Ryan eager to evaluate Twins in spring training

BY foxsports • January 18, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota's pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla., in exactly one month, but the Twins are still unsure about the health of some of their star players and won't know statuses for sure until spring training starts next month.

The biggest question marks are catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau, who both missed significant time during the Twins' 99-loss season in 2011.

Mauer was sidelined for two months early in the season with bilateral leg weakness and late in the year with pneumonia. When Mauer met with a group of reporters in December, he insisted he was healthy and ready to put 2011 behind him.

"Mauer's doing fine. There aren't any concerns about Joe," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said on Monday. "He's going through the paces down there in Fort Myers right now, actually."

Morneau, meanwhile, has missed the end of the last three seasons with various ailments. In 2010, a concussion kept him out for the last several months. He again experienced lingering concussion symptoms in 2011 along with a strained left wrist and a herniated disk fragment in his neck.

Morneau's inability to stay on the field over the past three seasons has raised a question among Twins fans: What is Minnesota's backup plan if Morneau is again sidelined with injuries in 2012?

"I don't even want to talk about a backup plan because right now I'm encouraged the way he's going about his business," Ryan said of Morneau. "There is no backup plan because we've got a first baseman we're counting on here."

Morneau is working out in Phoenix, but he was back in the Twin Cities for part of the winter. Ryan spent some time with Morneau and said the 2006 AL MVP is making strides in the right direction.

"He's probably going to start to be able to swing a bat here this coming week or so," Ryan said. "I'm not sure (the concussion is) the biggest area of concern in his mind, and that's all that's important is how he feels. I didn't get into any depth in the conversation about that. I just told him to keep grinding it out, keep working. In the concussion business, that's a little different than having a wrist issue or knee issue or all that other stuff. We'll have to wait until we do get to Fort Myers to see how he feels."

The health of Mauer and Morneau won't be the only thing the Twins will be evaluating this spring training. One battle to watch will be for the five rotation spots. Minnesota signed free agent Jason Marquis in late December, and the veteran right-hander figures to slot into the end of the rotation. That means one of the Twins' starters from 2011 will move to the bullpen, and Brian Duensing is a likely candidate.

But Ryan said that's something the Twins won't decide until spring training.

"We've got a situation there where we've got probably six, seven, eight guys that will be in the area of starting and potential to be starters," Ryan said. "I wouldn't eliminate Duensing. I wouldn't eliminate (Anthony) Swarzak. I wouldn't eliminate (Matt) Mahoney. I wouldn't eliminate (Scott) Diamond.  . . . We're going to end up opening that thing up down there. Obviously we'll have decisions to make. If everyone stays healthy, then we will have good problems."

Ryan said there should also be a position battle for left field. The Twins acquired outfielder Josh Willingham this winter, and Ryan said Willingham will play right field for Minnesota. The club sees Denard Span as its everyday center fielder, which means speedster Ben Revere and shortstop-turned-outfielder Trevor Plouffe will fight for time in left.

Willingham spent the majority of his previous eight years in the majors in left field, playing just 34 games in right. Plouffe, meanwhile, played in right field for 11 games and left field three times for the Twins in 2011. Revere spent the much of last year in center field when Span was sidelined with injuries, but that will change in 2012.

"That's the way it's best suited for this ball club, we think, just because of the arm strength of Revere," Ryan said. "We think Span's an awful good center fielder, so we're going to go that route right now."

More than anything, however, Ryan is eager to get back to Fort Myers and start building toward 2012. He took over as the team's GM in November when Bill Smith was fired. Ryan was Minnesota's GM from 1994-2007, and his first project now that he's back at the helm is to turn around a club that loss 99 games and finished last in the American League Central.

"We need to put this 2011 season behind us," Ryan said. "There's no better way to do it than to report to spring training."

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