If the Twins can maintain what they have done over the first two-plus weeks of June, somehow leaping from 16 1/2 games back in May to win another division title, the fact that they had so many players on the disabled list this year might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. ¶ Why?

Because the absence of so many outstanding veteran players gave many young players a chance to get called up from Class AAA Rochester and get some major league experience.

This will be important in case those youngsters are needed to replace some of the free agents and arbitration-eligible players who might not be return in 2012, because the Twins payroll next year certainly isn't going to go higher than the current payroll of about $113 million.

Players who didn't start 2011 in the major leagues, including Ben Revere, Luke Hughes, Rene Rivera, Rene Tosoni, Trevor Plouffe, Brian Dinkelman, Anthony Swarzak, Alex Burnett, Jim Hoey and Phil Dumatrait, among others, likely will be needed to step up and fill in to replace players lost as free agents or those the club deems they can't afford because they are due too much in arbitration.

Putting together the 2012 roster is going to be a mighty tough job for the Twins front office. There are a number of free agents the team must decide whether to try to keep or let go, including Michael Cuddyer, who is being paid $10.5 million this year; Jason Kubel, $5.25 million; and Matt Capps, $7.15 million.

The Twins also have a one-year option on Joe Nathan at $11.25 million along with no less than eight players who are arbitration-eligible: Alexi Casilla, Glen Perkins, Jason Repko, Matt Tolbert, Delmon Young, Jose Mijares, Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey.

Every one of those eight players, if they are retained, figures to receive a good raise, as is almost always the case with those who are arbitration-eligible. The only regular who isn't either a free agent, arbitration-eligible or already signed to a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract is third baseman Danny Valencia, who is in his first full season in the majors.

The only reason the payroll is $113 million this year is that CEO Jim Pohlad agreed to increase it so that veteran righthander Carl Pavano could be signed.

Rest assured, it won't be any higher next year, and that is why it will be a problem to retain some of the players. With a solid 2011 roster and the strong chances of it being depleted in the future, this might be the best year to win another division title.

Merila with Padres

Mark Merila was a two time All-America second baseman with the Gophers and a member of Team USA in 1993, but as a senior, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Even so, the San Diego Padres still drafted him in 1994.

He played two years in the minor leagues, but the tumor ended his playing career in 1996.

However, Padres management kept Merila around as a bullpen catcher. In 2005, he was with the team in New York and riding the subway to Shea Stadium for a game against the Mets when he was incapacitated by a grand mal seizure. But the Padres stuck with him, keeping him on the payroll as a part-time aide to coach Glenn Hoffman.

Fortunately for Merila, even though he has some problems with his right hand and right leg, he still goes to the ballpark daily and is in uniform. This is Merila's 16th year in the Padres organization.

He doesn't normally make the road trips, but he was able to make the journey to Target Field and was in uniform on the Padres bench and also able to renew a lot of old acquaintances.

No Gophers vs. Buckeyes for four years

Joel Maturi pointed out that the Gophers football team isn't scheduled to play Ohio State the next four years. All 12 Big Ten schools have one conference opponent they won't play until 2015 unless they meet in the Big Ten championship game. Iowa won't play Illinois, Michigan won't play Wisconsin, Michigan State won't play Penn State, Nebraska won't play Indiana, and Northwestern won't play Purdue.

With Nebraska joining this fall, the Big Ten is breaking into two six-team divisions. Every team will play an eight-game conference schedule, with six of the opponents already accounted for every year: the five teams in your division, and your "rival" from the other division. The Gophers always will play Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern in the Legends Division, as well as rival Wisconsin from the Leaders.

That leaves two other conference games against the other division, and those opponents are set for back-to-back years. In the Gophers' case, they play Illinois and Purdue in 2011 and '12, and Indiana and Penn State in 2013 and '14.


• Maybe if there weren't so many Joe Mauer statues around, Twins fans wouldn't be reminded of the catcher's absence so much and there wouldn't be as much pressure on him now that he has returned.

• Larry Fitzgerald Jr. reports he will continue to have his workouts with NFL and college players at the Gophers track and field complex as long as the lockout lasts. Recently working out with the Cardinals Pro Bowl receiver have been former Gophers Eric Decker and Matt Spaeth as well as 2010 Vikings Tarvaris Jackson and Jaymar Johnson. "It's a good group, and as the summer goes on we'll get more," Fitzgerald said.

• If you go from downtown to the University of Minnesota and back at least five days a week, you would realize what a traffic jam will exist for fans attending Gophers sporting events this fall, especially football, with Washington Avenue closed indefinitely and University and 4th Avenues backed up with cars all the time.

• For the fourth year in a row, Gophers baseball had the best academic record of any of the school's men's teams with a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher. ... Gophers pitcher and Twins draft pick TJ Oakes will pitch this summer for Brewster of the Cape Cod League. Oakes, the son of Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes, went 5-5 with a 3.26 ERA in 2011. Austin Lubinsky, drafted by the Giants, is pitching for Duluth of the Northwoods League after going 5-6 with a 4.36 ERA for the Gophers. Both athletes have until Aug. 15 to sign pro contracts.

• Gophers track athlete Ben Blankenship, who at the Prefontaine Classic earlier this month ran a impressive 3:54.10 mile, will be a top seed at the USATF Championship June 23, also in Eugene, Ore. ... Alex Brend, the Illinois state high school champion in the 800 meters from Lake Zurich, has committed to run for the Gophers.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com