And what better starting point could you ask for in a bid to prove that last year's last-place finish was an aberration? Alas, that's merely the first step. To pull themselves out of oblivion, the Twins have plenty other issues to address as well. This is not a club that's going to provide much intimidation from the starting pitching perspective, especially not after logging the fifth-worst starters' ERA in the game last season. Jason Marquis, owner of a 4.55 career ERA, was the only outside addition brought onboard. Francisco Liriano has the best raw stuff on the staff, but he notched a 5.09 ERA last season. Carl Pavano has proven to be a fine league-average innings-eater who has revamped his reputation after becoming a bust in the Bronx, but he's certainly not your typical "ace" -- and that's the role he fills here. And the only starter who performed above league average last season, according to baseball-reference.com's calculations, was Scott Baker, and he endured two stints on the DL in the second half and has been bothered by tendinitis in his elbow this spring. In short, it's not a dominant starting staff, and it's backed by a bullpen that imploded last year and will largely be rebuilt. But the Twins like how things are shaping up in the 'pen. They re-signed Matt Capps to close, and they count on Glen Perkins as a reliable eighth-inning arm. The Joel Zumaya experiment didn't work out, but the Twins are encouraged by what they've seen from those still on hand and the relief options down on the farm. "We like the arms, and there's interchangeable parts," Gardenhire said. "We sent some pretty good arms down, velocity-wise. I feel confident we have some really strong arms down there now, not guys that are 89, 90 [mph]. We've got 93 and 94 down there, with some velocity. If they can throw it over, we've got interchangeable parts, and that's huge." Gardenhire knows, however, that a starting staff with so many question marks can only be as good as its defense allows. And last year a Twins team once known for its defensive prowess was extremely shaky. "When you don't have a dominant pitching staff, you have to really work at it," Gardenhire said. "You have to catch the ball, and you have to get all the outs you're supposed to. Because we're going to give up hits. If they throw it over and we catch it, I'll take my chances, because we're going to score runs." The Twins expect shortstop Jamey Carroll to drastically improve their middle infield play, even at the ripe old age of 38. They expect third-year third baseman Danny Valencia to put his body in a better position to make the plays at the hot corner while turning a corner with his bat, which took a dip in performance in his sophomore season. They expect new left fielder Josh Willingham to provide somewhere in the neighborhood of the 22 homers he's averaged each season since 2006. And above all else, they expect Mauer and Morneau to stay on the field, which can at least be good for the soul, if not the standings. They don't want to be a team run by doctors. "We didn't have our people out there last year," Gardenhire said. "When we have our people, we're a good baseball team."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.