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Updated: April 5th, 2012 11:26pm
Mackey: Predicting the fate of these Twins is next to impossible

Mackey: Predicting the fate of these Twins is next to impossible

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When asked about expectations for this season, an informal poll of the Minnesota Twins clubhouse in Florida this week revealed. ...

Total uncertainty.

Uncertainty in the sense that most Twins players, coaches and executives possess a quiet confidence that this team could be better than most people think. Those same players, coaches and executives are also aware that a 99-loss season is just an injury barrage away.

Bodog listed the Twins' over/under win total at 72.5. Baseball Prospectus set the estimated win total at 74.

It wouldn't be unreasonable to say the Twins could outpace those projections by 10 wins. They could also fall short of those projections by 10.

After nearly two months of spring training, here's what we know about the Twins heading into the 2012 regular season:

Morneau is healthy, productive... For now

Justin Morneau was, and is, the biggest question mark on the Twins' roster.

Upon arriving to camp, Morneau spoke ominously about his dealings with post-concussion symptoms, saying, "I'm obviously not going to continue to mess around with this if it continues to be a problem."

By March 22 he hadn't played first base in 10 days and his spring batting average dipped below .100. Things looked bleak. But Morneau finished spring training on a nine-game hit streak (10 if Wednesday's exhibition is counted) -- a stretch where he hit .433 with three home runs and five doubles.

For now, Morneau will DH regularly, but the door is open for him to play first base whenever he feels comfortable. Doctors told Morneau that his concussion symptoms have a better chance of returning when he is worn out. By eliminating first-base duties, Morneau lessens his chances of wearing down.

The roster and lineup benefit more when Morneau plays first base, because it allows for the DH slot to be a revolving door. But this change of events also gave Chris Parmelee a chance to earn a 25-man roster spot.

Getting Morneau's bat in the lineup for 600-plus plate appearances is the top priority. If DHing every day accomplishes that feat, nobody will complain.

Mauer is healthy, productive... For now

On the first two days of camp combined, way back in mid-February, Joe Mauer caught a combined seven bullpen sessions. In 2011, due to offseason knee surgery, Mauer didn't catch his first bullpen session until March 12.

We all know what happened after that.

Mauer didn't miss one workout this spring. He played in every game he was scheduled to play in, and he practiced on the off days. Health was rarely a topic of discussion.

On March 30, Mauer was asked what else he hoped to accomplish before the end of spring training.

"Well, I'm getting there," Mauer said. "There's still a few things I want to get a few more at-bats to work on."

A reporter notified Mauer he was hitting .340 through the first month of Grapefruit League action.

"Am I? I didn't know," he said. "I guess that's good then. But for me, when I feel like I can get on time for a fastball on the inside part of the plate and everything's working, that's kind of when I feel like I'm ready to go, and I'm pretty close. So, hopefully, a few more at-bats will get me there."

Mauer finished spring training with a .357 batting average -- a number that is relatively meaningless, except for the fact that it proves he is healthy and ready to produce. Mauer will start opening day, but look for him to play first base at least once a week. It's also possible Mauer sits and/or slots in as designated hitter once per week.

Liriano and Blackburn are the keys to this rotation

The Twins' starting rotation lacks two major components: A dominant, top-end guy who can regularly shut down opposing offenses, and a second innings-eater to go along with Carl Pavano, who has pitched 220 innings two years in a row.

Francisco Liriano and Nick Blackburn have been those two components in the past. They were anything but in 2011.

Along with pitching 30 innings of winter ball, Liriano also hired a personal trainer in the offseason to prepare for what will be the most important season of his career.

Liriano, 28, is eligible for free agency at the end of the year, and as of right now he does not profile as a pitcher teams would throw multiple years and millions of dollars at. Never has Liriano pitched 200 innings in a season, and after his "I'm back!" season in 2010, he followed up with a dud in 2011. His walk rate soared, his strikeouts fell off, and he was plagued with shoulder soreness.

This spring, Liriano struck out 33 and walked only five in 27 innings. Liriano will try to throw fewer sliders in 2012 -- A.) because he wants to save it as an out-pitch, rather than throw three per at-bat and have hitters sit on it, and B.) because he wants to induce more groundballs early in counts with his changeup and fastball.

Blackburn was one of the Twins' most durable and reliable starters in 2008 and 2009, pitching a combined 399 innings with an ERA just over 4.00. His 4.46 xFIP over that stretch suggested regression was possible, if not likely, but there was still plenty of value in pitching 200 innings.

Since 2007, hitters have made contact on 89% of swings against Blackburn, which made him the most hittable starting pitcher in baseball over that stretch. This spring, in 19 innings tracked, hitters made contact only 75% of the time. Blackburn attributes this to a more over-the-top motion and moving from the left side of the rubber to the middle.

This may or may not carry over into the regular season, but if Blackburn -- now healthy after offseason forearm surgery -- can get back to being a 190-inning grinder, it would go a long way in helping the staff and bullpen.

Baker won't be ready soon

Scott Baker was supposed to throw 75 pitches in a Single-A game on Thursday night in his attempt to put elbow tendonitis in the rear view mirror, but he left after facing only three batters.

Baker "just didn't feel right" according to GM Terry Ryan.

Even if he makes a quick bounce-back, which seems unlikely considering all of the difficulties he has gone through with the elbow this spring and last year, he would need to rev up to 100 pitches. That won't happen for at least two starts.

Schedule brutal early on

Even if the Twins are an improved ball club, the schedule early on might not yield much success.

After a three-game series in Baltimore, the Twins play 16 straight games against teams that won at least 86 games last year.

Brutal.

New level of player accountability

By sending Tsuyoshi Nishioka out in the second round of cuts, and two-year major league veteran Drew Butera out in one of the final rounds of cuts, general manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire appear to have put an end to the "scholarship program" that previously seemed to exist.

On top of that, Ryan and Gardenhire have streamlined injury information in a way that holds players more accountable.

Gardenhire has made it clear that he will dictate when and where Mauer plays.

Both Ryan and Gardenhire have publicly questioned why Scott Baker, coming off elbow tendonitis, hasn't been able to cut it loose.

"He's still not throwing the ball with the type of velocity that's going to be needed at the major league level," Ryan said last week. "He's got more in there than that and that's what we need to see."

Quick hits

• We know the bullpen's success starts with Matt Capps, who allowed four home runs in spring training. Capps added a split-fingered fastball this offseason, which he hopes will help induce more groundballs. If he falters, Glen Perkins waits in the wings. Behind those two, Brian Duensing will be one of the main late-inning bridge pitchers. Lefty Matt Maloney and righty Jared Burton impressed during camp. But this bullpen is largely an unknown commodity.

• We know the top of the order (Denard Span, Jamey Carroll) will get on base if healthy. Span had a .367 OBP before a concussion sidelined him last year, and Carroll owns a .362 mark over the last four seasons.

• We know with Chris Parmelee at first base, Josh Willingham in left field, and Ryan Doumit in right field (at least for opening day), the Twins will sacrifice defense for offense. We'll see how that works with a pitch-to-contact staff.

• We know Trevor Plouffe, Ben Revere, Luke Hughes and Sean Burroughs could give the Twins a pretty versatile, deep bench.

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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