Big three healthy as Twins open season

Big three healthy as Twins open season

Big three healthy as Twins open season
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Joe Mauer has heard it before -- the Twins aren't expected to be serious contenders in the American League Central.

This year, it's the Tigers who are the heavy favorites to repeat as AL Central champs after winning the division by 15 games last season and signing highly coveted free agent Prince Fielder during the offseason.

But it's nothing new for the Twins, who were rarely hailed as preseason favorites but still won six division titles from 2002-10.

"We're OK with everybody picking Detroit," Mauer said. "Over the years, we haven't been picked a whole lot to finish at the top. We know what we have in this clubhouse, and we're very capable of getting to where we want to be and that's our goal."

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The Twins are coming off a disastrous 2011 campaign that saw the club lose 99 games and finish with the worst record in the American League despite coming off back-to-back division titles.

Injuries to players such as Justin Morneau, Denard Span and Mauer certainly played a role in the club's slide from first to worst, but Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is done blaming just injuries for the club's woes last year.

"When you lose as many people as we did, I don't think many teams are going to survive that," Gardenhire said. "And we weren't one of them. We didn't survive through it. We took a beating. No excuses. We also played bad baseball with the people we had out there. We were young, yes, and we had to ad lib quite a bit, but we played bad baseball and that's not acceptable."

The Twins, though, do have some reason for optimism heading into the season, as Mauer, Morneau and Span are all healthy and enjoyed productive springs.

Left-hander Francisco Liriano will be counted on to have a bounce-back year, and didn't disappoint with a solid showing in Spring Training.

But even with the optimism, most prognosticators don't have high expectations for the Twins, because of where they were in the standings last season. They're being picked to finish anywhere from the middle of the pack to last in the division, yet it's fine by the Twins, who are looking to prove their doubters wrong.

"I don't think our season last year gave the media, or whoever is picking, a whole lot of hope," said left-hander Glen Perkins. "I mean, you lose 99 games, I don't think you're going to come in the next year and people are going to say, 'Yeah, these guys are going to win it.' That's fine. That's why we play, and we'll find out as the season goes on how good we are."

One big change for the Twins appears to be the decision to start the year with Morneau as their primary designated hitter.

It's a move designed to keep Morneau on the field after he played in just 69 games last year, when he battled concussion symptoms and underwent surgeries on his neck, left wrist, left knee and right foot.

He could still see occasional time at first base, but Morneau said that doctors advised him that serving as DH could help him avoid suffering from any concussion-like symptoms.

"In the end it's going to be about being able to have at-bats," Morneau said. "Whatever's going to allow me to have 600-plus at-bats and be healthy enough to play 162 games without playing two days and needing a day off."

Mauer, who also battled a plethora of injuries last year that limited him to just 82 games, is also healthy, and is hoping to see Morneau's name in the lineup frequently.

"I'd like to see him get 600 at-bats for sure," Mauer said. "When you see just his name in the lineup, I think everybody around the league knows what he's capable of doing. A healthy Morneau will definitely be a great thing for our ballclub."

With Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP, and Mauer, who won the award in '09, healthy and in the lineup, the Twins like their chances to see a marked improvement in the standings this season.

"I'm not going to sit here and give predictions, but we're a considerably better team, no doubt about it," said Opening Day starter Carl Pavano. "They're two MVPs. You don't get MVPs by luck. You get MVPs because you're extremely talented and you know how to harness your talents. If these fellows stay healthy, the success will be there."

Minnesota also has some new faces on the club, including shortstop Jamey Carroll, catcher Ryan Doumit, left fielder Josh Willingham and right-hander Jason Marquis.

The club is hoping the addition of those veterans will help make up for the loss of longtime Twins Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan to free agency.

"You lose good people, you get some good people back," Gardenhire said. "We'll see how it all breaks down. I wish I had a crystal ball, but you just don't know until you get into the season and some adversity is thrown in your face. Then you see who your leaders are."

And so while it seems like a long shot after last season, Twins general manager Terry Ryan still has lofty goals for the club in '12.

"We're trying to a win a division," said Ryan, who took over as GM in November. "There's no other way around it. Every team out there is trying to win their division and get to the postseason, and that's what we're trying to do. We have our work cut out for us and we know that. But it can be done."

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for Read his blog, Bollinger Beat, and follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.