FORT MYERS FLA. - Scott Baker sat on a bench last week outside the Twins' training facility at the Lee County Sports Complex. He had just completed a bullpen session. His said his elbow, which bothered him last season, is no longer sore.
Optimism rules this time of year, and Baker was allowing himself to think about a big summer for himself and fellow pitchers Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano.
"It's an important year for all three of us," Baker said in something of an understatement.
All three could be free agents after the 2012 season, adding more intrigue to spring training following a 99-loss season in 2011.
As Twins pitchers and catchers open camp on Sunday, Baker, Pavano and Liriano are out to prove they can lead the rotation like they did in 2010, when they combined to go 43-30. Last year, they skidded to 26-29.
The Twins are used to having a reliable starting rotation. But Pavano was the only Twin to pitch at least 200 innings last season. No one won 10 games. Baker (elbow) and Liriano (shoulder) each landed on the disabled list twice.
Bounce-back seasons could have wide-ranging ramifications. It could help secure a future with the Twins. It could spark interest from other teams before the trade July 31 deadline if the Twins are not contenders. Or it could enhance value on the free-agent market.
"All they have to do is go out and pitch," Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. "They can decide their own fate. Anybody. Go out and perform. Then they have built up leverage. They've built up their talent base. They've built up interest. I tell them go out and make it tough on us.
"Sometimes that's a good thing, I hope. It is in many cases."
So there are many reasons for this trio to take charge this season.
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Pavano, 36, is headed into his 14th season. Part of that time includes a four-year, injury- and controversy-plagued run with the Yankees during which he made just under $40 million while starting 26 times.
He hasn't shown many signs of aging since joining the Twins late in 2009, going 31-28 in two-plus seasons and throwing more than 200 innings in each of the past two.
Not surprisingly, Pavano has enjoyed his time in the Twin Cities.
"It's like a second part of my career," he said. "There was the first part, then there were some hiccups in the middle, then there was a second part. I think it restored my faith in baseball and my teammates. It's a refreshing place to be. I have so much respect for my teammates here."
He's nearing the end of a two-year, $16.5 million contract that includes a limited no-trade clause and a guarantee that he will not be offered arbitration after the season.
So a solid season will give him options and control over where he lands. He says he feels physically the same as he did when he was in his late 20s, and is convinced that he has at least a couple more seasons in him.
He has been a free agent four times in his career, so the prospect of entering a walk year doesn't faze him.
"If I do my job, things will work out," Pavano said. "If I don't do my job, I've got no one to blame but myself and it will be that much harder going into free agency."
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Liriano, 28, has the talent to be the Twins' ace, but he has struggled with consistency since having elbow ligament replacement surgery after the 2006 season.
He went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA in 2010, but just when everyone thought Liriano had turned the corner, he went 9-10 with a 5.09 ERA last season and suffered shoulder problems.
Liriano pitched in winter ball before 2010 but didn't before last season. So he decided to pitch winter ball this offseason and was part of an Escogido club that ended up winning the Caribbean Series title. Twins officials hope that Liriano reports to spring training sharper than last season, and gets off to a solid start to gain confidence.
"I think Frankie is fighting to get that consistency," Pavano said. "I think he wants so badly to be his old self, before his elbow surgery, that he sometimes gets a little anxious instead of letting it come to him, and sometimes that can work against you."
This will be Liriano's first entry into free agency, unless he pitches so effectively that the Twins are motivated to lock him up before then. The talent is still there -- he tossed a no-hitter last season, has a fastball that can reach 95 miles per hour, a sharp slider and a solid changeup. The Yankees have thought highly enough of him to call the Twins about him before the 2010 and '11 seasons.
"I think he'll be fine," Baker said. "I think he knows this is a big year for him. He trusts his ability. It's just a matter of getting on a roll like he has in the past. If he gets off to a fast start he's going to have a good year."
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Baker, 30, operates in the gray area between being a strikeout pitcher and a control pitcher. When he's on he can be dominant. He appeared on his way to a big year last season, but then elbow problems limited him to 23 starts. Instead of shutting himself down late in the season, he rehabilitated and made two relief appearances late in the season just for the peace of mind.
He was only 8-6 but had a solid 3.14 ERA.
"When you crack his numbers, he's pretty good." Ryan said, "We have to keep him out there."
Out there is on the mound, where he has reached 200 innings only once, in 2009.
Baker will make $6.5 million this season, and the club holds an option for 2013 at $9.25 million. One of the fittest players in the clubhouse, he expects to have a good year.
"That was the frustrating thing about [last year]," he said. "I really had a good feel for things as far as mechanics and pitch plans. I felt like I was maximizing my potential. I'm not saying that it is going to translate to this year, but it makes you feel good going into a season that you can make the adjustments from pitch to pitch instead of game to game -- that's what you're working toward as a pitcher."
Baker understands that the Twins have a decision to make after the season and wants to make that decision an easy one.
"I hope to perform well enough for that stuff to take care of itself," Baker said. "I love Minnesota, my family loves Minnesota. It's comforting. Who knows what's out there, but we definitely like where we are at.
"And obviously, I think they would like me to be a little healthier the past couple of years, but I think if I'm healthy this year, things will take care of themselves."
Baker looks ahead to having that put-it-all-together season, Pavano to crafting his way to another winning season and Liriano to harnessing his talent and dominating hitters. Baker believes the Twins can turn things around instantly if they stay healthy and pitch to their capabilities, because they will be able to pitch deeper into games and keep the remodeled bullpen from being used up.
"If we are all throwing 200 innings," Baker said, "we would be at the top."
And that, they hope, would allow everything else to fall into place.