Twins can contend with healthy Morneau, Mauer

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Minnesota Twins.

2011 record: 63-99
Finish: Fifth place, AL Central
2011 final payroll: $115.4 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $98 million
Yahoo! Sports’ offseason rank: 22nd
Hashtags: #M&Ms, #betterGMs, #flammable, #overpaidfreeagents, #twinsway, #gardy, #walleyeonaspike, #target, #badcontracts, #moreisnotalwaysbetter

Offseason action

Jamey Carroll hasn't homered since 2009 despite playing 279 games over the past two seasons for the Dodgers.
(Getty Images)

Yes, the wisdom in handing $6.5 million for two years and the starting shortstop role to a soon-to-be-38-year-old career utilityman isn’t exactly the most traditional way to kick off the winter, and yet nobody ever accused the Minnesota Twins of doing things the way others do. Jamey Carroll isn’t any ordinary player, either. It’s been more than two seasons since his last extra-base hit with a runner in scoring position.

Between that and handing Josh Willingham, his stone glove and a bat that last year ranked fourth in the major leagues in fly ball percentage a three-year, $21 million deal to patrol the huge outfield at Target Field and hit home runs out of its cavernous dimensions – well, free agency can be mighty unkind.

And yet the Twins turned around and stole Ryan Doumit’s bat for $3 million on a one-year commitment and did even better in guaranteeing Joel Zumaya only $800,000 to see if he can rescue the magic in his right arm without it screaming for him to stop. It’s signings like those – savvy, on-the-cheap ones – that made the Twins among the most successful franchises in baseball for nearly a decade.

When Michael Cuddyer, Joe Nathan and Jason Kubel departed for Colorado, Texas and Arizona this offseason, respectively, it yanked away a defining chunk of the clubhouse’s personality. Gone, too, is Kevin Slowey, popular among the pitching staff and traded on the cheap after Minnesota buried him in its bullpen. This is a Twins team in transition, and their offseason maneuvering personified that – the Carroll signing more than any.

[ Fantasy: Five Pressing Questions for Minnesota Twins ]

Why the Twins believe a player who has spent more time at second and third base than shortstop in his career suddenly can master the hardest position on the field daily still isn’t eminently clear. Carroll was extremely well-respected around each of the five clubhouses he populated over his first 10 seasons, and he has put up an on-base percentage of .355 or better in significant playing time the last four seasons. The money isn’t terrible, either, not with Clint Barmes getting nearly twice as much from Pittsburgh.

Still, scouts and advanced metrics agree: Carroll is not a good shortstop. And for a team that stresses the importance of up-the-middle defense, the money isn’t matching the mouth.

Reality check

Joe Mauer

Minnesota used to be the paragon of small-market efficiency, a team that promoted a certain style of baseball – the Twins Way, they like to call it – and drafted players who embodied it. Those who didn’t learned it quickly, and its principles – strike-throwing and solid defense – became the fabric of six playoff appearances in nine seasons.

Then came the money. Teams are supposed to thrive with expanded payrolls. In 2002, their first playoff season since winning the World Series 11 years earlier, Minnesota started the season with a $40.2 million payroll. Mauer and Morneau together last year made $38 million, and this year they’ll combine for $41 million.

The Twins, against all odds, have grown into the Hollywood star who gets big and bloated and ends up doing ads for Jenny Craig. Or maybe they’re the one with so much promise that turns into an unmitigated disaster almost overnight. Either way, when your ballclub is either Kirstie Alley or Lindsay Lohan, it’s not doing well.

While there has been mismanagement – the eight years and $184 million the Twins gave Mauer, even to keep the reigning MVP around, were a massive risk – much of their troubles fall on the M&M boys’ inability to stay healthy. Mauer’s injuries practically afflict him from head to toe. This may well be the year the long-anticipated move to third base or first base or the outfield becomes a reality.

[ Related: Rebuilding White Sox prepare for season of self-discovery ]

Similarly, Morneau’s is bad luck – stupid, unfair, awful luck. The concussion that first sidetracked his career came in July 2010, when he was hitting .345/.437/.618. Last year, his on-base and slugging percentages were .618 combined, the post-concussion syndrome and various other injuries rocking his season before another concussion ended it. Morneau underwent surgeries this offseason on his foot, knee and wrist, and as recently as this week, he admitted he hasn’t started baseball activities. Between his concussion and Denard Span’s, the Twins were the closest thing in baseball to an NFL or NHL team.

A healthy Mauer and Morneau in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots transforms the Twins from a mediocre team into a contender, especially in an AL Central thatâs a few more Tigers injuries away from being wide open. Until they’ve got that, the Twins lack punch, depth and a bullpen that is one Bic flick away from turning into an onomatopoeia. If it’s not the recipe for disappointment akin to 2011, it’s close.

Savior

Terry Ryan

When he took over for the departing Andy MacPhail in 1994, Terry Ryan inherited a GM job without much upside: taking over for the Theo Epstein of his day, a wunderkind who won a pair of championships by his 38th birthday. This time around, coming after the overmatched Bill Smith, Ryan has nowhere to go but up. And while his first offseason has been hit or miss – the Zumaya and Doumit signings don’t necessarily offset the curiosity of Carroll and Willingham – the Twins’ future rests firmly under a reinvigorated Ryan’s purview. And that’s a good thing.

Twins in Haiku

The only place where
M&Ms aren’t good is
Minneapolis

Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
MLB player Fausto Carmona arrested after lying about name and age
Lakers’ problems extend beyond loss to LeBron James & Co.
Jim Harbaugh’s detour on way to 49ers | More Giants-49ers coverage

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jan 20, 2012