Injuries doomed Twins to franchise second worst season 30 Sep 11

When Trevor Plouffe drove home Denard Span to beat the Royals 1-0 in the season finale at Target Field, the Twins emptied the dugout as if they had just won a playoff series. In a season like the one they had just finished, it probably felt that way.

The defending AL Central champions started the season with a veteran roster, World Series plans and a franchise-record payroll of $113.2 million. Instead, they went 63-99, the Twins’ second-worst record since they moved toMinnesota in 1961.

“I don’t even know how to explain this … how you could feel so good to just lose 99 games,” winning pitcher Carl Pavano said. “Not that I’m happy about losing 99, but it’s a lot better than losing a hundred.”

That’s how bad 2011 was for the Twins, who put 16 players on the disabled list a total of 27 times, tops in the major leagues. Minnesota lost key players Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and Denard Span for stretches of 48 days or more.

Morneau was limited to 69 games because of neck, arm and wrist injuries and his second concussion in just more than a year. Mauer, playing the first season of an eight-year, $184 million contract, was limited to 82 games because of leg weakness, a sprained neck and pneumonia.

Asked to sum up the season in one word, manager Ron Gardenhire said, “That’s hard to put into one word, but I guess the first word that came to mind, which is probably the right one, is nightmare.”

The Twins could lose All-Star Michael Cuddyer and Kubel to free agency, and they seem ready to decline a $12.5 million option on closer Joe Nathan, but otherwise most of the club will return. A lot of next season’s potential will be determined this winter as general manager Bill Smith tries to right the ship after one bad year.

Losing Cuddyer and Kubel would leave major deficits in the lineup. The team also could use a workhorse starter to help Pavano shoulder the load; he was the only pitcher to make all of his starts (33) and pitch 200 innings (222).

After a second straight season of more than 3.1 million in attendance, the Twins should have the money to stick close to this year’s payroll template.

“With the fan base selling out every game, I don’t think you can sit back and not try to win with this opportunity,” Morneau said. “Payroll, they always say, is based on attendance and revenue and all the rest of it, so revenue should still be up next year, and payroll should be up, and the expectations will definitely be up.”

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MLB Team Report – Minnesota Twins – NOTES, QUOTES

–LHP Francisco Liriano said on the last day of the season that he never got over the shoulder problem that sidelined him the first week of spring training.

“Same spot, in the back, too,” he said pointing the back of his left shoulder. “It didn’t go away for the whole year. I was trying to fight through it, but it’s not easy to go out there and pitch when something’s bothering you.”

Liriano pitched his first no-hitter May 3 at Chicago, and he followed that with an eight-inning, two-hit gem against the Rangers on June 12, but he was otherwise below par. After resurrecting his career by going 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA in 2010, he finished this season 9-10 with a 5.09 ERA.

The no-hitter already is a distant memory.

“I’m having a hard time having fun this year,” he said. “I’ve been on the DL twice, and the season we’re having, it’s hard to go back and look at
what I did.”

Since leaving an Aug. 25 start after two innings because of shoulder soreness, he pitched twice in relief and said he’s ready to his offseason program, which this season will include winter ball back home in the Dominican Republic.

–CF Denard Span was already happy with his last week of baseball. After missing 92 games because of a concussion and migraines, he was pleased just to be back on the field and have some success. Helping win the season finale with a pinch-hit double was icing on the cake.

Span was not in the starting lineup because he wasn’t feeling great after his collision with the center field wall the previous day. But with one out in the ninth in a scoreless game, manager Ron Gardenhire sent him to the plate.

Span doubled into the right field corner, then scored the winning run on SS Trevor Plouffe’s single to left.

“It was a good feeling, man,” he said. “That was nobody but God. Like I said before the game started, I was saying how just coming back and playing was the highlight of my season, but definitely tonight was. To come up and get a big hit like that was huge for me.”

Span wound up playing in five games over the last week and played well, hitting two triples, two doubles and scoring five runs. He also made some good plays in the outfield.

The performance went a long way toward restoring Span’s faith that he can return to everyday baseball, and the team’s faith that it can count on him to be the center fielder and leadoff hitter next season. Losing him this year was one of many blows in a 99-loss season.

“People forgot this guy’s been out for a long part of the season, too, and he’s a big part of our lineup,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s your leadoff guy, high on-base percentage guy, takes a lot of pitches, plays a pretty good center field.

“There’s not a lot of talk about him, but that’s huge, getting on in front of the big guys (in the lineup), and we didn’t have that.”

–RHP Scott Baker was the Twins’ most effective starter this season, going 8-6 with a 3.14 ERA, but he was limited to 21 starts because of a flexor injury in his right elbow. That’s behind him now, he said, and he anticipates a full offseason.

“Right now, I feel as good as I’ve felt all season,” Baker said at season’s end. “That’s a nice feeling, to not have to worry about rehabilitation; I can just go into the offseason like I normally would.”

Baker didn’t start a game after Aug. 8, but he was nearly perfect in two relief appearances in the last week, giving up one hit, striking out three and walking none in three innings. He said he has learned lessons this season that should carry over to 2012.

“I think this year more than any other year, I really had a good feel and handle on my mechanics,” he said. “Even after these last couple (relief) outings, I feel like I’m really aware of my body and mechanics right now. I feel like I can go back out there without that adjustment period; that I can go back out there and be where I need to be. That’s a comfortable feeling.”

–RHP Joe Nathan picked up a handful of dirt from the Target Field mound following the season-ending victory over Kansas City, just as he did after the Twins’ final game at the Metrodome in 2009.

“That was for me,” Nathan said. “If I’m back next season, I’ll put it back.”

The Twins have a one-year, $12.5 million option on Nathan but can buy him out for $2 million. In that case, he would become a free agent.

–1B Justin Morneau didn’t mince words as the Twins approached their final game of a lousy 2011 season. Given the chance to find a silver lining, he declined.

“It’s hard to find any positives in this season,” he said. “For myself, there’s nothing positive I can take out of it. “Disappointing is probably an understatement.”

Morneau was limited to 69 games because of a variety of injuries, from nerve damage in his left arm to a concussion that knocked him out of the final 29 games. He had three surgeries this year, once to repair a bulging neck disk that was causing pain and weakness up and down his left arm, once to remove a cyst in his left knee, and once to clean bone spurs out of his right foot.

He still can’t feel his left index finger, the result of nerve damage that might not heal for months.

“They said the numbness is the last thing to go away,” he said. “So if that happens someday, I’ll be happy, but I’m not going to hold my breath until it does.”

His 69 games are a career low, and his .227 batting average is his lowest since 2003, when he batted .226 in his first 40 major league games.

But Morneau said he believes he’ll have a normal offseason, which is promising news for Twins fans who haven’t seen a full season out of the 2006 American League MVP since 2008, when he batted .300 with 23 homers and 129 RBI. Morneau said he feels much better than he did heading into last season after a concussion ended his season on July 7.

His offseason workouts “should be back to normal,” he said. “The only thing I might add earlier is that I’m thinking about mixing in Pilates just for flexibility and strength and the rest of it, just because I haven’t had a chance to do a lot. So I might start a little earlier with that stuff, and then get back into the regular program.”

BY THE NUMBERS: 99 — Losses for the Twins this season, second most since the team moved to Minnesota in 1961, trailing the 102 losses of the 1982 club.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “There are definitely some ups in a season like this, but obviously more downs.” — 3B Danny Valencia, reflecting on a 99-loss season that included DH Jim Thome hitting his 600th homer Aug. 15 at Detroit and LHP Francisco Liriano’s no-hitter May 3 at Chicago.

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MLB Team Report – Minnesota Twins – ROSTER REPORT

The Twins are in an odd place, coming off a 99-loss season but betting they don’t need to completely overhaul the team to contend again next season. They used the disabled list a big-league-high 27 times, and they believe getting C Joe Mauer, 1B Justin Morneau and CF Denard Span, among others, back healthy will be the key.

BIGGEST NEEDS: Depends on whether they lose OF/INF Michael Cuddyer and OF/DH Jason Kubel to free agency. If they do, those are two major holes in what has been a potent lineup for years. It also seems clear SS Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the team’s biggest offseason acquisition, has a ways to go before being a major league player. He hit .226, scored 14 runs and committed 12 errors in an injury-plagued season. A backup catcher who can hit his weight would be nice, too. Drew Butera, exposed because of Joe Mauer’s injuries, finished the season batting .167, tying Jerry Zimmerman for the worst average for a Twin with at least 230 at-bats.

FREE AGENTS: OF/INF Michael Cuddyer, OF/DH Jason Kubel, RHP Matt Capps.

The Twins will make a hard run at Cuddyer, the team’s only All-Star this season, and Kubel, who hit 49 homers between 2009-10 before being limited by a severely sprained foot this season. Capps was terrific in 2009 (career-high 42 saves) but fell on hard times this season, going 4-7 with a 4.25 ERA, 15 saves and nine blown saves. He likely is headed elsewhere.

ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: LHP Francisco Liriano, LHP Glen Perkins, RHP Kevin Slowey, 2B Alexi Casilla, OF Jason Repko, LHP Jose Mijares, INF Matt Tolbert.

Liriano, in his last season before free agency, should be re-signed but could be trade bait. Slowey, who angered the team when he declined to pitch out of the bullpen, went 0-8 in eight late starts. He could be non-tendered. Casilla and Mijares should get arbitration offers, but Repko and Tolbert may have played out the string in Minnesota.

IN LIMBO: RHP Joe Nathan.

Nathan, who set the Twins’ career saves record this season with 260, has a $12.5 million team option on his contract, which carries a $2 million buyout. The closer will turn 37 next March. Still, he proved this season he may have gas left in the tank, earning 14 saves in limited opportunities just a year removed from Tommy John surgery.

MEDICAL WATCH:

–1B Justin Morneau (concussion, left knee surgery in September 2011, right foot surgery in September 2011) must pass more concussion tests before being cleared for offseason workouts. However, he expects to be ready for spring training.

–CF Denard Span (vestibular migraines) said he would see a specialist this winter.

–RHP Nick Blackburn (right lateral forearm strain) was scheduled to have surgery Sept. 30 Friday on his right forearm. Recovery time was estimated at six to eight weeks, so he should be ready for spring training.