Return to Excellence Speculations

A few days ago Michael Rand at the Star Tribune wrote about the Twins in rebuilding mode. As I read it, I was struck by not only the fact that six of the nine position players in the starting post-season lineup of 2010 were no longer with the Twins, but the other three spent a good deal of time on the disabled list in 2011. Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are those three.

It is fair to say that virtually everyone writing about the Twins believes the 2012 season hinges on at least Mauer and Morneau if not also Span’s ability to rebound from injuries and other assorted ailments that kept them out of the lineup for so many games in 2011. If they all return to some semblance of what they have done in the past, the Twins will have a chance to be competitive, at least in the Central Division. Because of their contracts and their success in the past (two MVP’s) the Twins have little choice but to bet on their return to excellence, at least for now.

Of the three, I believe Joe Mauer is the most likely to rebound from all the travails of 2011 and put up some good numbers while playing 140 or more games. I expect his playing time will include most games at catcher, but several at first base and DH. Moving him around some will help keep his legs healthy while continuing to keep his bat in the lineup. The primary reason I have for this optimism is the problems that he had last year were mostly not chronic. Only the knee has the real potential to be an ongoing issue and early reports are this winter his training has gone well and he feels strong again.

Second most likely to return to form is Denard Span, although I have significant concerns about him because the post-concussion symptoms and dizziness he has experienced in past years are not easy to overcome. Having researched non-headache migraines a little bit, one of Span’s diagnoses reported, I am aware this is a recurring problem that comes and goes with less than ideal control over the frequency and timing. Much as I would like to think otherwise, the fact that he has had at least a dizziness problem three years in a row means he cannot be assumed to be the long-term solution in center field. I certainly hope his getting some good rest this off-season and working his way back to good playing condition will bring him back to top form. Following his Twitter feed (@thisisdspan) it is encouraging that he has been practicing yoga regularly for a while now. That should help for several reasons, not the least being increased flexibility.

Justin Morneau is obviously the one I am most concerned about both for his own health and safety to enjoy a full post-career life and as a baseball player. Multiple concussions, as he has reported to have had, can be career ending and in some cases even life threatening. If all the time he has had to recover from injuries and surgeries has been enough to allow him to function without any impairment, it will be wonderful to have him back as the regular first baseman. Unfortunately, it is not only the post-concussion issues in his case that concern me. Surgery to remove the cyst from his knee should pose no problem, but the foot surgery may have potential to be an ongoing issue depending on how he heals and is able to strengthen his foot. The shoulder surgery he had earlier in the year to relieve a pinched nerve was deemed successful, but as of the last report I saw late in the 2011 season, Justin still had some numbness. From my own experience with nerve damage I can say that it can take a long time – sometimes years – to heal if it heals at all. Finally, the so called minor surgery on the wrist might also be an issue that continues to nag him. If it does, hitting will be a problem. Not to be too dour, but these are just the this year’s injuries/surgeries. It is very difficult to be optimistic that Morneau will return to MVP form again. It may be that being above average will have to suffice. Right now I’ll take that in 2012.

It is going to be very interesting beginning in February to follow the progress of each of these players in spring training. Especially in Morneau’s case, how the spring progresses is going to be essential for evaluation of his future. It will not surprise me if very early on he is named the primary DH and someone else is designated the primary first baseman. That will almost certainly happen if he has any recurrence of post-concussion problems. Much as I would not like for it to happen, it also will not surprise me if he is not able to return to any kind of consistency and ends up retiring. That would be a real blow to him and to the Twins, but from this vantage point, living in a world of pure speculation based on what little information is reported in the media, it may be more probably than anyone would like it to be.

OK, now that I’ve exorcised the demons on these three, we’ll look forward to all of them vying for Comeback Player of the Year award.

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