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published Thursday, December 29th - 4:33pm

The Twins announced the firing of Bill Smith and return of Terry Ryan as general manager on Nov. 7.

Ryan signed five veteran free agents during a five-week period starting Nov. 16: infielder Jamey Carroll, catcher Ryan Doumit, reliever Matt Capps, outfielder Josh Willingham and starter Jason Marquis.

During this same period, the Twins lost reliever Joe Nathan and outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel as free agents, and traded starter Kevin Slowey to Colorado for Daniel Turpen, a lightly regarded pitching prospect.

It would be homerism to the first degree to suggest Ryan's first seven weeks back on the job have improved the Twins' prospects to rebound significantly from the 99-loss disaster of 2011.

I was stumped as to Ryan's game plan - beyond getting the Twins' payroll in line with the $100 million perceived by ownership - but I'm guessing this is it:

Public comments aside, Ryan realizes there is no chance for the Twins in 2012 if Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau don't manage to combine for 1,000 at-bats and make a return to previous productivity.

We're not talking about a duplication of the MVP seasons - Mauer in 2009, Morneau in 2006 - but players that are hitting 3-4 together for 130 games (at a minimum) and giving opposing pitchers a reason to fret.

What's become evident is that Ryan has been plugging holes, based on the idea that the two stars will be back, and knowing full well that he has an also-ran outfit on his hands if that doesn't happen.

Even with that understanding, Ryan's decisions on veteran pitchers have been puzzling:

*Capps was such a lost cause in 2011 that even he was convinced there was no way the Twins wanted him back. Instead, they gave Capps a $4.75 million contract to return - which I guarantee is more than he was going to get anywhere else.

*Marquis is an older version of Nick Blackburn; meaning, he cruises along with the sinker in about 25 percent of his starts, and the rest of the time he's extremely hittable. The Twins gave $3 million to Marquis.

So, here's the question: Why not develop a closer - with Glen Perkins as Option A - and take the Capps' money, put it with the Marquis' money, and get a starting pitcher who actually might be helpful for $7-8 million in 2012?

I'm suspicious there could be something intriguing on the trade front between now and the start of spring training in mid-February.

Suspicion No. 1 is that Francisco Liriano is available, if a team offers a pitcher of some standing in the deal. Suspicion No. 2 is that Ben Revere could be included in such a trade.

My opinion a few weeks ago was that Denard Span would be available. I'm hearing now that there is concern about Revere's complete inability to drive the ball.

Plus, the Twins were so impressed with the way Aaron Hicks played in the Arizona Fall League, he could be getting a shot in the big leagues some time during the 2013 season. Span is signed through 2014, and having all three around - Denard, Revere, Hicks - would be redundant.

I don't think the Twins would mind at all to open the 2012 season with Willingham in left (his long-time position), Span in center and a platoon of Rene Tosoni and Trevor Plouffe in right field.

The Twins like the power potential of the lefty-hitting Tosoni. Fans might not agree, but then they haven't agreed with much of anything the Twins have done this offseason, and that hasn't changed Ryan's opinions on personnel.

The reputation of the farm system is low at the moment, but there are two players that will get big-league time at the first sign of injury:

Infielder Brian Dozier and catcher Chris Herrmann.

And, you're right, with Alexi Casilla as the projected second baseman and Mauer as the catcher, injuries can be relied on.

The Twins are headed for another losing season in 2012. It won't be as ugly as year ago, though, because this time it will be expected.