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Updated: January 17th, 2012 4:03pm
Zulgad: Keeping Justin Morneau healthy will be real issue for Twins

Zulgad: Keeping Justin Morneau healthy will be real issue for Twins

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Twins have underwhelmed many who expected that general manager Terry Ryan might make a few significant moves this offseason after he took the job back from Bill Smith.

Jamey Carroll, Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit and Jason Marquis officially have joined the roster, while Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan have departed.

Not exactly the type of retooling that's going to provide much confidence that a team that lost 99 games in 2011 will be vastly improved.

The retort by many when this type of discontent has been voiced, has to been point out that if Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau don't return to health it's not going to matter what Ryan does to his roster.

The fact those two players are tied together should come as a surprise to no one. They have been linked in some way, shape or form throughout careers that at times have seen them be two of the best players in baseball.

Morneau is a four-time All-Star who won the American League MVP in 2006 and was runner-up in 2008. Mauer has won three batting titles and earned the MVP in 2009. The link between Mauer and Morneau continued last year, much to their chagrin, as each missed significant time because of injuries.

But the more reports you hear this offseason, the more reason there is to think that lumping Mauer and Morneau together is no longer wise.

That's because it's now clear that keeping Morneau in the lineup might be the real issue this summer.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, appearing on the "Judd & Phunn" show Tuesday on 1500 ESPN while traveling with a contingent that was part of the team's annual Winter Caravan tour, sounded extremely optimistic when asked about Mauer.

"He's actually doing really good," Gardenhire said. "He's down in Florida, he's been swinging the bat, he's been (hitting) off the tee down there and in the cages. ... Joel Lepel, our minor league coordinator, is down there. He's seen Joe working out pretty much every morning and getting it done.

"Joe tells me he's never felt better, so that's a good thing. He didn't have any surgeries this offseason, so he's not really rehabbing anything. Now, it's all about just getting healthy and getting ready to start spring training."

Mauer's biggest issue in 2011 had been the fact he had what was termed minor surgery on his left knee in December and never seemed to rebound. He was slowed in spring training and that set into motion the entire "bilateral leg weakness" saga.

Mauer took plenty of heat for his frequent disappearances from the lineup last season -- he appeared in only 82 games -- but Gardenhire sounds optimistic that the catcher (or first baseman) will be able to remain in the lineup this time.

Morneau wasn't subject to criticism for being out of the lineup in 2011 because there was nothing mysterious about what limited him to only 69 games. The 31-year-old has spent the offseason rehabbing from surgeries that were performed at various points last year on his foot, wrist and left knee. In the final case, a cyst had to be removed.

In most situations, the fact this many surgeries had to be done on a veteran player would be a major concern. A potential sign his body is breaking down.

But when it comes to Morneau, those aren't the primary reasons to worry.

The real issue is the fact Morneau still isn't fully back from the concussion he suffered in July 2010 in Toronto.

The injury ended that season for Morneau and his 2011 came to an end when he sustained another issue with concussion symptoms in late August.

Morneau, who has two years and $28 million left on the six-year, $80 million extension he signed before the 2008 season, said as recently as late December that he is continuing to deal with the effects of post-concussion syndrome.

"Most days, I wake up I feel pretty good," Morneau said in an interview with MLB Network. "Usually after I get done -- I really exert myself, really working out hard --after a long day, your brain gets tired and everything gets so worn down.

"It's not functioning the way it's supposed to be, and you kind of get done with the day and you go, 'Something's not right.' And you end up going home and taking a nap for a couple hours or whatever it is, and you wake up and the headache's still there and you kind of grind through it. But it's been a lot better lately."

The problem is no one knows how long Morneau will be able to avoid another concussion. Morneau is a big hockey fan, so he is aware of just how easily one collision can result in a significant setback.

Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby missed more than 10 months last year because of a concussion. He returned in late November, had 12 points in eight games and then took the normal hits that a hockey player does in a Dec. 5 game at Boston.

Crosby hasn't played since and is again dealing with dizziness and headaches.

The natural response from baseball fans might be to point out that hockey is a contact sport. But all it took for Morneau to begin displaying mild concussion symptoms last summer was a simple dive for a ball in a game against Detroit.

The play was as routine as could be and, yet, it ended Morneau's season.

Gardenhire said Tuesday that he has been told Morneau is "going along great," and "actually feels really good."

He has been able to begin light baseball activities - something that was delayed in part because of the surgeries - and the manager has been informed Morneau is going to be ready for spring training.

But Gardenhire also wants to have a conversation with Morneau once the Twins arrive in Florida. The plan right now is to have him at first base, but it's clear Gardenhire won't hesitate to make an alteration.

"The concerns about him playing in the field, believe me I have those more than anybody," Gardenhire said. "Diving around, if that's going to cause something and give him problems ... all I know is we need him on the field.

"We need him DHing, we need him playing, we need his bat in the lineup. Whatever that's going to take to do that, that's what we're going to do. If that's moving Joe Mauer to first base and putting Mourny (at DH) and we need to do that to keep them both in the lineup, that's exactly what we'll do. We need those two young men playing.

"I want Morneau when we get to spring training to tell me that he believes that he's got no issues and that first base is going to be fine. ... If there's any doubt at all, if he has any concerns at all, I don't think you take a chance with it and I wouldn't want to do that with a young man's career or his well being." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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