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Anthony Castrovince

Without illusion, Twins aim for improvement in '13

Minnesota has pitching options and a strong core in the middle of the lineup

Without illusion, Twins aim for improvement in '13 play video for Without illusion, Twins aim for improvement in '13

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For an effective encapsulation of the Minnesota Twins' offseason and outlook, look no further than the chairs in the home clubhouse at the Lee County Sports Complex.

In an age of increasingly posh Spring Training environments, these chairs are rather underwhelming. They are unpadded and plastic-backed. No leathery, cushiony comfort is found here.

But here's the thing: The chairs are actually an upgrade over the ones used a year ago.

"These," one veteran player noted, "have wheels."

Ah, yes, an incremental improvement, though certainly not one that brings the Twins to the level of some other, more comfortable clubs.

This brings us to the Twins roster.

The simple truth in this game is that there is no shortcut that takes you from loss totals of 99 and 96 to a win total in that realm. And the Twins, for the record, aren't going out of their way to claim they've discovered one.

Instead, what we have here is a Twins team that has, out of necessity, all but totally revamped its rotation in a bid to return to respectability.

General manager Terry Ryan signed Kevin Correia to a two-year deal in the hope that he'll eat up some innings. But, more important, Ryan shipped away two center fielders to reel in Vance Worley, Trevor May and Alex Meyer, who could impact the rotation for years to come. He also took a flier on Mike Pelfrey coming off Tommy John surgery and an even bigger flier on Rich Harden, coming off a litany of injuries.

Add in former first-rounder Kyle Gibson, another Tommy John recipient trying to earn a rotation spot, and the Twins may well lead the league in rehabbing arms. In a related development, they're not likely to lead the league in wins. But hey, nobody said this rebuilding stuff is easy.

The Twins are actually careful not to label this a rebuild, if for no other reason than the fact that they do have a formidable middle-of-the-order outlook, with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit on board.

What the Twins don't have, however, is a leadoff hitter, a clear idea of what their middle-infield or center-field spots will look like on Opening Day or a bankable starting staff. These are the holes all but certain to make 2013 another uphill climb, but Ryan at least hopes that the climb won't be near as arduous as it was in '11 and '12.

"We can't go on losing 90-plus games," Ryan said. "We've got to figure this out."

Ryan is committed enough to figuring it out that he no longer wears the "interim" tag -- not that he ever wore it all that convincingly. In Ryan's relatively short time away from the GM seat, the Twins lost their identity as the strike-throwing, ball-catching class of the American League Central and evolved into an oft-injured afterthought with an unsightly rotation, a porous defense, a bloated payroll and a thin roster.

Consecutive seasons with the worst record in the AL were enough to push Ryan to what he deemed the "uncomfortable" purge of three longtime members of Ron Gardenhire's coaching staff but not Gardenhire himself.

Still, Gardenhire, the second-longest tenured skipper in the sport, enters 2013 with just one year remaining on his deal and nothing promised to him. His seat, like those in the home clubhouse here, has no cushion.

"I like this organization and I like winning," Gardenhire said. "We did a lot of that around here. And I'd like to get back to that. The last two years haven't been fun for anybody. So that's my only concern. I have a contract with my wife that's lifelong, and that's all I really need."

Very little, if any, of what's happened the last two seasons is Gardenhire's fault, of course. But stability purely for stability's sake isn't exactly a productive approach.

"You can't think we're going to keep losing 90 games and give out extensions," Ryan said. "It's not right."

Nor has Ryan felt inspired to explore an extension with Morneau, who enters the final year of his deal with still-lingering questions about his ability to get through a full season unscathed.

"I think he understands why we're not talking about it," Ryan said. "He's coming off a couple tough years. It'll take care of itself."

The most likely way it will take care of itself is with a midseason trade. And as painful a PR hit as that may be, it could be another way for Ryan to infuse this organization with upside arms. Like any small-market club, the Twins need all the young, controllable talent they can get, especially with Mauer due to make $23 million a year for the next six seasons and Target Field no longer a novelty. (The club's player payroll will drop considerably this season, though Ryan said it is "plenty big enough" to stomach Mauer's deal).

One area where the Twins are potentially plush in the long view is the outfield, where the presence of prospects like Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia and Byron Buxton made Ryan comfortable parting with Denard Span and Ben Revere. Third baseman Miguel Sano and second baseman Eddie Rosario also have the Twins feeling good about their long-term offensive outlook.

In the immediate future, though, the Twins lack the defensive prowess to pick up the pitching staff and the offensive talents to suitably surround that middle-of-the-order core.

So, the Twins will probably have their share of struggles again in '13, particularly in an AL Central that has seen some improvement. But if the Twins' recent luck in the health department turns around and the injection of starting options helps to stabilize the staff, you can at least view these coming months as the wheels the organization uses to escape from the 90-plus loss column and venture toward better days.

"For a long time here, we were good, and we were consistent," Ryan said. "We've got to get back to where we used to be."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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