FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Ron Gardenhire has already settled on an opening-day starter, and the Minnesota Twins’ rotation is all but set. And there is still so much uncertainty surrounding the group as spring training begins.
Pitchers and catchers held their first official workout on Sunday, with 33 pitchers in uniform, an unusually high number geared toward creating competition for bullpen spots.
Despite the large number, there is little doubt who will be starting games for the Twins this year. Gardenhire announced last month that veteran Carl Pavano will start on opening day, and incumbents Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn are widely expected to be joined by offseason addition Jason Marquis in filling out the rest of the rotation.
Gardenhire and general manager Terry Ryan showed a lot of faith in the group by not making any high-profile additions or trades, hoping the same arms will produce different results coming off a 99-loss season. Like the rest of the team, the starters were plagued by injuries and inconsistency last season, contributing to a team ERA of 4.58, good for 29th in the majors, and a league-worst opponents’ batting average of .281.
“If we’re healthy, I think we’ll be fine,” said Blackburn, who went 7-10 last year before being sidelined by a forearm injury. “We’ll be right back at the top of the league. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be; we’ve got the talent.”
The talent was hard to see at times through wave after wave of injuries. Liriano battled shoulder injuries all season, Baker was sidelined with a strained elbow and fifth starter Brian Duensing, who likely is being moved to the bullpen this year but is still holding out hope for a rotation spot, missed time with a strained oblique.
Adding to the woes were inconsistent defense and catcher Joe Mauer’s health problems.
“It’s kind of a domino effect,” Gardenhire said. “If we catch the ball behind the rotation, that’s always big.
“You’ve got to stay healthy. We can’t control that a lot, but you hope we don’t have to go through that again.”
But it wasn’t all on the defense behind them. For years the Twins have prided themselves leading the league in fewest walks allowed. Last year they dipped to sixth in the AL.
“I think the biggest concern we had last year was that we were falling behind guys way too often and pitching defensively, which is a never a good situation,” Baker said. “So I think Gardy said it many times that we’re going to play better defense this year, there’s no doubt about it. So if we throw it over and make them put the ball in the play, we’re instantly better.”
There is reason for hope. Pavano gives the group veteran leadership at the top of the rotation. Liriano has the best stuff on the staff and threw a no-hitter last year. Baker and Blackburn had shown many flashes of greater things in their first few years.
And Marquis brings in 10 years of experience as a starter.
“He’s a 200-inning guy,” Gardenhire said. “He’s the kind of guy to protect your bullpen, kind of like (Pavano). . He’s an inning-eater.”
With a renewed focus on fundamentals and a universal clean bill of health, the Twins are counting on a big turnaround this season with their familiar group of tested veterans.
“It’s going to be a lot different from last year,” Liriano said. “We’ll just have to stay healthy and see what happens.”
NOTES: RHP Joel Zumaya threw about 40 pitches in a bullpen on Sunday and said everything went well. “To be back on a mound again and doing what I do, it’s just a whole other feeling,” said Zumaya, who hasn’t pitched in a game since blowing out his elbow on the mound in 2010. … Mauer was catching bullpens from the get-go, a big change from last year when leg problems kept him from catching until well into March. “This is the best I’ve felt in a long time and it’s almost like you want to get out there and do everything the first day but it’s a process,” Mauer said. “It was good working today, though.”
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