Twins enter offseason of uncertainty

Published 4:29 pm Thursday, September 29, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins started the 2011 season looking for their third straight division title and hoping to establish themselves as one of the elite teams in the American League.

With a nucleus of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and a beautiful new ballpark in downtown Minneapolis, the Twins seemed like the class of the division.

Six months later, the Twins really don’t know who they are after the single most disappointing season in franchise history. Mauer, Morneau and virtually every player that matters missed major time with a significant injury and the Twins went 63-99, narrowly avoiding becoming just the second team in franchise history to lose 100 games in a season.

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“It’s hard to find any positives in this season. For myself, there’s nothing positive I can take out of it,” said Morneau, who missed 93 games with symptoms from a concussion lingering as well has neck, knee and foot injuries. “Disappointing is probably an understatement.”

How bad did it get? Mauer became the target of the kind of criticism from fans and the media that once was believed to be unthinkable for the hometown hero. He played just 82 games and missed most of the first two months because of an injury the team described as “bilateral leg weakness.”

The All-Star catcher’s inability to play through injuries, and his unwillingness to openly discuss what was bothering him, prompted questions about his toughness in the first year of an eight-year, $184 million contract extension. He also missed the last two weeks of the season with pneumonia and finished with a .287 average and just three home runs.

“There’s no question that we have a good ballclub here,” said Denard Span, who missed 92 games with a concussion. “But we’ve got to dig deep for next year. Everybody should go home in the offseason with a chip on their shoulder. Nobody in this clubhouse should leave feeling good. That’s from the top spot to the coaching staff, Joe Mauer, myself, Justin Morneau, everybody in this clubhouse ought to go home for the season with something to prove next year.”

Frustration was rampant throughout the clubhouse. It started when Kevin Slowey resisted taking a spot in the bullpen after losing a competition for the starting rotation in spring training, then spread to Mauer, Morneau, Span, Jason Kubel (foot), Scott Baker (arm), and several other key players.

Even the highlights of the season were short-lived. Jim Thome hit his 600th career homer in a Twins uniform, but was traded to Cleveland 10 days later after the team faded from contention.

Francisco Liriano threw a no-hitter against the White Sox, only to land on the disabled list again with arm trouble.

The Twins also parted ways with Delmon Young, shipping him to Detroit, and one of general manager Bill Smith’s biggest decisions — trading shortstop J.J. Hardy to Baltimore for a pair of minor league relievers and signing Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka to take his place — blew up. Nishioka broke his leg in the first series of the season and then looked overmatched the rest of the way while Hardy hit 30 home runs for the Orioles.

Now Smith will be faced with more difficult decisions. The Twins’ payroll reached $115 million this season, and after watching the results on the field, it could be a tough sell to ownership to get to that number again.

“I think we pushed it beyond where we should have,” Smith said. “Ownership let us go with it in an attempt to win and it didn’t work. It backfired a little bit. All of the injuries made it tough.

“We want to win and ownership wants to win. We also have to be somewhat responsible. Payroll becomes a function of revenues. We’re going to have plenty of money. We’re going to win with players not money.”

Manager Ron Gardenhire said he would like to see Cuddyer, Kubel and closer Joe Nathan return, but that seems unlikely.

“Walking out of the clubhouse, whether it’s today or tomorrow after I come in and pack up the locker and stuff, it will definitely be a different feeling with the uncertainty of not knowing whether I’m coming back,” Cuddyer said.

While most teams head into every offseason knowing they have holes to fill, the Twins are in the unfortunate and somewhat powerless position of having to hope. They hope changes in Mauer’s offseason workout routine will help him report to spring training strong enough to endure the challenges of catching for a full season.

They hope that Morneau will finally be able to put the concussion symptoms that have lingered for more than 18 months behind him and also have to hope that Span will report clear-headed as well.

“There’s issues we have to address, and there’s things we’re going to have to fix, and add some people and get some people healthy all at the same time, and go from there like a lot of ballclubs,” Gardenhire said. “But we start with the first issue, and that’s the health. We have to have these people back on the field.”