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Despite complications, Twins outfielder surplus isn’t too much of a good thing

Despite a manager’s pleas, general manager Bill Smith declined to deal one of the team’s four outfielders. It’s a sound baseball axiom: Today’s surplus never lasts. As soon as you trade one, another invariably gets hurt.

At one point in spring training, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire approached general manager Bill Smith and asked him to resolve a problem. According to someone familiar with the discussion, Gardenhire requested that Smith trade one of the team’s four outfielders  — Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, Delmon Young or Michael Cuddyer — to improve the team’s shaky setup relief.

None of the players had done anything wrong. Gardenhire simply felt uncomfortable juggling playing time for four guys good enough to play every day, and was irked when Smith chose to hold on to all four. On Opening Night, when I asked Gardenhire to explain his outfield choices for that game (Young didn’t start), he grew agitated and threatened to walk off if he faced daily inquiries about why so-and-so wasn’t playing. He never followed through on the threat.

One month later, Gardenhire said, “It isn’t any easier,” even though he’s whittled his four-into-three situation down to two-into-one. Cuddyer starts in right because his great arm makes base runners and third base coaches cautious. (More people would be on board with this if Cuddyer hit like he did Saturday, Sunday and Monday, going 6-for-10 with a home run and six RBIs.) Span starts because he’s the best leadoff hitter and a good defender wherever he plays.

Balancing at-bats for Young and Gomez has been tricky, especially since the immature Gomez seems determined to make up for the Twins’ lack of righthanded power by swinging out of his shoes whenever he thinks he’s getting a fastball, a bad habit that resurfaced the last week of spring training and hasn’t stopped.

The thing is, Gardenhire’s situation is no different than Mike Scioscia’s last year after Torii Hunter signed with the Angels, or Joe Girardi’s this year with the Yankees. Neither team dealt their surplus, and both managers made things work. Scioscia found 426 at-bats for former starter Gary Matthews Jr. as a fourth outfielder. Girardi spoke in camp about the need for unselfishness, since he had more everyday players than positions to play them all. Melky Cabrera lost the centerfield job to Brett Gardner this spring, but responded by batting over .300 and earning playing time in center as well as right for the injured Xavier Nady.

Smith declined to deal an outfielder based on a sound baseball axiom: Today’s surplus never lasts. Whether it’s pitchers, outfielders or catchers, as soon as you trade one, another invariably gets hurt, and your overabundance suddenly turns into a shortfall. That’s why the stock answer on roster decisions — “These things usually work themselves out” — is more truth than cliché.

So far, though, all the outfielders are healthy. If you noticed Friday night, Cuddyer slid feet-first on his fourth-inning triple, one year after he wrecked his right index finger and his season diving into the same base.  He learned. He knows what’s at stake.

But the Twins bullpen still badly needs help, so Smith is on the road this week looking at minor-leaguers to try and find a solution within the organization. Saturday night, wild lefthander Craig Breslow walked Coco Crisp leading off the 11th  and still couldn’t throw a strike even with Willie Bloomquist squaring to bunt and giving the Twins a free out. Breslow walked three of the four batters he faced, leading to three runs and a 10-7 loss. With Jose Mijares and Jesse Crain back, Breslow may be an ex-Twin by the end of the week.

“If you asked me a week ago, you’d say our bullpen was set up good,” Gardenhire said after Sunday’s 7-5 loss to the Royals, when Scott Baker and Luis Ayala (another guy on shaky ground) combined to blow a 4-0 lead in the seventh. “Then you have a couple of bad outings, and now you have a total mess. If you don’t throw the ball over the plate, you have a mess.” 

Gardenhire thinks playing Gomez three or four consecutive days might help his confidence and get him going. But Gardenhire feels that’s unfair to Young, who is batting .266 and appears much more outgoing and relaxed around his teammates and the coaches that he did last year. Young is doing his work and even watching video on opposing pitchers, though he cracked up Gardenhire one day by coming out of the video room and announcing, “I’ll never get a pitch like that,” after Justin Morneau crushed a hanging slider.

That aside, the Twins are still waiting for Young to show more power instead of just punching balls to right; 15 of his 17 hits are singles. Sunday, the Royals shaded him defensively like a left-handed pull hitter, with Bloomquist several steps toward right-center and David DeJesus far off the left-field line.

Gomez and Young arrived in Smith’s two signature deals, for Johan Santana and Matt Garza, respectively — deals that will be judged harshly if either ultimately flops here. The Twins are notoriously patient with young players, which is a good thing, and there’s nothing wrong with giving them extended chances no matter how tough it makes the manager’s job.

There is also no need for Smith to deal from haste. Even with Mauer missing a month, the Twins are only two games off the AL Central lead, and none of their rivals appear dominant. Most players available this early in the season are kids with questionable ability who are out of minor-league options (like Juan Morillo and Philip Humber), or stiffs nobody wants. By June 1, teams know what they need and who they are willing to give up to get it. Maybe then, Gardenhire will get his wish.

Knuckling under
Another reason why Saturday night’s 10-7 loss to Kansas City was such a fiasco: When R.A. Dickey relieved Breslow with the bases loaded in the 11th, Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson told him to throw all fastballs because Joe Mauer had never caught a knuckleballer in a game before. Mauer caught Dickey once in the bullpen in Fort Myers, but Gardenhire and Anderson still feared a potential run-scoring wild pitch or passed ball. Instead, Dickey walked his first batter to force in the tie-breaking run and eventually allowed all three runners to score.
This was the same game in which Nick Punto committed the ultimate baseball blunder, tagging up from second on a fly ball to left and getting thrown out to end the sixth inning with Mauer, who was 3-for-3, in the on-deck circle.

The Liddle things
Last Tuesday against Tampa Bay, Brian Buscher, filling in for Justin Morneau at first base, made a nice backhanded pick of a wide one-hop throw from Nick Punto. Buscher isn’t the smoothest fielder, but this wasn’t an accident. During batting practice, bench coach Steve Liddle took a fungo bat behind second base and hit sharp one-hoppers at Buscher, who fielded them as if they were throws.  Morneau said Liddle does that drill with him at least once a home stand, and it’s a big help.
One great hitter to another
So what did three-time batting champion and Twins special assistant Tony Oliva think of Mauer’s spectacular return Friday night, when Mauer homered on his first swing after missing all spring training and the first month of the season? “Lucky,” Oliva said.

He was kidding. Oliva loves Mauer’s swing, and especially his fearlessness.

“He’s not afraid to hit with two strikes,” Oliva said. “Some guys are afraid because they think the pitcher is going to throw them a slider, so they swing early. He waits until he gets the pitch he wants. I never cared what the count was because I knew I could hit.

“I liked him when I first saw him, when he was 18 years old. He’s a talent that comes along once every 20 years.”