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Updated: December 23rd, 2011 4:34pm
Zulgad: What are Twins doing? That's difficult to say at this point

Zulgad: What are Twins doing? That's difficult to say at this point

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

Terry Ryan's return as general manager of the Minnesota Twins in early November was met with unanimous approval from a fan base that had decided Bill Smith was the one responsible for the franchise's problems.

Ryan had held the job for the 13 years before Smith took over in 2007 and most seemed to have forgotten it was Ryan who was in charge as the organization stumbled through much of the 1990s.

Instead, Ryan was remembered for being the guy who through development of prospects and crafty deals oversaw the Twins' resurgence that started in 2001 when the team jumped to 85 victories after winning only 69 games the previous season.

The Twins went 94-67 in 2002 to capture the AL Central for the first time and won the division three of the next four seasons before Ryan stepped down.

But almost two months since becoming the Twins' interim general manager, Ryan has plenty scratching their heads about what he's doing this time around.

On the surface, the Twins master plan seems to be based around Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau staying healthy in 2012 and many others bouncing back from poor seasons.

It would be great for the Twins if this happened, but to think it will seems a bit far-fetched. And even that might not solve all the issues.

The fact the Twins have let closer Joe Nathan (Texas) and outfielders Michael Cuddyer (Colorado) and Jason Kubel (Arizona) depart shouldn't be that difficult to accept.

Cuddyer might have been the greatest guy in the world, but the Twins would have been foolish to consider matching the $31.5 million, three-year deal that Colorado gave him.

Kubel, who will get $15 million over two years, will be far happier playing in the hitter-friendly environment at Chase Field.

And coming off a 99-loss season, the Twins' last concern should have been keeping Nathan.

It made far more sense for the franchise's all-time saves leader to take $14.75 million over two years, and a club option for a third, from the Rangers, who have been to back-to-back World Series.

But what's most interesting about the Twins' philosophy is that while they are allowing key parts of their division-winning teams of yesteryear to leave, they also remain publicly resolute in their contention they will be competitive in 2012.

As Ryan has been saying this, he also is assembling pieces that don't appear as if they will add up to compete in the AL Central, much less for the AL pennant.

Signing veteran Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million deal to replace Cuddyer seems like a decent investment. But it is interesting that Willingham is slated to play in right field when he has very limited experience at that position.

After that, the signings get a bit more curious.

Ryan Doumit got a $3 million, one-year deal to serve as an occasional catcher, first baseman, right fielder and designated hitter.

Jamey Carroll signed a $6.5 million, two-year contract, with a club option for 2014, to play shortstop. He will turn 38 in February.

And then this week, the Twins made what might be their big move with the starting rotation by signing 33-year-old righthander Jason Marquis to a $3 million, one-year contract.

There was either anger or a collective yawn from many around the Twin Cities at this announcement.

Marquis gets a ton of groundballs, which will be good at Target Field, but he is a journeyman pitcher who is viewed as a bottom of the rotation guy.

Marquis went 8-6 with a 4.43 ERA in 2011 with Washington and Arizona and two years ago won only two games with the Nationals as he underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow.

Perhaps Ryan has a trade he's working on that will surprise everyone and be the impact move that a team that plays its home games in a revenue-generating ballpark like Target Field can afford to make.

But there is no one with any knowledge that such a move is coming.

Ryan said at his introductory news conference that the Twins wanted to get their payroll to $100 million after it climbed to $113 million on Opening Day of last season.

The contracts the Twins are giving out certainly speak to the fact the club is attempting to accomplish this mission. But if this is all about money than an already suspicious fan base could be alienated in the blink of an eye.

The potential best case is that Ryan isn't going to come out and say what he's really doing. That would be retooling for 2013 and having a grand plan that we simply can't see yet.

Turning around a club that plummeted to 99 defeats isn't an easy thing, and Ryan knows what it takes to make over a big-league roster. He also knows that doing it in one offseason might not be realistic.

The Twins are trying to convince everyone that they aren't in a rebuilding mode, but meanwhile they are signing journeyman to reasonable contracts that could be easily moved at next season's trading deadline.

The scariest thing would be if the Twins really do believe that Willingham, Carroll, Doumit and Marquis are the answer. (Donovan McNabb was seen as the answer at Winter Park and look what happened.)

The AL Central is tougher than it was a few years ago and the Twins' biggest fault during their most successful seasons was that they ended up being built to win divisions but not pennants.

Ryan is a veteran baseball man who has to have a plan that goes beyond thinking a few veteran additions and a healthy Mauer and Morneau will make everything right. If Mauer and Morneau can't stay on the field the Twins are cooked, but if they can they aren't going to be able to help what appears to be a shaky pitching situation.

The only question is why wouldn't Ryan and the Twins be more transparent about what they're doing? Fans likely would forgive that more than they would the team attempting to create a perception that isn't a reality.

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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