Where are the Twins headed?

Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are back, but pitching questions abound

Updated: April 13, 2012, 1:57 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Ron Gardenhire has earned a reputation as a straight shooter and stand-up guy in 11 seasons with the Minnesota Twins. He understands that his job is to stress fundamentals, get his players prepared and spread the gospel of accountability throughout the clubhouse. Few managers in baseball do it better on a more consistent basis.

But a man is bound to chafe when asked to handle duties beyond his realm of expertise. At times last year, Gardenhire was shooting the breeze with reporters in his office when he began to feel like Hugh Laurie supervising a clinical diagnostic session on "House." So when Terry Ryan returned as general manager and decreed that he would provide the medical updates so the manager could concentrate on peripheral concerns such as pitching, hitting and defense, it was a joyful day in the Gardenhire household.

"It was miserable," Gardenhire said of the 2011 season. "Every minute of my day, that's all I dealt with last year. I'm not a doctor. I'm not a trainer. But all I talked about was injuries. One of the first things Terry said was, 'We're going to limit this to me, and you do the baseball part of it.' That can't make me happier."

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireAfter a hot spring, Joe Mauer (3-for-18) is off to a cool start.

The good news in Minnesota is that the Twins are back in one piece after placing 16 players on the disabled list a major league-high 27 times last year. It was so bad, Michael Cuddyer, Danny Valencia and Ben Revere were the only Twins to appear in 100 games. Now Joe Mauer is back in the lineup, Justin Morneau is coming along and Denard Span received confirmation that he's over his concussion issues after he survived three encounters with outfield fences in spring training -- one of which left him with a busted lip.

The bad news: The Twins lost their first four games to Baltimore and Los Angeles before chasing Jered Weaver and beating the Angels 6-5 on Wednesday night. For a few unsettling days, Gardenhire must have wished he could turn back the clock to 2011 and change the discussion from baseball to Mauer's "bilateral leg weakness" or the infected wart on the bottom of Cuddyer's foot.

A slow start isn't necessarily crippling or a sign of suffering to come, but this is hardly what the Twins had in mind after finishing 32 games out of first place with a 63-99 record last year. It was only the franchise's second losing season since 2001, and served as a wake-up call for an organization that prides itself on continuity and doing things the right way. Coincidentally, Gardenhire's early Grapefruit League workouts emphasized all the fundamentals that fell through the cracks when the Twins were airlifting the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings to Minnesota to fill roster holes last season.

"I think last year was a big hiccup," Span said. "It wasn't us. We're winners over here. We work too hard, and we've all gotten used to winning over the last few years. It was kind of a humble pie. Nobody had fun. Nobody liked it. We still have that same taste in our mouth from last year."

No one outside of Mrs. Gardenhire is giving the Twins much chance to win the American League Central this season. The question is, are they good enough to play meaningful games at Target Field after the All-Star break, or will they be better simply because it's impossible for them to be worse?

Rotation already down one starter

One AL East scout who followed the Twins throughout spring training is dubious -- primarily because the pitching doesn't stack up with the competition. Minnesota ranked last in the majors with 940 strikeouts and a .281 batting average against last season, and Gardenhire found that a pitch-to-contact staff didn't mesh too well with a group that ranked last among 30 clubs in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency rankings.

The 2012 rotation of Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Jason Marquis, Nick Blackburn and Liam Hendriks or Anthony Swarzak lacks a front-end dominator. And now the Twins are without Scott Baker, who led Minnesota's starters with a 3.14 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 21 starts. Baker learned Wednesday that he needs to undergo season-ending elbow surgery.

"I think they're going to have a tough go of it this year," the scout said. "They just don't have much power pitching at all with the exception of Liriano, who they really need to perform. And offensively they are going to be heavily reliant on Mauer and Morneau. That's OK, but the health track records of both those guys don't inspire a ton of confidence."

[+] EnlargeScott Baker
Mike Janes/AP PhotoScott Baker, who had a 3.14 ERA in 23 appearances last season, pitched in just two games this spring. Now he's out for the season with an elbow injury.

Ultimately, it always comes back to Mauer and Morneau, former AL MVPs who make the big money and attract the bulk of the attention. They were feel-good stories when they came up through the system and signed long-term deals for a combined investment of $264 million. Now they're learning that fame has a flip side, and the blessing of playing for one team as a "franchise face" can feel burdensome when things go south.

Morneau's issues are more complicated and difficult to gauge. It's been 21 months since his troubling concussion issues began, and his stature within the organization and ongoing travails coalesced during an eventful six-week stretch last season. In May, Morneau played his 893rd game at first base to pass Harmon Killebrew on the Twins' all-time list. In June, he went on the DL with a strained left wrist and had surgery to repair a herniated disk fragment in his neck.

In September, Morneau went to Jiffy Lube and underwent procedures on his wrist, left knee and right foot. It's no wonder his anesthetist is now on his Christmas card list.

Morneau looked lost for most of spring training before taking more authoritative swings later in camp. His concussion symptoms are more likely to recur when he's fatigued, so for now the Twins have parked him at designated hitter and handed the first-base job to rookie Chris Parmelee. After so much concussion-related angst, Morneau has learned not to think too far ahead or be disheartened by unexpected detours from the script.

Nevertheless, he feels the weight of expectations as the 2006 AL MVP, a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner and four-time All-Star. He knows that Mauer does as well.

"Obviously you can't do it with only a few guys," Morneau said. "You need all 25 guys at once. But Joe and I expect a lot out of ourselves. We hit in the middle of the lineup, and we expect to be run producers and help influence this team in a good way. For any team to win, your best players have to be your best players. It's no different here than anywhere else."

The same old Joe?

Mauer, whose .323 career batting average is third-best among active players behind Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki, has already written off 2011 as an aberration. He logged a .729 OPS in 82 games and took some shots for everything from being "soft" to his decision to rehab his injuries in Florida. Each new sighting of Mauer in shampoo and video game commercials cranked up the volume of the criticisms.

"He took a beating in the press for his injuries," Gardenhire said. "The sad part is, no one wanted to be out on the field more than him. But when your body isn't physically able to handle it, you can't go out and perform.

"People questioned his workability and those things, but those people weren't up at 6 in the morning when he was in the weight room in Florida or going in for stretching, drills and treatment. If you say he's on a 'mission' to prove people wrong, I don't believe that. I think he's on a mission to get back on the field and have fun and play the game. When he does that, he's really good."

Mauer is off to a slow start (3-for-18), but the hits will come in bunches if he's swinging from a solid base. From all indications, he feels like a new man -- or better yet, the same old Joe -- after his 2011 leg problems.

"It's like night and day," Mauer said toward the end of spring training. "I was in pretty rough shape last year. I'm in a much better place physically now."

When Mauer is healthy, he's a unique weapon in the order and a true clinician at the plate. He might never come close to his career-high total of 28 homers in 2009 unless the Twins decide to move in the fences at Target Field. But he banged out 43 doubles during the stadium's debut season in 2010. The ball can roll a long way in those gaps.

"It's hard for a hitter to be that quiet and calm at the plate and still generate the kind of power and hit the ball with the consistency he does," Twins outfielder Josh Willingham said. "I've played with some good hitters, but he's so less violent than anybody else. It's almost like he's taking a nap in the batter's box. Then he laces a single to left."

Mauer and Morneau are going to need help from Span, Valencia and the new guys, Willingham, Ryan Doumit and Jamey Carroll. If things don't go well, or if the injury bug hits again, the Twins might be tempted to reach down to the minors and take a look at outfielder Joe Benson or shortstop Brian Dozier.

The schedule is borderline sadistic. After the Twins part ways with the Angels on Thursday, they have 10 games with Texas, the Yankees and Toronto. They face the Angels nine times by May 9. If they're not careful, the schedule after Memorial Day could be a crash course in irrelevance.

"We don't have any excuses right now," Ryan said. "We're relatively healthy. If we don't perform, it's not because of our health. Let's get that out of the way."

Feel free to take that to the bank, because it's coming from the resident authority on the subject. Don't bother asking the manager. Health-related questions are no longer his purview.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer