BRADENTON, Fla. -- When Terry Ryan returned as general manager of the Minnesota Twins 16 months ago, he promised no miracles. In fact, his goals couldn't have been more basic.
He wanted to steer the franchise back to the basics of pitching and defense. When the Twins last made the playoffs in 2010, they were one of baseball's best defensive teams. When they lost 96 games last season, they were one of the worst.
Ryan also wanted to increase the franchise's "inventory" of pitching. He knew that until he improved those two areas, none of the other stuff would matter. Now, as Ryan begins his second season back in the saddle, there have been significant changes in a relatively short amount of time. Whether those changes get the Twins back in contention in 2013 is impossible to know, but there's little question that Ryan is on his way to working his magic again.
"I'll let you know when we get into the meat of the summer," he said the other day.
Ryan constructed the core of the team that went to the playoffs seven times in a 10-year stretch ending in 2010. Along the way, he became one of baseball's most respected executives.
He retired after the 2007 season, but returned four years later. Since his return, he has done what he promised. The Twins will begin this season with three new faces at the top of the rotation: Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia. They'll have a new center fielder in rookie Aaron Hicks and a new shortstop in Pedro Florimon. Last year's shortstop, Brian Dozier, will open the season at second.
All in all, the defense appears to be better, and with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau both healthy, the Twins should score enough runs. All that's left is the small matter of the starting rotation.
"I like the way we went about this spring," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I'll put it that way. We caught the ball a lot better in the infield. We've gotten the outs we're supposed to and made some spectacular plays. Running the bases, we've been very aggressive. We've had a lot of stolen bases down here, and that means they're looking for opportunities. That's the kind of stuff I want."
Now about that pitching inventory. Ryan dealt two center fielders -- Denard Span and Ben Revere -- to get three highly regarded pitchers -- Worley, Alex Meyer and Trevor May -- from the Nationals and Phillies. Worley, acquired from Philadelphia, will get the ball on Opening Day, and if the other two finish this season in the Majors, the Twins will be moving rapidly back down a familiar path.
Ryan used 12 of his first 16 Draft picks last summer on pitchers. In two years, 59 of 95 have been used to take pitchers.
"We've got numbers to pick from, which is a first for awhile," Ryan said. "I'm fairly pleased. We've got choices. We have sent some guys across the street [to Minor League camp] the last two weeks that have a chance to help us, and that's encouraging. Maybe sooner rather than later possibly."
Inside the Twins' spring clubhouse, there's a sense that things are returning to normal. Having a healthy Mauer and Morneau is a huge factor.
"It's probably been one of the best camps we've had," Mauer said. "Guys are getting after it, really paying attention to detail. We're definitely moving in the right direction."
Are the Twins close to contending again?
"Yeah, I think we are," Morneau said. "I don't think we're as far off as other people think. The attitude in here has been a lot different this spring. We've added some veteran pitchers and some depth. We have some really, really high-caliber players in the Minor Leagues -- impact-type players. Not guys who have a chance to be good. Guys who have a chance to be very good."
Gardenhire has been pleased as well. He's not sure how good his rotation will be, but he can see that overall the organization's pitching has improved significantly the last two years.
"I feel real good about things," he said. "We all know we're going to follow our starting pitching. Hopefully, our starting pitching gets off to a good start, and we'll go from there. It's all about pitching with us. If we pitch, we give ourselves a chance."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less