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Updated: January 13th, 2011 12:34am
Mackey: With spring training near, Twins face plenty of uncertainty

Mackey: With spring training near, Twins face plenty of uncertainty

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

It's an old, often-used cliché -- "if the season ended today..."

Or, "if the season started today..."

Both are usually followed, at least in the sports media business, by rhetoric that winds up being mostly irrelevant by the time the season ends. Or by the time the season starts.

If that makes sense...

Well, in the case of the Minnesota Twins -- winners of 94 games and an American League Central division title in 2010, but mostly silent so far this winter -- if the season started today, they would have more question boxes lingering overhead than a Mario Kart circuit race.

Along with losing several key pieces of the bullpen, the Twins are stuck in a waiting game with free agents Carl Pavano and Jim Thome, and concussed slugger Justin Morneau's status -- albeit optimistic -- is somewhat unknown until he begins the grind of spring training.

Not to mention, the Twins' biggest division rivals -- the White Sox and Tigers -- have been very aggressive so far this offseason. Detroit signed hard-throwing reliever Joaquin Benoit, catcher Victor Martinez and starting pitcher Brad Penny. Chicago signed slugger Adam Dunn, relievers Will Ohman and Jesse Crain -- further needling the Twins -- and they re-signed first baseman Paul Konerko to a three-year contract.

Spring training begins when pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers on February 17. That gives the Twins five weeks to tend to these unfinished check marks:

The Pavano sweepstakes

If the season started today, the Twins would use a starting rotation of Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Brian Duensing.

Carl Pavano is essentially holding the Twins, and somewhere in the neighborhood of $8-10 million annually, captive until he signs somewhere. Discussions between the two sides have been ongoing since the winter meetings in early December, and progress was seemingly made last week -- depending on who you listen to -- but the Twins are in a holding pattern with that chunk of money until Pavano makes a decision.

If Pavano doesn't sign, the Twins will hope Duensing can replicate his 2010 performance, and that Baker, Slowey and Blackburn can all remain healthy and improve drastically.

It's likely, however, that Pavano does sign with the Twins, giving manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson six options for five slots.

At age 35, it would be a pleasant surprise if Pavano repeated his performance from 2010 -- a 3.75 ERA, 4.02 FIP, and only 1.5 walks per nine in 221 innings. But even a modest drop-off would provide plenty of value for this rotation.

Patch-working a bullpen

If the season started today, the Twins would throw a mix of young arms, new arms, acquired arms and old arms at the wall to see which ones stick.

That group that includes RHP Alex Burnett, RHP Anthony Slama, RHP Jim Hoey, RHP Eric Hacker, LHP Scott Diamond, LHP Glen Perkins, RHP Rob Delaney, RHP Jeff Manship, RHP Kyle Waldrop and perhaps RHP Carlos Gutierrez.

Not exactly the Reds' Nasty Boys bullpen from 1990...

After watching Matt Guerrier flee to the Dodgers and Jesse Crain jump ship to the rival White Sox, the Twins are left with two established, healthy bullpen pitchers -- right-hander Matt Capps and left-hander Jose Mijares.

Right-hander Joe Nathan will attempt to regain some semblance of his previous form coming off Tommy John surgery, and right-hander Pat Neshek will attempt to do the same thing two years removed from the same surgery.

Still, general manager Bill Smith has said all offseason the Twins are likely to rely heavily on internal bullpen options.

And if Pavano signs, the Twins are even less likely to "splurge" on outside bullpen help. Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch remain available.

Morneau's progress

If the season started today, Morneau's status would still be somewhat in question -- not necessarily because of any setbacks, but because he hasn't played a game since July 7.

Even though Smith and company are optimistic about Morneau being ready for spring training, we simply won't know anything until he immerses himself back into every-day baseball activity.

Morneau was having the best season of his career, and the best season of any hitter in baseball, at the time of his concussion last season.

If by some chance his concussion symptoms flare up again during spring training, the Twins will be forced back into scramble mode.

Thome or not Thome? Or somebody else?

If the season started today, Jason Kubel would likely be the every-day designated hitter.

Considering Kubel hits just .236/.313/.352 off lefties in his career, the Twins are going to need some more ammunition from the bench.

The team still has interest in re-signing Jim Thome. And Thome still has interest in returning to the Twins. But the Texas Rangers are also reportedly interested in the left-handed slugger, and they might be willing to pay him more money.

Thome had a magical season with the Twins in 2010, hitting .283/.412/.627 with 25 home runs in only 340 plate appearances. But because of his age, 40, and the fact that he doesn't play defense, it doesn't make much sense to overpay him.

The Twins might be better served looking at right-handed bats -- Troy Glaus, Vladimir Guerrero, Jorge Cantu and others are still available.

So is Manny Ramirez, in theory...

History calls for patience

Of course, the season doesn't start today. The Twins still have plenty of time until pitchers and catchers report to camp. And traditionally the Twins have been no strangers to February transactions.

In February, 2008 the Twins traded Johan Santana to the Mets for a package revolving around Carlos Gomez. Two weeks later the team signed starter Livan Hernandez.

In February, 2009 the Twins signed reliever Luis Ayala and third baseman Joe Crede.

In February, 2010 the Twins signed Thome and Orlando Hudson.

With that in mind, keep an eye on the bullpen bargain bin, as well as potential bench bats.

And remember, the season doesn't start today.

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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