FORT MYERS, FLA. - The Twins on Wednesday will begin their 53rd spring training -- and it appears they might have 53 candidates to be the Opening Day starter.
This group doesn't contain a Brad Radke or a Johan Santana or even a Carl Pavano -- someone who enters camp as the odds-on favorite to start on Opening Day. This year, a litany of injuries and rehabilitation have taken several candidates out of the running to be the first man to get the ball.
Lefthander Scott Diamond might have gotten the call, but offseason elbow surgery might hold him back. Next in line could be newly acquired Vance Worley who, naturally, had a bone chip removed late last season.
"It's not like the years we had it clear-cut," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "We'll just have to see who we think deservers it and can handle it."
Twins pitchers and catchers will take the field at the Lee County Sports Complex on Wednesday morning for the first spring workout, and team officials truly believe they have a rotation that will be markedly better than a year ago, when the starters were 29th in ERA out of 30 major league teams.
The Twins entered spring training last year with a projected rotation of Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Pavano, Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis -- and watched it implode.
Baker missed the season because of elbow problems. Pavano was hampered early by shoulder problems. Marquis had a family emergency that cost him preparation time, then pitched so poorly he was released. Liriano was sent to the bullpen, returned to the rotation and then was traded to the White Sox in July. Blackburn landed on the disabled list in April and pitched poorly when he wasn't battling injuries.
This year, the Twins have candidates but don't know who will be ready at the end of camp.
Diamond, 26, went 12-9 last season and is the most accomplished returning starter. But he had a bone chip removed in December, and there's a good chance he'll be just short of the endurance needed to open the season in the rotation.
"It's going to be close," Diamond said.
Righthander Mike Pelfrey, 29, has 896 1/3 career innings under his belt. And there are no restrictions on him as he comes back after missing most of last season and undergoing Tommy John surgery -- no restrictions for now.
Righthander Kevin Correia, 32, is 60-65 in his career and has thrown more innings -- 1,066 -- than any starter in camp. But he might be considered more of a back-end-of-the rotation stabilizer.
Righthander Kyle Gibson, 25, also missed most of last year after Tommy John surgery. Because he never has pitched in the majors, he will be treated more carefully than Pelfrey during his comeback. Rookies usually don't start season openers anyway.
"We are going to try to evaluate exactly how [Gibson] fits," Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. "Is he going to make the club or is he not? Before we get that [workload] finalized, we need to know that."
And so Worley, 25, very well could be your Opening Day starter -- provided he's healthy after having a bone chip removed late last season. He said his arm feels good and he's getting full extension on his sinking fastball, which he didn't have last year.
"I'm just here doing my job," Worley said. "It doesn't matter what day I'm out there, if it is Opening Day or I'm the No. 5 guy. I'm out there to compete and get this team a W."
Other starters could have been in the mix but also are injured. Blackburn, 30, is out for several weeks after wrist surgery in January -- his second operation of the offseason. Righthander Anthony Swarzak, 27, is out several weeks because of cracked ribs suffered during January horseplay.
Righthander Rich Harden, 31, missed all of last year because of shoulder surgery and is in camp as a minor league invitee. He will be treated very carefully because he hasn't thrown more than 148 innings since 2004 -- and he could wind up as a reliever if healthy.
That leaves lefthander Brian Duensing, 29, and righthanders Cole De Vries, 29; Samuel Deduno, 28; Liam Hendriks, 24; and P.J. Walters, 27 -- all of whom started at least 11 games last year -- as the next wave of options.
The Twins have named their Opening Day starter early in past camps. That might not be the case this season. It's an honor for whomever the Twins choose, but right now they have to first honor pitchers' rehab schedules.
"We will sort all that out during spring training,'' Ryan said, "but in the grand scheme of things I don't think anyone is going to care who started on April 1. I would care about who is going to approach 200 innings on Sept. 21.''