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Twins are cautiously optimistic

3/2/2012
Justin Morneau (left) and Joe Mauer are playing this spring, and that's reason for hope in Minnesota. Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Twins were in the midst of a simulated game on Thursday, so in other words, nothing counted, as Jason Marquis pitched from behind a screen. But when a fly ball went in the air toward center field, the competitive instinct overwhelmed Denard Span, and he sprinted in full pursuit.

The ball carried over the chain-link fence, and Span's face hit the railing with him running close to full speed. With a few hundred fans in attendance, there was collective response to the collision of Ooooh. Span immediately reached up to his mouth, and if you had watched the Twins play last year, you might've assumed that Span was hurt, because that's just the way their 2011 season went.

"I've never seen anything like what we had last year," manager Ron Gardenhire said.

Span kept his hand at his mouth as the other outfielders gathered to check on him. From the infield, Gardenhire yelled, "He's OK."

Maybe it was more wishful thinking than an actual diagnosis, but Gardenhire was right. Span walked off the field and said he was OK, and later, @thisisdspan tweeted:

Chain link fence - 1 @thisisdspan - 0 I'll figure it sooner or later. The score will be in my favor by seasons end

So far, so good in 2012. But last year, when the Twins opened spring training with major questions about Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, there was a major ripple effect from all the injuries they suffered. The Twins, with so many regulars down, didn't catch the ball or make plays behind a starting rotation that generally pitches to contact and needs defensive help.

As a result, there was more pressure on the starters, who wound up being ranked 26th in ERA in the majors. Because the Minnesota starters labored, the situation placed enormous stress on the Twins' bullpen, which finished the year last in the AL in ERA. There were days, Gardenhire recalls, when he and pitching coach Rick Anderson turned into mimes on the bench, trying to communicate their concern to each other about the outs needed from the bullpen without letting the players on the field know.

The Twins' hope this spring is that those dominoes that crushed them last year don't fall again, and already, there is measurable progress. Mauer wasn't able to catch in a bullpen session last spring until the middle of March, and this spring, he's been doing that for weeks; he reiterated on Thursday that he's feeling much better now than he was a year ago. Morneau came into spring training last year unsure of how his recovery from concussion symptoms would progress, and he had trouble. No one really knows whether he'll have a setback this year -- and he has acknowledged that if this happens, his career would be in jeopardy -- but he said again Thursday that he feels good.

Mauer and Morneau took batting practice in the same group and did what they used to do before their injuries, clubbing long drives in batting practice far over the same fencing that Span had run into. There was an older gentleman standing beyond the fence, and as he pursued a ball hit by Mauer, Morneau stepped into the box and mashed another homer. "Look out!" one of the others in the hitting group yelled.

If Mauer and Morneau are healthy and productive, the Twins will essentially be adding to their lineup two MVP-type players who weren't available for them most of last season. This would push ripple effects the other way. Josh Willingham, new to the Twins, will hit in the middle of the order with Mauer and Morneau, and the team is hopeful that Trevor Plouffe and newly signed Ryan Doumit can build more depth in their lineup.

New shortstop Jamey Carroll is wearing No. 8, which is fitting, because the Twins essentially want him to be the same type of player that another No. 8, Nick Punto, had been for them. They expect that Carroll will catch the ball and make plays and that he and Morneau will help steady an infield that must be more efficient if contact pitchers like Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker are to be effective.

If Mauer and Morneau are healthy and productive, the major question will be about the Twins' bullpen. Between Matt Capps, Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing, Gardenhire needs some structure at the back end of the game to emerge.

But those answers will come later. The good thing today is that Span is OK, and Mauer and Morneau are OK, and the Twins have the kind of hope that evaporated quickly last year.

New playoff thoughts

Michael Young and Ron Washington like the idea of an extra wild-card team. The Blue Jays also like the proposed playoff expansion, Ken Fidlin writes, and why wouldn't they? Time and again in the past decade, the Blue Jays have fielded a top-10 team in the majors and haven't sniffed the playoffs because of how strong and deep the AL East is.

There were some interesting responses from the Rays, in this Marc Topkin piece.

The Nationals are all for it, writes Tyler Kepner.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Jim Leyland says that Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Delmon Young will all get a chance to DH, John Lowe writes.

Young is not interested in the DH spot, writes Lynn Henning.

2. The Yankees will continue to pare their payroll, Hal Steinbrenner says.

3. Yadier Molina's contract is done. Derrick Goold addresses the ripple effects of this deal.

4. The Phillies are prepared for Ryan Howard's absence.

5. Shane Victorino wants a five-year deal, Jim Salisbury writes.

6. Johnny Damon is taking the patient approach, Scott Boras says.

7. Dusty Baker gave some clues about what his rotation will be, John Fay writes.

Dings and dents

1. Shaun Marcum has some soreness in his shoulder.

2. Evan Longoria suffered a bruised hand.

3. Franklin Gutierrez's injury timetable will depend on the degree of his injury, Geoff Baker writes.

4. Buster Posey will miss some exhibitions.

5. Johan Santana continues to look good, writes Peter Botte.

6. The Orioles' Tommy Hunter has a sore back.

The battle for jobs

1. Brandon Inge will start at second base in the Tigers' exhibition opener. Is it so that the Tigers can get an early read on whether this is viable? Is it a situation where Inge is being thrown into the deep end of the pool quickly, so he can sink or swim? Are they showcasing him a little? We'll see.

2. Ryan Roberts is preparing to be the everyday third baseman for the D-backs.

3. Josh Donaldson was a hit in Thursday's exhibition, as he started the process of trying to be Oakland's primary third baseman, Susan Slusser writes.

4. Adam Kennedy is living his dream.

5. The Nationals are looking for a center-field solution.

6. Bryce Harper will start the first two games for Washington.

Thursday's games

1. Tim Collins threw well in the Royals' intrasquad game.

2. A former Ray hit a grand slam in an Indians intrasquad game.

3. A Phillies pitcher was impressive.

Other stuff

• The Dodgers are trying to work out an arrangement in the Bryan Stow case, Bill Shaikin writes. CBS and MSG are eyeing the Dodgers' TV rights.

•Hal Steinbrenner supports Brian Cashman in what is a tough time for the GM, writes Mark Feinsand.

Jason Varitek retired officially, leaving an iconic image, writes Dan Shaughnessy. Steve Buckley has a favorite image of Varitek.

Luke Scott isn't a fan of Red Sox fans.

• Ben Revere's family is always there for him, Jim Souhan writes.

• Grady Sizemore's only luck is bad. Just terrible, for a guy who prepares to play diligently and desperately wants to play.

• Speaking of luckless: A.J. Burnett, injured in a freakish way during a bunt drill, will have surgery Friday, and then the Pirates will have an idea of how much time he'll miss.

• I watched some of the Twins-Red Sox B-game on Thursday, and Daniel Bard looked good in throwing from the windup, fluid and comfortable. He reminds you physically of Derek Lowe, athletic and tall, and if you recall, Lowe moved back and forth successfully between the rotation and the bullpen. Bard has better raw stuff, with his near 100 mph fastball. If Bard can make the transition, the Boston bullpen could be pretty good, with Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz.

Chris Sale is trying to make the same switch with the White Sox, and he is working on a changeup, as Bard is.

• Ryan Braun's attorney issued a strong statement in response to the urine collector's statement.

• Gordon Wittenmyer writes: The Cubs' players trust collector Dino Laurenzi. From the story:

"Just from knowing Dino the three years I've been here, he's been nothing but professional," Cubs infielder Jeff Baker said. "He's been very, very thorough. I have no concerns and no qualms."

• This season could change the perception of Royals owner David Glass, writes Sam Mellinger.

• Nolan Ryan says the current payroll fits into the budget, writes Evan Grant.

• A young backstop is working be the Rockies' catcher of the future, writes Patrick Saunders.

Adam Dunn is starting with basics.

• Of all the prospects I've seen this spring, the guy who has jumped out the most is Matt Harvey of the Mets. Kevin Kernan writes about him here.

Darwin Barney got stronger during the winter.

• A Cardinals prospect is drawing attention, Derrick Goold writes.

Mark Kotsay is glad to be back home with the Padres.

• Dale Sveum is selling a message, and the Cubs are buying it.

• The Jays' rotation could start with a couple of powerhouses, Richard Griffin writes.

• The training wheels are coming off Alcides Escobar, writes Bob Dutton.

Albert Pujols is all business, writes Mike DiGiovanna.

Colby Lewis likes operating under the radar.

• Rick Porcello's future with the team hinges on his sinker, writes Michael Rosenberg.

Craig Kimbrel and Billy Wagner share a bond, writes Marty Noble.

The other day in Pirates camp, they were using pitching machines to throw breaking balls -- one a left-handed curveball, the other a right-handed slider -- and the slider was particularly nasty, veering sharply as it neared the hitter. I asked some of the Pirates hitters if there is a right-hander in the majors who actually throws a slider like that.

A couple of minutes later, Pittsburgh catcher Mike McKenry looked at me and said, "Craig Kimbrel. He throws a slider like that."

• Being a catcher in spring training can be a pain, Bob McManaman writes.

• Ozzie Guillen is aiming for the division title.

Emilio Bonifacio has helped to popularize a gesture, Juan Rodriguez writes.

David Price is doing a nice thing.

• The Yankees' players shared a laugh.

J.P. Arencibia imitated our teammate Tim Kurkjian.

And today will be better than yesterday.