Updated: February 6th, 2012 9:50pm
Mackey: Five key factors for Twins to become relevant again in 2012

Mackey: Five key factors for Twins to become relevant again in 2012

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

The early batches of 2012 MLB standings projections have already been pulled out of the oven.

This one, using the Marcel method -- short for "Marcel the Monkey" from the TV show Friends -- has the Minnesota Twins at 68-94 due mostly to allowing the most runs (813) of any team in the American League.

Marcel is the simplest of all projections. Considering the previous three seasons for each individual player (2009, 2010 and 2011) -- and placing more weight on the most recent seasons -- Marcel projects 2012 performances and playing time to create a total number of runs scored and runs allowed for each team.

Of course, because 2011 is weighed heavier than 2009 or 2010, it's no surprise the Twins are picked to finish with such a poor record.

With pitchers and catchers reporting to Fort Myers in less than two weeks, here are the top five most important factors for the Twins to right the ship.

1.) Mauer & Morneau

Internally, the Twins are optimistic about the progress of both of these former MVPs -- probably more so Joe Mauer, who says he feels completely different now than at this point last season. Justin Morneau still feels numbness in his left hand from surgery to repair a nerve in his neck last summer, and he is also waiting to see if those concussion issues have officially subsided.

If Mauer and Morneau don't return to their previous forms, nothing else really matters. They account for 40% of the team's payroll and a massive chunk of any potential offensive production.

2.) Liriano

Liriano dropped off the planet in 2011. He went from being one of the best pitchers in the American League in 2010 to posting an ERA over 5 last year. His control went awry, his walk totals sailed through the roof, his strikeouts plummeted, and he allowed five more home runs in almost 60 fewer innings. The Twins and Liriano are hoping a month's worth of winter ball will help give him the same momentum he rode prior to 2010.

3.) Infield defense

This isn't to say that pitching isn't a problem, but too many people are focusing on the starting rotation when in reality the Twins' infield defense was the worst in baseball last season. Due mostly to abysmal shortstop play, the Twins' infield defense rated 45 runs below average according to Baseball Info Solutions. By comparison, the Rays rated 72 runs above average defensively (including outfield). Jamey Carroll should help provide stability, even if he has limitations, and Danny Valencia has supposedly worked on his range this offseason.

The Twins' pitching staff allowed more contact than any staff in baseball in 2011, but it was the same staff that helped win 94 games in 2010. The staff has flaws -- plenty of them. Better defense will help, and that also includes the combination of Denard Span and Ben Revere in the outfield.

4.) Bullpen productivity

The Twins' bullpen posted the highest ERA in baseball last season (4.51), and productivity this year hinges largely on closer Matt Capps, who had one of the worst seasons of his career last year, and Joel Zumaya, who hasn't pitched more than 38 innings in a season since 2006. If Capps returns to his 2010 form and if Zumaya stays healthy, they'll provide plenty of stability around set-up man Glen Perkins, who struck out more than a batter per inning in 2011.

But those are big ifs.

Brian Duensing's shift to the 'pen should help too. Against right-handed hitters he allowed a mind-boggling .947 OPS, but lefties tallied only seven extra-base hits in 187 plate appearances.

5.) Span

From 2008-2009, his first two seasons in the majors, Span hit .305/.390/.422 with 41 stolen bases in 1,087 plate appearances. He was easily one of the better leadoff hitters in baseball over that stretch, but migraines, a concussion, and a less hitter-friendly ballpark have led to a major drop-off -- .264/.330/.352 in 1,016 plate appearances since the start of the 2010 season.

A Twins offense that barely scored 600 runs in 2011 needs Span to set the table. And a Twins pitching staff that allowed more than 800 runs needs Span's help tracking down fly balls in a spacious park.

Span said last weekend he is optimistic about his progress this offseason, but only spring training will tell for sure.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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