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Inbox: Morneau to be traded before Deadline?

MINNEAPOLIS -- Spring Training is nearly a month away, as Twins pitchers and catchers are set to report to the club's complex in Fort Myers. Fla. on Feb. 12, with the first workout set for Feb. 13.

It's been quiet for the Twins recently, but general manager Terry Ryan has maintained he's still on the lookout to improve the pitching staff and could also add competition at third base.

So there's still plenty to look out for before players report to the Lee County Sports Complex next month.

In the meantime, here's the first Twins Inbox of 2013:

With Justin Morneau in the final year of his contract, how likely is it the Twins deal him before the Trade Deadline? I think we could bolster our pitching prospects and build for 2014 if we deal him this year.
-- Chris F., Modesto, Calif.

After trading Denard Span and Ben Revere, the Twins don't intend to trade Morneau this offseason, as it would create a big hole offensively for the club.

But the club could look to deal Morneau before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, especially if he returns to form and the Twins are out of contention.

Minnesota is expecting big things from Morneau, considering he is finally healthy and going through a normal offseason for the first time in three years. He's even on track to play for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic this spring.

The big question is what the Twins would get in return for Morneau because he's in the last year of a six-year, $80 million deal signed in '08 and has had trouble staying healthy in recent years.

The Angels traded a similar asset in Kendrys Morales this offseason -- a power-hitting first baseman with injury concerns in the last year of his contract -- and received a capable back-end starter in Jason Vargas from the Mariners.

But the Twins would want younger pitching in return if they were to trade Morneau, and so it'll be interesting to see what transpires in the coming months.

With Span and Revere gone, would Ron Gardenhire consider Joe Mauer as a leadoff hitter since he gets on base and move a hopefully improved Morneau to the three slot?
-- Tim R., Hayward, Wis.

Mauer led the American League in on-base percentage in 2012, and one of the most desirable traits for leadoff hitters certainly is the ability to get on base.

But Mauer isn't exactly a prototypical leadoff hitter because he's not considered a great baserunner and his doubles power plays better as a No. 2 or No. 3 hitter.

Darin Mastroianni, who is the front-runner to take over in center field, is much more likely to start the year as the club's leadoff hitter, but I could see Mauer batting in the No. 2 hole in front of Josh Willingham and Morneau.

Mastroianni fits the bill as an excellent baserunner and has shown the ability to get on base in the Minors with a career .368 on-base percentage. He'll look to improve his .328 on-base percentage from last season with Minnesota, but the Twins also have top prospect Aaron Hicks waiting in the wings.

With infielders Jamey Carroll, Eduardo Escobar, Brian Dozier, and Pedro Florimon battling for playing time, who do you see as a backup at third for Trevor Plouffe?
-- Phil S., Muscatine, Iowa

Ryan strongly hinted during the Winter Meetings that the Twins plan to bring in competition for Trevor Plouffe at third base, but so far, the club has yet to add another third baseman to the roster.

But the Twins could still go after an affordable free agent third baseman such as Brandon Inge to push Plouffe.

If not, Carroll is the front-runner to push Plouffe at third base because of his sure hands at the position and his ability to get on base. But the Twins would much rather see Plouffe develop into a power-hitting third baseman with Carroll serving as a utility infielder.

Will Nick Blackburn be invited to Spring Training? Does he have a chance at making the team as a relief pitcher?
-- Jim M., Phoenix

Even with the club's desperate need for pitching help, Blackburn has become somewhat of a forgotten man, considering he's not on the 40-man roster after being outrighted in late August.

But Blackburn is invited to Spring Training and will be given a chance to compete for a spot on the roster, especially because he's owed $5.5 million in '13.

Blackburn, though, really struggled last season with a 7.39 ERA in 19 starts and hasn't had a fully productive season since '09, when he had a 4.03 ERA in 31 starts.

I haven't heard anything about him being moved to the bullpen, but he has a lot to prove this spring because of his roster situation and struggles in recent years. It's more likely he'll start in Triple-A Rochester and have to earn his spot in the rotation.

Minnesota Twins, Nick Blackburn, Darin Mastroianni, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Trevor Plouffe