FORT MYERS, FL - Infielder Justin Morneau #33 of the Minnesota Twins fouls off a pitch against the Boston Red Sox during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game at Hammond Stadium. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
The Minnesota Twins were in the Moneyball movie if you didn't blink, showing up at the end, when they knocked the Oakland A's out of the 2002 playoffs. The Twins were also under 50 feet of crap, rooting through it and looking for the same crap-truffles that the A's were. And for about a decade after there was talk of contracting the team entirely, the Twins were usually the team to beat in the AL Central despite payrolls that usually added up to a Kevin Brown or two.
It's unfortunate, then -- ironic? painful? -- that just as the Twins felt comfortable spending money, they had one of the worst seasons in franchise history. If it wasn't the absolute worst in franchise history, it had to have been the most dispiriting. The Twins were supposed to contend, and they were supposed to contend because of the two young stars to whom the team had made a great financial commitment. The dispiriting part wasn't that both of the young stars got injured, but that they were injured in a way that 15 or 60 days on the disabled list wasn't going to fix.
Joe Mauer, signed to one of the richest contracts in major-league history to be one of the best catchers in major-league history, suffered a perplexing case of bilateral leg weakness. This was a concern because catchers use tend to use their legs. For playing baseball. They're pretty important. Though he returned and caught scores of games last season, it's an open question as to just how long he can catch.
Justin Morneau is part of a sadder tale. One stray knee to his helmet might cost him his career. He's attempting to come back, and depending on which reports you read, he's either optimistic or saying rather ominous things. But he could be back.
And those two players dictated the offseason strategy of the Twins. Mauer and Mourneau might be back. They might be healthy. In which case, the Twins would have an enviable middle of the order, a pair of hitters that can help drive a lineup. But they might play a combined 100 games together. Fifty games together. Twenty games together. It's still an open question. With that in mind, there was no sense throwing good money after bad, trying to build a lineup with whatever money is left over after paying a pair of hitters not to be in the lineup.
It's not like the AL Central is a division with a runaway team, though. The Tigers look to be the clear favorites, but they aren't the '98 Yankees. There are cracks and holes to poke at. And in case you forgot the moral of the 2011 Twins' season, it's that injuries are what happen when you're busy making plans. There's no sense conceding the division. The Twins had a dreadful offense last year -- unconscionably bad. It would be the height of neglect to ignore the situation completely, only to have Mauer and Morneau make substantial contributions.
So the Twins did the best they could to patch their holes. The offense that was so bad in 2011 was going to take an even bigger hit with the departure of Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer -- not to mention Jim Thome, who was traded midseason -- but the Twins did well to get Josh Willingham, who will make less money than Cuddyer but should provide more value on both sides of the ball. The Tsuyoshi Nishioka experiment was a complete failure, and the Twins signed Jamey Carroll, hoping to squeeze out a couple plus-OBP seasons out of him before he turns 40. Ryan Doumit is a pretty good low-cost gamble at DH, where he will still make several errors.
The outfield is going to be without Delmon Young now, which is a good thing, and Willingham will be next to Ben Revere and Dernard Span, the latter of whom is dealing with concussion issues of his own. Both Revere and Span have the potential to be speedy slap-hitting assets; both are still complete enigmas.
That's actually the story of the Twins' offense. Complete enigmas all over the diamond. Who will stay healthy? Who will hit? Is there a chance that they can must enough offense to be watchable? I'd say there's a chance. I'd guess, though, that the odds are much, much more in favor of the Twins having another wretched season because of ankles, knees, heads, elbows, dropsy, and the grippe. A lot would have to go right for the Twins to have a decent offense. Not much would have to go wrong for them to have another abysmal season.
But it really doesn't matter how much they hit if they can't pitch, and last season's debacle wasn't just on the backs of the hitters. The Twins' staff is built on pitchers who trust their fielders, pitching to contact. It's worked in the past. It didn't work last year. Even the guy who was supposed to get strikeouts, Francisco Liriano, had a below-average strikeout rate. If the Twins hope to surprise the Central, they'll need him back to his old self. If he's healthy -- and, as with Rich Harden or Nick Johnson, you almost have to roll your eyes when typing or reading that -- he'd give the Twins a fine one-two punch with Scott Baker, who also has troubles getting past the 200-inning mark.
The rest of the rotation is filled with completely boring pitch-to-contact types. Nick Blackburn might be Carl Pavano without the fake mustache for all we know. And Jason Marquis and the Twins were star-crossed lovers like something out of a Shakespeare play, or at least a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan move. They saw each other from across the ballroom … and it was meant to be, dammit.
But completely boring doesn't mean awful. With Carroll at short and without Delmon and Cuddyer clomping around the corners, maybe the pitchers will get some help this year.
There are teams in baseball that would need to bend the laws of space and time to make the playoffs this year, that have a better chance of winning a wild-card berth through a legal injunction than they do through a series of favorable outcomes over a 162-game season. The Twins aren't one of those teams. But they'll sure need a lot of help. Having everyone healthy would be a heckuva start.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
Some franchises have, for whatever reason, holes that they're completely incapable of filling with long-term solutions over a decades-long span. The Cubs with third base between Ron Cey and Aramis Ramirez. The Padres at shortstop. The Pirates with entire team. The Twins are building an impressive streak of their own at third base in the post-Corey Koskie era. Danny Valencia will start again, even though his 2011 was more indicative of what to expect based on his minor-league numbers than his 2010 was. Seems like if there was an easy spot to upgrade, that would have been it.
There's no sense in picking just one. A couple of injuries to players with serious injury concerns could send them shooting past 100 losses. Also of note: "players with serious injury concerns" describes a good portion of the players the Twins are hoping will be good. The whole team is a wild card.
Below .500, but without the Cure-penned soundtrack from last year that made them mope around in trench coats and write bad poetry. Either the pitching or hitting will improve over last year, but not both. It shouldn't be as bad as it was last year. Like, ever again.