Injuries created opportunities for Twins

Injuries created opportunities for Twins

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Twins' Opening Day roster is now a finished product.

After seven weeks of Spring Training, Minnesota headed back home on Saturday having settled on the 25 players who would start the season with the club.

The Twins made their final roster cut of the spring on Friday night, optioning infielder Matt Tolbert to Triple-A Rochester. There were still technically 26 active players in camp heading into Saturday, but catcher Jeff Christy had been previously told he would be reassigned to Minor League following the Twins last spring contest.

The club officially set its Opening Day roster on Sunday when pitcher R.A. Dickey was added to the 40-man roster.

But while the roster is now in place, getting to this point has been a little bit more difficult than expected.

"It's not exactly what we envisioned at the start of spring," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of his roster.

There's one main reason for that: catcher Joe Mauer will not be with the team to start the 2009 season.

Mauer's back problems lingered longer than anyone expected this spring, as he did not see the field at all in a Spring Training that was a week longer than usual.

The prolonged absence of its starting catcher forced Minnesota to take a longer look at some of its catching prospects in camp. And when it was determined that Mauer would not be ready for Opening Day, it became a battle between Jose Morales and Drew Butera to be the backup to Mike Redmond at the start of the season.

Butera appeared to have the early lead due to his defensive prowess, but Morales improved behind the plate over the course of the spring. That improvement along with Morales' stronger bat earned the 26-year-old native of Puerto Rico a spot on the roster -- at least for the time being, as the club hopes to get Mauer back by the end of April.

"Our biggest issue obviously the whole spring was Joe Mauer, not getting him on the field in a game," general manager Bill Smith said. "The positive is it's a long season, 162 games, and he is making definite and significant progress every day. If we get him back in a short while and get him back and have him there for the long haul of the season, that's going to be good for us."

Besides Mauer and pitcher Boof Bonser, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in February, the Twins were able to stay relatively healthy for the majority of the spring. But over the final week, the aches and pains of a longer Spring Training than normal started to take their toll.

Right-shoulder stiffness forced Scott Baker to start the season on 15-day disabled list and prevented him from making his first career Opening Day start. Baker's injury opened up a temporary spot in the rotation.

That spot will be filled by Dickey, who could see one or two starts before Baker's expected return from the DL on April 12. The knuckleballer Dickey had been in competition with Philip Humber for the long-relief role, but it was Dickey's versatility and strong spring that earned him the job as the club's No. 5 starter out of spring.

Baker's health also allowed both Humber and left-hander Brian Duensing to break camp in the Minnesota bullpen. Humber will fill the long-relief role and Duensing will give the Twins a second lefty to complement Craig Breslow.

Duensing had been a starter his entire Minor League career, but the Twins started looking at him for a bullpen role when Jose Mijares, a standout for the Twins last September, struggled to find his form this spring.

" We've done that with [Glen] Perkins, one of our starters that everybody thought was going to be one of our starters eventually, and we put him in the 'pen and it helped him get his feet wet," Gardenhire said. "So it's kind of the same thing with this young man. We think he's going to be a starter, he's got all the pitches. But getting some outs in the big leagues out of the bullpen, and learning what it's all about, and helping us win games at the same time, it's not a bad thing for a kid that can pitch."

Heading into the spring finale on Saturday, there was also an injury concern surrounding Justin Morneau. The first basmen had missed four straight games with back stiffness after tweaking something in the middle of his back while taking a swing in batting practice Tuesday. But the Twins got good news when Morneau was able to return to action Saturday.

"If Morny's healthy, we're doing pretty good," Gardenhire said.

Morneau's injury, on top of the other aches and pains, was a big reason why the Twins waited to make their final roster move.

By sending Tolbert down to Rochester, the club ensured that Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris will occupy the two utility infield spots on the bench.

At the start of spring, Buscher and Harris had been expected to make up a platoon at third base this season. But those plans were scratched when the Twins signed free-agent third baseman Joe Crede in late February, relegating Buscher and Harris to bench roles.

Those bench roles weren't guaranteed until Friday, as Tolbert had been in competition for one of the two spots. He batted .294 this spring with 11 RBIs and three homers, tying him for the team lead.

But while Tolbert put together a great spring and did everything that was asked of him by the organization -- including going to Venezuela for winter ball after he missed a couple months last season due to an injury -- the Twins just didn't have room for him with Harris occupying the spot as the backup middle infielder.

"The worst feeling I've ever had as a manager," Gardenhire said of sending Tolbert down. "He's one of my favorite young players, just the way he goes about his business. And he had a very good spring here. We just didn't have the right mix here, the right situation."

The Twins might not have the right mix to keep Tolbert, but they seem pretty pleased with the overall look of the club as they break camp -- especially if they can get Baker and Mauer back in a hurry.

"Hopefully Baker only misses one start and we get Joe back by the end of the month," Morneau said. "Hopefully we hold down the fort until then. For a lot of guys, it was a good spring. We had a lot of guys show they were hungry and ready to get after it. So I'm looking forward to getting started."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.