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Twins left crossing their fingers about rotation

By La Velle E. Neal III, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –

MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins didn’t plan to add to their payroll for 2012. The plan was to reduce it.

The Twins didn’t have many trade chips, if any, to deal for a quality starter to upgrade the rotation.

Under these parameters, it’s no wonder the best Twins GM Terry Ryan could come up with to help the starting staff was reaching an agreement Thursday with veteran righthander Jason Marquis on a one-year, $3 million contract.

Marquis is a ground-ball-inducing machine who is coming off a broken leg to pitch in the American League for the first time. He definitely doesn’t push the Twins over the top in the American League Central battle.

You now have a few moments to vent.

Lament the Twins’ inability to draft and develop front-line starters.

Complain about how they botched deals for the two hard throwers they traded away, Johan Santana and Matt Garza.

Shake your head over the soured relationship between the coaching staff and Kevin Slowey that led to his trade to Colorado.

Shake a fist toward the heavens because Kyle Gibson’s major league debut has been delayed a year because of Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, and because baseball’s Geek Squad had to be called in to fix Alex Wimmers’ GPS so he can find home plate again.

If you get a Twins official in private, he might react the same way. The big reason the team rose from the ashes 10 years ago and began to win division titles was that Brad Radke, Eric Milton, Rick Reed and Kyle Lohse were fairly capable.

To get back to that, the Twins will rub their good luck charm and hope their returning starters stay on the mound and turn things around in 2012 after posting a 4.64 ERA last season that was 12th among starting staffs in the AL.

“We feel better about some of the things we’ve got here,” Ryan said.

Over the past two seasons, Carl Pavano is the only Twins starter to have thrown at least 200 innings in a season. He did it in both 2010 and ‘11. But he turns 36 next month. The onus is on three other pitchers.

Francisco Liriano, 28, should be motivated to perform in what will be his free-agent season. The Twins also have noticed a trend from their hard-throwing lefthander: In odd years, Liriano is 15-25 with a 5.47 ERA. In even years, he’s 32-17 with a 3.22 ERA. High-tech stuff, huh? But when you’ve banged your head against the wall as often as the Twins have about Liriano, you grab onto anything that’s encouraging.

Nick Blackburn, who turns 30 next month, had forearm problems last season and had loose particles removed from his elbow following the 2010 season. He has told the club that his arm feels great, which has to be encouraging.

There is a little more concern regarding Scott Baker, 30, who has had elbow issues the past two seasons. He was limited to 134u2154 innings last season.

When asked, Ryan said on Thursday, “Baker and Blackburn both look like they are going to be healthy.” But indications are that some with the Twins will feel better about Baker once he gets through spring training and takes his spot in the rotation. It will be an important year for Baker, who will earn $6.5 million in 2012, with the team holding a $9.25 million option for 2013.

While Ryan spoke favorably of the rotation’s health, he still wouldn’t rule out Brian Duensing being a starter. Based on the other starters’ time in the trainer’s room the past couple of seasons, can you blame him?

“I don’t want to eliminate Duensing from that rotation,” Ryan said. “If someone doesn’t come in ready to go and they are a little ouchy, then you have to consider Duensing and (Anthony) Swarzak and some of the other guys I mentioned.

“If they are all healthy, then it certainly fortifies our bullpen to some extent.”

We have been fixated on Joe Mauer’s and Justin Morneau’s return to health in 2012. But the Twins, unable to upgrade their rotation this offseason, are crossing their fingers about their starters, too.

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