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Twins moving toward return to contention

Team has improved from last season, though work remains to be done @HalBodley

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The 85th All-Star Game is going to be played at Minnesota's beautiful Target Field on July 15, and for baseball fans in the Twin Cities, this could be the highlight of their summer.

They'd prefer to have their Twins contending for an American League Central title to complement the All-Star Game and its accompanying events, but that's not likely to happen.

Manager Ron Gardenhire's 2014 crew should be improved, but it's a stretch to predict the Twins will finish ahead of Detroit and Cleveland. Or even the young Kansas City Royals.

The last three seasons have been dreadful for the Twins.

Since they won the division title in 2010, the Twins have finished in last place twice and fourth place once.

"Brutal, terrible," Gardenhire said without hesitation of the past three years before a recent Spring Training game. "In 2011, we had all the injuries and everything; we just couldn't keep our people on the field. The next year was a little bit of both -- bad baseball and guys beat up. Last year was just terrible. We were not good and it wasn't any fun."

The improvement for 2014 should be modest, but the key is, yes, the Twins will be better. Picking up the pieces and returning to contention obviously will be difficult.

In 2010, the Twins went 94-68 and won their sixth division title in nine years. In those other three seasons, they finished no worse than third.

The fall has been difficult for their fans, not to mention Terry Ryan, one of the most respected and successful general managers in baseball, and Gardenhire, who has a knack for getting the most out of less-than-superstar players.

Last season, the Twins' starting rotation had a 5.26 ERA, worst in the Major Leagues.

Ryan addressed that during the offseason when he signed starters Ricky Nolasco (four years, $49 million) and Phil Hughes (three years, $24 million). He also re-signed Mike Pelfrey (two years, $11 million).

Former AL MVP and three-time AL batting champ Joe Mauer moving from behind the plate to first base has been one of the top stories in Twins camp this spring.

Mauer missed the final 39 games of 2013 with a concussion after taking a foul ball off his catcher's mask. Mauer said it took him more than three months to eliminate the symptoms from the concussion. Moving permanently to first base is a wise move for Mauer, whose .323 career batting average is tops among active players.

Gardenhire said Mauer is adjusting well at first base.

"When Joe was spot playing at first he did his thing and never really worried about it," Gardenhire said. "I think he's now seeing playing every day there's a lot more involved in it. So, it's an adjustment."

Giving up catching was Mauer's decision.

"Physically, I felt like I could catch a few more years, but if I go back there and take another shot, what I got from the doctors is I'd miss another three months or even more," Mauer told the New York Times. "I can't do that, especially to my family or the organization. I've got to be in the lineup. I think we both understand that."

Mauer, who turns 31 on April 19, signed an eight-year, $184 million contract extension prior to the 2010 season.

Gardenhire, 56, completed his 13th season as Twins' manager in 2013, and there was talk he night step down. Or be asked to.

Instead, Ryan gave him a two-year extension.

"I've never been big on running from something," Gardenhire said. "It's a challenge, plus this organization has been so good to me. I told Terry Ryan, 'You've got to do what you've got to do. You're not obligated to me at all. You've given me every opportunity and if you think a change is needed at the top, you make it.'"

Gardenhire added he loves managing the Twins, and he told Ryan, "I want to stay here, but it's your decision. I'm not going to walk. I'll do what you want me to do."

Said Ryan: "Ron's a very good manager. We've had a lot of success in this organization. We've fallen on some hard times, there's no doubt about that. Nobody's pretending that everything has gone well the last three years, frankly.

"We need to clean it up, and we think we have the right man in-house to do that, and I'm very happy he's decided to come back."

When Spring Training opened in mid-February, Gardenhire said his message was to the point.

"I told them, 'We've had our butts kicked for three years now. That's enough of that [garbage]. It's time to get back to playing baseball. We've got some really good young players who are going to be pushing people and knocking on the door. You better take heart to that if you want to stay here."

There was concern in Gardenhire's face when he said "this is a work in progress. We've got a lot of change. We haven't done well offensively this spring. Too many guys aren't swinging well.

"This last week I'm going to run them out there on a consistent basis and see if we can get them all swinging together. …We're catching the ball well, and the pitching is going to be better."

And the Minnesota Twins? They should be better than last season's 66-96 record, but catching the teams ahead of them in the AL Central won't be easy.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for

Minnesota Twins