Twins optimistic as they prepare to head north

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FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Minnesota Twins will begin the regular season with perhaps all of their goals but one accomplished.

A group of mostly young players has been built around the trio of franchise cornerstones catcher Joe Mauer, first baseman Justin Morneau and left fielder Josh Wilingham.

The pitching, however, continues to remain a big question mark.

Opening Day starter Vance Worley finished spring training strong, but he also finished with a 5.73 ERA. Fellow projected starters Mike Pelfrey (5.52 ERA, coming off Tommy John surgery), Kevin Correia (6.30 ERA) and Liam Hendriks (4.15 ERA) fared worse or not much better. Scott Diamond, the team’s most consistent pitcher last season, will start the regular season late, having not pitched in Grapefruit League action while recovering from offseason surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow.

On offense, however, the Twins have reason to be pleased.

Aaron Hicks seized hold of the starting center field and leadoff roles, succeeding the homegrown talents who preceded him in that role: Denard Span (traded during the offseason to the Washington Nationals) and Torii Hunter (now with the Detroit Tigers).

“It made me feel great,” said Hicks, who hit .379 with a team-best four home runs and 18 RBI this spring. Hitting three home runs in one game, as he did March 7 against the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, Fla., didn’t hurt either. “I don’t think anybody can plan that. That was big. I was very excited. I was excited just to face Cliff Lee. That was just an amazing feeling.”

Backup first baseman Chris Parmelee and starting third baseman Trevor Plouffe had mild setbacks during their six-week stay in the Sunshine State, but neither one endangered his Opening Day roster spot.

“I’m pretty excited about it when you look at the middle of our lineup,” Plouffe said. “For the guys who don’t have that track record, we’re hungry for it. I have confidence. I think this whole year is going to depend on guys stepping up and playing their roles, myself included. We’re up for the challenge.”

Second baseman Brian Dozier and shortstop Pedro Florimon each demonstrated their knack for picking balls off the dirt from all angles. Dozier spent the month of November in Venezuela. A shortstop for most of his young life, he took some extra balls at second base at the urging of manager Ron Gardenhire.

“He talked to me about making the team, being one of the nine,” Dozier said. “Don’t worry about trying to be either this position or this position. Your goal is to be one of the nine. Up the middle is up the middle. You’ve still got to hit. You’ve still got to play defense. It was a good thing.”

Correia said he had little to worry about with the defense behind him.

“They’re unbelievable players,” the offseason acquisition said of Dozier and Florimon. “Every outing I’ve had so far this spring, they’ve been out there. The more I get to play with them, the better they are defensively. My last start, they made three or four excellent plays. It’s huge for me, being more of a contact pitcher.”

As a whole, the young offensive players met or exceeded spring training expectations, and that has optimism running high as the team gets ready for Monday’s Target Field opener against the defending American League champion Detroit Tigers.

“We hope to get back to where we were a couple of years ago, winning the division,” Mauer said. “We’re looking forward to it.”

Of course, it’s the veterans who will still drive Minnesota’s offense. Mauer, Willingham and Morneau usually hit in that order in the middle of the lineup, and the grouping paid major dividends last season for Willingham, who slugged a career-best 35 home runs in his first season with the team.

“Josh had a fantastic year last year,” Mauer said. “He has that right-handed power bat we were looking for. It’s pretty good to have those guys behind him. It sets our lineup up top.”

Morneau, who played sparingly last year at this time because of post-concussion issues, lobbied to play in extra games this spring when he wasn’t with Team Canada in the World Baseball classic. Morneau hit .267 with three home runs and 11 RBI in his first 15 spring training games.

“It’s a different camp for him, for sure,” Mauer said of Morneau. “At this point last year, we were thinking he was going to be the DH the whole year. Then he went out there and figured some things out. He had a great year last year, so it’s good to see him back.”

The Twins also have found a pleasant surprise in Wilkin Ramirez, who will make the team’s bench as an extra outfielder and pinch hitter and could push for regular playing time, having hit .444 with five RBI in 15 spring games.

“He’s played really well all the time,” Gardenhire said. “He’s hitting the ball really well all the time. He’s coming off the bench in the middle of the game and still getting hits. He can go out in center if I needed him to do that, too. I’m pretty excited for the young man. He’s a guy who means a lot to the organization. He means a lot to some of our young Latin players. He’s very influential to them. He’s a positive reinforcement for them. He can help you in a lot of ways, but he’s also playing very well. He’s done very well for us. Good kid.”