This just in: Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau played a baseball game Monday night. I saw them in the flesh at Hammond Stadium. Mauer singled twice and caught five innings. Morneau went 0-for-2. They are preparing for the 2012 season, just like the rest of their Minnesota Twins teammates.
That’s where fact ends and conjecture begins.
To say Mauer and Morneau have returned is accurate. To say the 2009 and 2006 American League MVPs are “back” is premature. A wide chasm exists between the two statements. The near-term future of a proud organization lies somewhere in the middle.
Paradoxically, last year’s 99-loss debacle revealed much about why the Twins had been so good for so long. Turns out, it wasn’t the Metrodome or the mysticism of Ron Gardenhire’s goateed grin. It was, instead, the union of superstars (Johan Santana once among them) with a sound supporting cast. That was enough for the Twins to win the AL Central six times in Gardenhire’s first nine seasons.
But take away the icons, and you wind up with the worst team in baseball this side of the Astros.
The lost season made abundantly clear how much the Twins rely on Mauer and Morneau — whom Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira considers “arguably the two best left-handed hitters in baseball.” Last year, injuries kept them out of the lineup more than half the time and limited their production when they played: seven home runs combined in 151 games. The Twins didn’t have a chance.
So, the team’s biggest storylines this spring are as follows: How is Mauer feeling? How is Morneau feeling? How is Denard Span feeling?
“Pretty good players,” Gardenhire said. “We’re looking to see how they do.”
Their pitching doesn’t look very good, but that didn’t stop them from winning the division in 2010. If Span, Mauer and Morneau produce, Gardenhire will fashion a .500 outfit from the remaining raw materials. That might as well be the Twins’ slogan: If our big guys stay healthy, we’ll be OK.
Don’t underestimate Span’s importance. The leadoff man was limited to 70 games last year by a concussion and migraine headaches. The Twins need him to be the table-setting presence he was in 2009, when he swiped 23 bases and led the league in triples. Span, 28, said he studied video clips of base-stealing virtuoso Jose Reyes during the offseason to improve his knowledge of the craft.
As recent contracts for Cameron Maybin and Andrew McCutchen suggest, teams are desperate to keep two-way center fielders once they find them. Span, at his best, is that type of player.
“If Denard’s health returns — and he’s looking good — his best years are ahead of him in the leadoff spot,” said Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, in Twins camp as a special instructor. “He’s a big part of the team’s offensive flow. We tried other guys in that role, but no one had the on-base percentage or sees the amount of pitches he does on a regular basis. He’s critical to our success.
“It’s not just Morneau and Mauer. It’s Denard, as well.”
In that respect, Monday’s 10-2 loss to Boston was a resounding success: Span, Mauer and Morneau started, played and exited in (apparent) good health.
Mauer said there’s a “night-and-day” difference in how he feels now compared to one year ago. Coming off knee surgery, he appeared in only eight games last spring — none before the middle of March. He never seemed completely healthy and ended the season on the disabled list because of pneumonia.
“I had lot of things going on — shoulder, elbow, hip, knee,” Mauer said Monday. “You can go up and down the list.”
“It’s nice to do things I haven’t been able to do for a long time,” he said. “I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m definitely ahead of where I was last year.”
The same is true of Morneau. For him, lingering concussion issues were only part of the reason for a miserable 2011. He underwent four surgeries during the span of a few months — to his neck, left wrist, right foot and left knee.
When I asked him to put a number on how many games he felt at full strength last year, Morneau replied, “Zero. My neck was bothering me the last week or two of spring training, and then everything else came on top of that. There wasn’t one day when I felt like myself.”
The specter of concussions will linger for the rest of Morneau’s playing career, even though he said he hasn’t experienced symptoms since December or January. (This year, he will wear a batting helmet with enhanced protection.) He can’t train quite as long or quite as hard as he could prior to sustaining his season-ending concussion in 2010; those limitations invariably will affect his on-field performance.
But he’s still here.
“I’ve done everything we’ve done (as a team this spring) and woke up the next day, ready to go,” he said.
Morneau is willing to put in the work to become an elite run producer again. If he’s healthy, he believes he can do it.
Morneau hasn’t played a full season since 2008. There are those who may not remember how dominant he can be. But his peers haven’t forgotten. In an American League that includes Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Paul Konerko — and himself — Teixeira said Monday he believes Morneau might be the best first baseman.
“It’s tough to see him go through his injuries, because we came up around the same time,” Teixeira said Monday morning at the Yankees’ spring base in Tampa. “We’re about the same age. I really feel for him, that he’s had this string of injuries.
“I love the way he swings. He always plays the game hard. As a first baseman, when he’s up and I’m holding a guy on, I almost fear for my life. He can hit the ball so hard. I’d love to see him back to a hundred percent.”
So would the Twins. He isn’t there yet, but Monday’s progress report was good. If you’re interested in the Twins’ chances for 2012, check back Tuesday … and the day after that … and the day after that …