Two Minnesota Twins questions for 2012

Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau celebrations would make Minnesota Twins fans happy in 2012. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Hello, baseball fans. My name is Andrew Walter. For just over a year, I have been running a Minnesota Twins baseball blog, Twins Fan From Afar. I was recently invited to start contributing to Through the Fence Baseball, and I’m excited to do so!

Although I’m a Minnesota native, I have been living and working in Connecticut for the past six years. My geographic location, of course, puts me quite a distance from the confines of Target Field, but I think it has actually increased my devotion to the Twins. I grew up not too far away from the Metrodome, and watched players like Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek and Frank Viola in their primes. Yes, the 1990s were generally a tough time for Twins fans, but we persevered, and had the privilege of welcoming a new crop of stars to Minnesota, including hometown hero Joe Mauer and Canadian slugger Justin Morneau.

Putting the horrendous 2011 season aside, it has been a great run for the Twins, at least with respect to division championships. Yes, as a Twins fan, I am ready for the team to take the next step, and would love to see a World Series trophy in Minnesota while Mauer and Morneau are still uniformed personnel. But I also would just settle for beating the Yankees in a postseason series for a change of pace! For right now, though, it feels great to read box scores and watch replays, even if they are just from spring training games.

I’m very excited to be a contributing writer at TTFB. For my first post, I would like to address two pressing questions confronting the Twins that, in all likelihood, will be determinative of their chances of success this season.

1. Are Mauer and Morneau healthy going into 2012?

The short answer: “Yes, at this moment.” The longer, and more honest, answer to this question is both players are rebounding from injury-plagued seasons, and Morneau’s career is in jeopardy.

By all accounts, Mauer has put 2011 behind him. Limited to just 82 games last season due to a variety of injuries (bilateral leg weakness and pneumonia among them), it was an embarrassing campaign, to say the least, for the Minnesota native. This year, Mauer reported to spring training completely healthy and without any medical limitations, so I look for him to rebound. Although he is quiet and reserved, he should be playing with a chip on his shoulder this season. For the first time in his professional career – perhaps the first time in his life – he has something to prove to doubters. Yes, he probably won’t be home run hitter again, but there aren’t very many catchers in baseball that can hit .350, so Mauer can still earn the majority of his $23 million annual salary if he can simply stay healthy and catch 120 or so games this season.

Morneau, on the other hand, appears to be one significant injury away from retiring. Sidelined much of 2011 by post-concussion symptoms (lingering from a July 2010 injury), as well as wrist and knee problems, Morneau ultimately sustained another season-ending concussion in August diving for a ground ball – a play that didn’t even involve physical contact with another athlete. When he reported to spring training last month, Morneau held a press conference in which he indicated, in no uncertain terms, that his career is in jeopardy. Discussing his continuing concussion symptoms and difficult recovery, Morneau stated, “I don’t think there will be a career if it’s something I’m dealing with.” On a positive note, however, Morneau has participated in all spring training drills and has played in all games in which he was a scheduled starter. Most importantly, there have been no reports of Morneau experiencing any post-concussion symptoms in training camp. Still, though, as a fan, it is difficult to watch a star player – turning only 31 years old this season – and know that each at-bat, each take-out slide, could be his last.

2. Will the starting pitching be any better this season?

The short answer: “I wouldn’t count on it.” Last season, the Twins ranked 26th in baseball with a starting pitching ERA of 4.64 (sadly, they were even worse — dead last in baseball — with a relief ERA of 4.51, but that is another post for another day). Clearly, there was room for improvement, but the Twins are returning four starters, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn. In the offseason, they acquired veteran Jason Marquis to round out the rotation. Of these five starters, Liriano and Baker are the only pitchers who, when healthy, have the ability to carry a team and miss bats. Both were injured in parts of 2011. Pavano, Blackburn and Marquis are more accurately stylized as “innings eaters” who pitch to contact. To be fair, Pavano pitched well down the stretch for the Twins in 2010, and had some great outings in 2011, but cannot fairly be regarded as anything more than a league-average pitcher.

As a fan, I was hoping the front office would sign a free-agent pitcher with the ability to miss bats, or try to swing a trade with a team seeking payroll relief in exchange for one of our extra outfielders (Ben Revere, Joe Benson or Trevor Plouffe) and some spare parts. Alas, it was not meant to be. Don’t get me wrong, if they are both healthy and “on,” Liriano and Baker can be excellent pitchers, but that hasn’t often been the case. Instead, I am left believing the replacements and upgrades to the offense (Josh Willingham for Michael Cuddyer, Jamey Carroll for Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Ryan Doumit as designated hitter, catcher and outfielder) were brought in to compensate for the fact the starting rotation, on paper, is no better than it was in 2011. In fact, it could be even worse.

In the end, this 2012 Twins team probably is not a playoff team; but make no mistake, it also is not the 99 loss team of 2011. The team that lost 99 games was comprised mostly of double-A and triple-A players who had no business on a major-league diamond. Player health, more specifically, the health of Mauer and Morneau, is of paramount importance to the Twins this season. If they cannot stay on the field all season, the Twins will not be a contender. But if the M&M boys are healthy, and if the starting pitching can be league-average (or even a little better), this is a team that can be in contention in August or September, even against the suddenly mighty Detroit Tigers.

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