Twins have a trio of AL All-Star candidates

MINNEAPOLIS — Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was asked earlier this week who he thought his all star (or all stars) should be this year.

It’s a question that doesn’t yield an obvious answer for Gardenhire, unlike last year, when outfielder Michael Cuddyer was the only logical choice. Cuddyer was not only Minnesota’s most productive hitter in the first half of last season but he was also one of the few to stay healthy.

This year, there are options for who might represent the Twins in the 2012 All-Star Game, the rosters of which will be released at noon CT on Sunday. The initial name that rolled off Gardenhire’s tongue after a brief hesitation was outfielder Josh Willingham — the guy the Twins signed this past offseason to replace Cuddyer after he signed with Colorado as a free agent.

Willingham has certainly filled the void left by Cuddyer, batting .267/.379/.527 with 15 homers and 50 RBI prior to Saturday’s doubleheader against the Royals. He’s not only his manager’s top choice for an all-star nod, but his teammates’ as well.

“The one that sticks out I would say would be Willingham,” said veteran infielder Jamey Carroll.

Earlier this month, Willingham seemed like a lock for his first career all-star game. But a few other names have made a push in late June to earn a trip to Kansas City in a few weeks. Leading the charge has been catcher Joe Mauer, who is currently second in fan voting among all American League catchers, trailing only Mike Napoli of the Texas Rangers.

A look at the numbers shows that Mauer ranks among the top of most offensive categories among AL catchers. His .324 average and .415 on-base percentage are both tops among all eligible AL catchers. His 35 walks are 10 behind Chicago’s A.J. Pierzynski, but five more than Napoli. Mauer may lack the power possessed by other catchers — he has just three home runs — but he leads all AL catchers with 17 doubles.

And, unlike last season, Mauer is healthy. He’s avoided the disabled list and missed just a handful of games so far this year. There’s a chance he could be on his way to his fifth career All-Star Game — and his fourth in five years.

“Joe Mauer’s again hitting and getting it done,” Gardenhire said. “You don’t find many catchers that do those things.”

Willingham insists he hasn’t given much thought to what it would mean to be named an all-star, instead waiting until the official announcement is made Sunday before going in-depth about it. While he wouldn’t talk about himself, Willingham did have high praise for Mauer.

“I think we knew going in the key was keeping him healthy,” Willingham said of Mauer. “When he’s on the field, he’s produced his whole career. It’s good to see.”

Mauer and Willingham both have realistic shots at making the AL All-Star roster, but Gardenhire mentioned one other name from his team that he feels deserves at least a brief moment of consideration: centerfielder Denard Span. Prior to the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, Span was batting .274/.340/.301 with 19 RBI, seven stolen bases and 20 doubles in 70 games.

Like Willingham and Mauer, Span has stayed healthy this season after suffering a concussion last year. His 70 games played prior to Saturday was third-most on the team behind Jamey Carroll’s 73 and Willingham’s 72.

“I think Span Man might have been our best player in the first half up to this point,” Gardenhire said. “I think consistently getting it done, Denard’s played really, really well. I’d sure like to see him get a look.”

Last season marked the first time since 2004 that the Twins had just one All-Star. Joe Nathan was the lone representative that season. From 2006-09, they had three players each season earn trips to the mid-summer classic.

Despite Willingham’s impressive numbers, he’s not even in the top 15 in fan voting among AL outfielders. Still, his consistency from the beginning of the year to the end of June is hard to ignore. Then there’s Mauer, who has put up impressive numbers at the game’s most physically demanding position. He has a track record as an All-Star and could earn another selection.

The Twins and the rest of Major League Baseball will officially find out this year’s All-Star rosters shortly before the first pitch of Sunday’s game between Minnesota and Kansas City. Will it be Willingham? Mauer? Both?

Twins fans will find out soon, providing a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season.

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