Twins are back to underdogs again in 2012
For years the Minnesota Twins have been baseball's darlings, defying economics and exceeding expectations to pile up division championships.
Oh, how things can change in a year.
After the most disappointing season in franchise history - a 63-99 injury-filled embarrassment - the Twins are back to the role they're used to playing. They're the underdogs again, only this time it's not nearly as fun.
''I've been there when it was the norm here in the 90s, when we came in here every year trying to figure out a way not to get our (rear ends) kicked,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said. ''And that's no fun. So once we started winning in the 2000s, that became the norm. And we don't ever want to go back to that.''
The last-place finish and a quiet offseason that included few new faces have fans restless in the Twin Cities and most analysts turning their eyes to other teams in the AL Central. The Detroit Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a mammoth new contract and the Cleveland Indians are expected to show more improvement from last year's surprising second-place finish.
''Everybody's counting us out, but I like that though,'' center fielder Denard Span said. ''I was watching MLB Network and all they were talking about was Detroit and every other team. They didn't even mention the Minnesota Twins in the Central Division. I thought we changed divisions.''
The Twins open the regular season with a three-game series in Baltimore that opens on April 6, with their home opener against Albert Pujols and the Angels on April 9, and it's easy to see why they are being overlooked.
The Twins started 2011 - their second season in money-printing Target Field - with World Series aspirations, and a $115 million payroll to match.
But the bottom fell out in a hurry.
Hometown hero Joe Mauer played in only 82 games because of a series of ailments that caused his once-adoring fan base to question his commitment, Justin Morneau's concussion problems returned and nearly every key player on the team missed large stretches of the season due to injury.
Narrowly missing the franchise's second 100-loss season with the highest payroll in team history cost GM Bill Smith his job. Owner Jim Pohlad turned to a familiar face, bringing Terry Ryan back into the chair to usher another turnaround.
''If Billy was going to be gone...I was really happy to know Terry was taking over, let's put it that way,'' Gardenhire said. ''Because I've been with him and he understands me and I understand him. And I know what he expects of me and he gave me my opportunity, I worked with him for quite a few years around here and he makes it pretty easy for you. If he's got something to say he's going to say it.''
Now the two men most responsible for turning the Twins from a bottom feeder into a perennial division champion are teaming up to do it again.
''We all have short memories here,'' Ryan said. ''The fans have short memories, evaluators have short memories. But (the players) have to show it. It's the same with this ballclub and organization. People will forget about last year if we let them.''
Looking to trim payroll and renew the team's focus on drafting and developing, the Twins were quiet on the free agent market. They signed outfielder Josh Willingham to take the place of long-time leader Michael Cuddyer, who signed with Colorado.
They also brought in Ryan Doumit to add more pop at catcher behind Mauer and 38-year-old shortstop Jamey Carroll to shore up a middle infield that was among the worst defensive units in the majors last season.
But they didn't do much to address weaknesses in the rotation and the bullpen, adding journeyman Jason Marquis to be the fifth starter and re-signing closer Matt Capps, who struggled mightily last season.
The cupboard is hardly bare, though it may be a little creaky. Mauer and Morneau have won AL MVP awards and were considered two of the best young players in the game before injuries derailed them. Left-hander Francisco Liriano has shown flashes of the form that made him a dominating rookie in 2006, but consistency has been hard to come by.
Health will be the key. Mauer, Morneau and Span missed a combined 265 games last season.
''Coming into that room after the game with that music and being able to smile and do all the things you do when you win, you just don't grow accustomed to losing,'' Morneau said. ''We're not used to losing around here and it's something we want to get back to.''
All three have shown no ill effects this spring. Mauer, in particular, seems motivated to prove that last year's woeful season was a fluke and nothing more.
''I think that's everybody in this clubhouse,'' he said. ''If you don't have that chip on your shoulder then something's wrong. I think everybody, including myself, is just embarrassed about how last year played out. Just anxious to get back on the field and play.''
Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/APkrawczynski.