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Twins' hopes ride on filling out rotation

Twins' hopes ride on filling rotation holes

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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins have become accustomed to leaving for Spring Training with a few question marks.

It's just that those questions are usually reserved for their lineup, not their pitching staff.

As the Twins head to Fort Myers, Fla., and prepare to defend their fourth American League Central title in the past five years, it's an unusual spot the team finds itself in with a lineup that returns all of its regulars but a starting rotation that is unsettled except for one spot -- Johan Santana.

"Usually the question is always about who's playing third base or who is it position player-wise?" catcher Joe Mauer said. "When [Cristian] Guzman left and then [Luis] Rivas, we had questions about the middle of the infield, too. It's always been a position thing for us, as pitching has always been our strength. But I think we have guys coming up that can eventually do that. We just don't have a Brad Radke coming back where you know you're going to get a quality start every time he comes out."

The loss of Radke to retirement and '06 rookie phenom Francisco Liriano to injury has put all the emphasis this spring on the rotation, which now will look very different from just a year ago. Only two starters from the Opening Day rotation last season are expected back in the mix, Santana and Carlos Silva, and that leaves plenty of open spots for some young pitchers and new faces to battle for this spring.

One thing the catchers seem to know is that this will be a different Spring Training than the ones they've seen in the past.

"Joe and I were talking about it the other night, that we're going to have our work cut out for us, we really are," backup catcher Mike Redmond said during TwinsFest. "That work we're talking about is just trying to figure out [the pitchers]. Figure out what these guys like to do and talk to them to kind of find out what's worked for them in the past and what they want us to do as catchers. We'll talk a lot to those guys and try to get on the same page."

But the Twins aren't completely new at dealing with pitching problems, either. After all, the team did battle through its share of troubles during the '06 season when injuries and problems on the mound forced the team to go through its share of starters. A total of 10 different pitchers started games for the team en route to its division title.

"It never really settled itself for us all year long," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of the starting pitching. "We made a lot of changes. We did a lot of filling and trying to get the most out of guys for short amounts of time. Hopefully this year we'll be able to find something at Spring Training and be able to stick with it a little longer so it can carry us through the season."

The Twins will have plenty of options for those pitching spots with a handful of young arms in Boof Bonser, Matt Garza, Glen Perkins, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey, in addition to the two veteran arms they signed in Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson. Still, there are questions for each of these pitchers to answer as many are either without much experience or trying to prove that difficult years are behind them.

The concerns surrounding the pitching staff are a little easier for the club to stomach considering the team is returning its entire lineup from last year. The Twins finished first in the American League in batting in '06 and showed that their offense isn't about to be the weak link of the team like it was in seasons past.

"Most of our position players are relatively young," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "Torii Hunter certainly is a guy of veteran status but, for the most part, our everyday lineup is relatively young. Last year was certainly one of those years where a lot of us point to the success we had. There is a good chance that most of these guys are going to take it to another level."

"I think our offense will be even better because all our guys got another year under their belt, so maybe that will make up for some of the pitching, at least for a little while until we get some of the guys going," Redmond added.

Despite all the concerns surrounding the starting staff, it's hard to count out a group bolstered by a two-time Cy Young award winner, last year's American League MVP and the first AL catcher to win a batting title. There is plenty of anticipation and it seems motivation as well. Part of that has to do with the way everything ended in '06 as the team saw its impressive run come to a crashing halt in the first round of the playoffs.

And even though some of the players expected to play a part in '07 weren't there to experience the rough ending last year, it doesn't mean that they won't get a crash course on it, considering how it still lingers with most of the club.

"That disappointment of the playoffs, we'll take that with us until we start doing it again next year," Gardenhire said of a three-game sweep to the A's. "That was kind of a real clunker at the end and we were a little frustrated with that. So I think these guys are going to be pretty hungry."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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