Twins’ staff losing ground in AL Central

The Minnesota Twins have won six division titles in Ron Gardenhire’s nine seasons as manager. In that span, no team in the majors has more.

Gardenhire is perhaps the best manager in baseball. He has Joe Mauer (as long as he’s healthy). He has Justin Morneau (as long as he’s healthy). He has Joe Nathan (as long as he’s healthy).

When in doubt, at this time of year, it’s wise to pick the Twins.

I have been guilty, from time to time, of applying this maxim too broadly. I declared at the start of the postseason last year that the Twins would defeat the New York Yankees, three games to two, in the American League Division Series. (They did not.)

When you pick the Twins, you have license to explain your selection by shaking your head and saying, “They always find a way, don’t they?” Or you can point out that they issued the fewest walks in baseball last year (383). I love that statistic.

This year, though, I’m not heeding my own advice. Not because I’m bored with the Twins’ perpetual success. Not because I was wrong about them last October. It’s simpler than that: I expect the Tigers and White Sox to have better pitching staffs.

I’m cringing as I type this, but, yes, I have Minnesota third.

The Twins simply lost too many important relievers. Matt Guerrier. Jesse Crain. Jon Rauch. Brian Fuentes. All gone. There are orange cones on the bridge to Jose Mijares, Matt Capps and Nathan.

Nathan is back after missing all of last season because of Tommy John elbow surgery. To state the obvious, the return of the four-time All-Star closer will offer a counterbalance to the departure of several middle relievers. Nathan has been effective this spring, save a six-run shellacking by the Philadelphia Phillies last week. But it’s impossible to know if Nathan, at 36, will be the same dominant force he was prior to the surgery.

Asked on Sunday about the possibility of acquiring a reliever before Opening Day, general manager Bill Smith said, “Can’t predict the future. We’ll see. We’re looking at the group we’ve got. And we like the group we’ve got.”

The group includes the likes of Glen Perkins, Dusty Hughes, Jeff Manship and Jim Hoey. At the moment, the coaching staff of the University of Minnesota hockey team has greater name recognition in the Twin Cities. But the more pressing issue is whether they can strike out Adam Dunn or Miguel Cabrera with the bases loaded in the seventh.

“About five or six years ago, we had (Eddie) Guardado, (LaTroy) Hawkins and (Juan) Rincon in our bullpen,” Smith said. “We had a good bullpen, and they all left at close to the same time. We replaced them with a bunch of young guys named Crain and Guerrier and (Dennys) Reyes. That’s the nature of this business. A lot of these positions turn over.”

The rotation is a concern, too, even if Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson could turn your unemployed cousin into a major league strike-thrower. Carl Pavano isn’t likely to repeat his sterling 2010 season. Brian Duensing, while exceptional last year, has yet to start for a full year in the big leagues. Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker are coming off elbow surgeries.

And Francisco Liriano, for all his occasional brilliance, has yet to have two outstanding big league seasons in a row.

If we can agree that pitching is paramount in baseball — thank you, San Francisco Giants — then I’d like to suggest the following exercise: Pool together the starting pitchers from the Tigers, White Sox and Twins, and rank them from 1 through 15, based on their expected performance this year. (The Royals and Indians can reapply for our study at this time next year.)

Justin Verlander, to me, would be the clear No. 1 selection. John Danks, underrated despite excelling in Chicago, is probably No. 2. After that, I would take Chicago’s Mark Buehrle and Detroit’s Max Scherzer, in some order, before picking Liriano at No. 5. What does that tell you?

The Tigers’ staff, in fact, might have the most upside of the group. Their final three starters — Rick Porcello, Brad Penny and Phil Coke — have performed well this spring. And if one of them falters, expect to see a stud prospect (righty Jacob Turner or lefty Andy Oliver) come up from the minors.

Detroit club president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Turner and Oliver were “not good – great” during their time in big league camp this spring. In reference to Turner’s potential, Dombrowski said, “I had somebody from another organization tell me he’s the best pitching prospect he’s seen in a long time.”

The Twins have a similar high-ceiling starter, right-hander Kyle Gibson, but they move more deliberately with top prospects.

Chicago probably has the best starting five of the group — as long as Jake Peavy is healthy. But the team said Sunday that Peavy experienced rotator cuff tendinitis following his outing the day before. His compelling comeback story might not include an appearance on the Opening Day roster.

Still, at least right now, the Tigers and White Sox are deeper in pitching than the Twins. Minnesota has won two consecutive division titles with a very similar rotation, but I don’t think the streak will continue. Sometimes, even the Twins can’t find a way.