SARASOTA, FLA. - One week from Wednesday, the Twins charter leaves for Baltimore, site of the April 6 season opener, marking the end of one of the most important spring camps in recent team history. The Twins are coming off a 99-loss season that resulted in numerous concerns about the health of key players.
The answers, mostly, have been positive. In fact, if someone had told General Manager Terry Ryan this is how the Twins would look after six weeks of spring training, he gladly would have taken it.
"At this point, I'd say we're pretty much on schedule," Ryan said. "We don't have a whole heck of a lot of problems. We've got some decisions, which is good, because we've had some people step up."
Nothing undermined last year's 63-99 team more than injuries, and right now, the Twins are fairly healthy.
Joe Mauer has been catching and playing first base, batting .302.
"We never really had to worry about [him] all spring," Ryan said. "He worked hard this winter, did a good job of coming here ready to go."
Denard Span missed a couple games because of neck stiffness, but he's back in center field, leading off and batting .295. Justin Morneau hasn't played first base since March 13, but he's seeing regular duty at DH, trying to get as many at-bats as possible without risking another concussion. After batting .091 (3-for-33) in his first 10 games, he is 5-for-13 with two homers, two double and six RBI in his past four games and, according to Ryan, "he's fairly close to 100 percent."
Last year, the Twins scored 619 runs, the second fewest in the American League. They're hoping better health changes that, but their projected lineup heading into spring training lacked power. That's one reason manager Ron Gardenhire changed course last weekend, moving newcomer Josh Willingham to left field.
Instead of starting in left, Ben Revere likely will have a bench role, as Gardenhire gives right-field duty to hitters with more power, such as Trevor Plouffe, Chris Parmelee and/or Ryan Doumit. Parmelee, who hit four homers for the Twins last September, has looked good all spring and could be a surprising addition to the Opening Day roster, especially if Morneau continues to DH.
The Twins lost reliever Joel Zumaya to a season-ending elbow injury early in camp, but his history with arm issues made him a boom-or-bust signing anyway. The bullpen, even without Zumaya, has been surprisingly good.
The rotation has bigger questions marks at this point. Scott Baker has battled elbow tendonitis and got pounded for seven runs over 2 2/3 innings Monday, in his first Grapefruit League start since March 6.
Free-agent signee Jason Marquis has far bigger concerns than baseball, after his 7-year-old daughter, Reese, was in a serious bicycle accident. The righthander flew home to Staten Island, N.Y., and in between hospital visits, he's been throwing off a mound to get ready.
"The biggest concern we've got right now is the rotation because of Baker, and Marquis has been tending to his daughter," Ryan said.
Liam Hendriks, last year's Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the Twins, has emerged as the team's top option to replace one of the starters. In 15 innings, he has a 2.40 ERA.
Francisco Liriano (2.00 ERA, 23 strikeouts, three walks) has been dominant, raising hope that he'll be more like the pitcher he was in 2010 than 2011. And after two rough seasons, Nick Blackburn (1.50 ERA, nine strikeouts, two walks) has been solid, too. But even at their best, the Twins pitchers won't scare anybody.
"When you don't have a dominant pitching staff, you have to really work at it," Gardenhire said. "You have to be really good. You have to catch the ball, and you have to get all the outs you're supposed to get, because we're going to give up hits. If we throw it over and catch it, I'll take my chances because we can score."
But even if the revamped lineup gives the Twins a lead, there's the issue of holding it. The bullpen ranked last in the majors last year with a 4.51 ERA, and now the Twins are trying to replace franchise saves leader Joe Nathan.
Addressing the bullpen
Ryan re-signed Matt Capps as the closer, knowing Glen Perkins could be the eighth-inning guy, and tried fixing the rest of the bullpen with a series of internal moves (shifting Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak into relief roles), waiver claims (Matt Maloney and Jeff Gray) and minor-league free agents (Jared Burton, etc.).
Twins officials are increasingly optimistic about the state of the bullpen, and the possibility of having greater depth at Class AAA Rochester.
"If we don't like how we start, I feel comfortable that we have some really strong arms down there now," Gardenhire said. "Not guys that are [throwing] 89 [miles per hour]. We've got 93, 94 down there -- some velocity -- and if they can throw it over, we've got interchangeable parts and that's huge."
Add it together, and it's been a far more encouraging camp than last year, when Mauer, Morneau and others barely played. After nearly losing 100 games last year, the Twins have a long climb ahead, but as Opening Day nears, at least this has been a good start.