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published Monday, September 5th - 5:00am

A month ago, it was impossible to look ahead to 2012 for the Twins without envisioning the same type of disaster that has occurred this season.

A couple of things have happened in recent weeks that make it a possibility the Twins will get back in the 80s for victories a year from now.

Admittedly, this is based on what might seem a long-shot premise: That Joe Mauer at 29 and Justin Morneau at 31 will regain health and become leaders of the lineup.

I've been suggesting for weeks that if Mauer and Morneau do not come back as a productive 3-4 combination, then there's no formula that can be offered that would return the Twins to the plus side of .500 in 2012.

They will be taking up $37 million of what figures to be a $100-105 million payroll. Mauer has a no-trade clause in his $23 million per year contract, and Morneau's breakdown physically over three years makes it impossible to move him and his $14 million salary.

The Twins have talked about Mauer doing more weight work and Morneau doing less in the offseason. Manager Ron Gardenhire talks as if these could be solutions - and he has no choice but to feel that way.

There's no Plan B for the ongoing absences of Mauer and Morneau from the lineup.

The outlook that's much-improved over even a month ago is in the middle of infield. Back then, what you kept hearing is the Twins would be stuck with giving Tsuyoshi Nishioka another chance as the every-day shortstop.

"What choice do they have?'' was the quote.

There's now a good choice in Trevor Plouffe. He's not going to be a whiz in the field, and he pulled a rock of a play on Sunday in not knowing how many outs there were, but Plouffe has shown the potential to be a J.J. Hardy-type as a power-hitting shortstop.

Paul Molitor, a Twins' minor league instructor, said again last week that he has watched Plouffe play big-league quality shortstop in the minors - and that he's relaxed some, there have been hints of that with the Twins.

Luke Hughes also has shown enough power that it's clear the Twins will go to Fort Myers with him written in as an extra player for the infield. The era of Matt Tolbert being on the bench will be over at the end of this season.

The middle of the infield next spring will be Plouffe at shortstop and Alexi Casilla at second base. Hughes will be one spare infielder and right-handed bat. Nishioka will be off the bench - at best. The Twins have come to realize that it's not worth ruining a team for the two years and $6 million that remain on Nishioka's contract.

There's another option who made a jump as a prospect this season at Class AA New Britain: Brian Dozier. He's going to play in the Arizona Fall League. If Gardenhire likes him as a shortstop next spring, he could look at Plouffe at third - to put some pressure on Danny Valencia.

Clearly, Valencia's status is shakier than it was after his rookie season in 2010. He's going to have to be much-improved in the field and a more consistent threat at the plate, or he could find himself back in Class AAA Rochester as soon as Dozier is deemed ready.

There's another minor league infielder to look for: Yangveris Solarte, a switch-hitter who had a big season at New Britain. Solarte is subpar in the field, but the minor league folks are now convinced that the 24-yar-old will be a big-league hitter. He might wind up as a backup outfielder/DH, but he will catch the attention of the big-league staff with his hitting next spring.

The Twins need Denard Span to show up clear-headed next spring. If so, the starting outfield will be Ben Revere in left, Span in center and, I'm guessing, Jason Kubel in right.

Kubel is three years younger than Michael Cuddyer, he has more power and the price should be $8 million per year, rather than $10 or $11 million, on a three-year contract.

The Twins already have dropped Delmon Young's contract. Cuddyer's $10.25 million will be off the books. And if they are smart, they will let both Joe Nathan and Matt Capps go away, saving $15.5 million (including the $2 million owed to Nathan on a buyout).

They might also decide to stop beating heads against the wall and move Francisco Liriano ($4.3 million) despite his low value during the offseason.

Whatever, they need to come up with two starting pitchers from outside the organization. Lefthander Brian Duensing is headed back to the bullpen - where being able to get out lefties and not righties isn't as much of a problem. Carl Pavano and Scott Baker will be in the rotation, and Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and a couple of other suspects can wrestle to be the fifth starter.

What about the bullpen?

Glen Perkins is the closer. Duensing is a late-inning lefty, and a nameless third lefty. The right-handers will be inexperienced with live arms - Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Carlos Gutierrez and Anthony Swarzak.

Twins fans love to bad mouth Burnett. This has been a season of force-feeding for him, but he's going to be OK. And if Gutierrez is healthy next spring, Gardenhire will want him when the Twins leave Florida.

Moving out the old - Cuddyer, Nathan, Capps, maybe Liriano, already Delmon - is the way to go. And it could work, if Mauer and Morneau make the comeback from train wrecks to productive.