Updated: March 8th, 2012 11:21pm
Zulgad: Twins a far healthier and happier bunch this time around

Zulgad: Twins a far healthier and happier bunch this time around

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by Judd Zulgad

FORT MYERS, FLA. - Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter passed by Joe Mauer on Thursday morning and noticed the catcher had a smile on his face.

So what was noteworthy about that?

"You wouldn't have seen that a year ago," St. Peter said.

This time last year there were very few smiling faces around Hammond Stadium.

Injuries and other health-related concerns were an immediate issue when spring training opened, setting the tone for what would become one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.

Catcher Joe Mauer was slowed after having an offseason procedure performed on his knee. First baseman Justin Morneau was still recovering after having been sidelined for the second half of 2010. Closer Joe Nathan was attempting to come back from Tommy John surgery.

Pitcher Francisco Liriano showed up with a sore left shoulder, and righty Scott Baker had elbow issues. Left fielder Delmon Young developed turf toe and right fielder Michael Cuddyer ended up dealing with a wart on his foot.

It got so bad that minor league catcher Jair Fernandez was stung in his mouth by a bee before a game in Port Charlotte and was sidelined temporarily.

In many ways the feeling coming from Fort Myers was very similar to what the Vikings had experienced seven months earlier during training camp. That team had arrived in Mankato in August 2010 carrying huge expectations after coming off a run to the NFC title game.

Injuries and other issues soon derailed them and the mess that ensued saw coach Brad Childress fired, the roof of the team's home stadium collapse and, ultimately, a 6-10 finish that put the team dead last in the NFC North.

When it was suggested that the 2011 Twins and 2010 Vikings had a similar feeling about them it was dismissed by some.

It shouldn't have been.

The Twins matched the Vikings futility and even surpassed it, finishing in the basement of the American League Central.

"It's night and day," St. Peter said when asked how different the feeling is this spring surrounding the Twins. "I know people talk about the clubhouse being quiet (this year) and that's all fine. At least this year I've got Mauer and I've got Morneau in their locker and in games and that's a huge difference."

Decibel levels don't concern St. Peter, manager Ron Gardenhire or new general manager Terry Ryan. What does concern them is having everyone on the field as much as possible going through drills and playing in games.

"That's kind of what we talked about coming in, not having other people from the outside dictate everything that goes on," said Gardenhire following the Twins' 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday at Hammond Stadium. "A lot of that was the concussion thing (with Morneau) and we understand that. I don't know enough about concussions to be able to tell you this or that.

"But it's nice to be able to write the lineups out. Like I've got the doubleheader written out for Saturday. It's nice to be able to go ahead and not have somebody saying, 'Well, let's do this, let's wait.' I like that. I like being able to control this thing because I've done that my whole career. Last year was a little different. With a lot of players."

Considering the amount of time Mauer and Morneau ended up missing, not to mention all the other injuries and issues the Twins encountered, Gardenhire's statement that things were "a little different" from usual would qualify as a massive understatement.

He, of course, knows this and so does everyone else associated with the Twins.

That's why Bill Smith was fired as general manager after last season and Ryan was named to take over the job he had given up after the 2007 season.

The deterioration of a franchise often begins when it gets away from the little things. That can lead to bigger and bigger problems. Eventually it snowballs and a team finds itself in the type of free fall the Twins did in 2011.

"I think there is a healthy chip on everybody's shoulder and probably should be to try to demonstrate to people that 2011 was in aberration," St. Peter said during an appearance on "Judd & Phunn" on 1500 ESPN. "I think we recognized as an organization that we have to regain the trust and respect of not only teams around the league but frankly our fan base.

"I think we're ready for that challenge. It starts here every day at spring training trying to get better and tying to get back to playing the type of baseball that this club has been known for. We just didn't play that way last year."

That's the reason why Gardenhire added three extra days of fundamentals to spring training. That's why the Twins are taking every opportunity to play "B" games that provide more freedom for teaching and for situational baseball to be worked on.

As the Twins struggled in these areas last year, it was often talked about that the team was getting away from the "Twins way." This was a reference to the long-held belief, right or wrong, that the Twins had played the game the right away.

Of course, this phrase once had been associated with the Baltimore Orioles and that went out the window years ago.

Rob Antony, the Twins assistant general manager, was asked when the Twins might have gotten away from grooming players in a proper manner.

"I'm not sure that the guys who came up through our system hadn't already learned and been taught the fundamentals," Antony said. "They didn't execute them. And I think some of that was maturity. I think some guys got up here and maybe got comfortable. Some guys thought that they were doing well when they weren't doing well.

"They weren't doing what was expected of them and we had to make some adjustments with that. I think it's more a situation, I think in these three days, it's not about preaching, it's about just repetitive. Doing the fundamentals. ... It's being focused and paying attention to the details of the game and then executing them."

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.
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