A Healthy Justin Morneau Is Key For Minnesota Twins Future

FORT MYERS, FL - MARCH 05: Infielder Justin Morneau #33 of the Minnesota Twins takes batting practice just before the start of the Grapefruit League Spring Training Game against the Boston Red Sox during at Hammond Stadium on March 5, 2012 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

With Opening Day just around the corner, the Minnesota Twins are surrounded by cautious optimism as they head into the 2012 season. Their biggest reason for concern is the fragile future of Justin Morneau.

Opening Day is one of the greatest times of the sports year. The Boys of Summer begin to occupy the diamond once again for the unrelenting 162-game marathon that is the Major League Baseball season. Hope spreads in every direction like springtime foliage. Fans of all 30 MLB teams dare to dream that this year could be the year that gritty April victories gradually turn into glorious October triumphs. (Well, maybe not Astros fans. But fans of just about every other team allow themselves to dream.)

So why does it feel like every Twins fan is already holding their breath before a single pitch has been thrown?

After a completely forgettable 99-loss 2011 campaign, it's hard to blame Minnesota fans for being a little gun shy. It was an absolute Murphy's Law of a season. The pitching was consistently inconsistent. The bats were way too scarce to string together wins. And the injuries--oh, the injuries.

The Twins had a payroll of over $112 million in 2011. Over 40% of that money went to their two highest-paid players, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. And while hindsight may disagree, it's hard to blame the Twins' front office for investing so heavily in their two cornerstone players. But when your two best players play only 151 games combined, many of which at less than 100%, negative consequences are inevitable.

But 2012 is a new year, right? The past is the past. Both Mauer and Morneau are back playing at Spring Training. Shouldn't hope conquer all this time of year?

Well, sort of. When it comes to Mauer, the outlook seems to be fairly rosy. The all-world catcher appears to be back to normal and in great spirits heading into the new season. Nobody expects Mauer behind the plate for 150 games, but there's good reason to believe he'll get much more than the 296 at-bats he had last year. As for his Canadian teammate? Unfortunately, nobody really knows.

My colleague Jesse Lund did an excellent job of explaining how moving Morneau to designated hitter could help keep his bat in the lineup. Giving him a break from his fielding duties should add to his longevity in theory. But let's face it--the guy is one bad bump or tweak or strain away from possibly being forced into early retirement. There's so much caution surrounding the once-mighty slugger that the Twins should just show a giant flashing yellow light on the right field screen of Target Field every time he comes to the plate. Morneau is supposed to be an indestructible force that pumps iron with bears, not someone that has had to deal with an increasingly awful string of scary injuries.

Morneau's tenuous outlook has become a microcosm of the upcoming season for the Twins. Every cause for optimism is quickly followed by a "yeah, but". They have some promising young talent--yeah, but they might not be ready for prime time. They have some pitching poised for bounce-back seasons--yeah, but they're dealing with injury problems and struggles of their own. They have some good depth and new faces in the outfield--yeah, but nobody knows how they're going to line up in the field or the batting order.

And so it goes for Twins fans. While other fans are giddy with anticipation, we seem to be flinching, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But with the Vikings, Timberwolves, and Wild going through their current tribulations, we should at least be used to it by now.

For more on the Minnesota Twins, check out Twinkie Town. You can also head over to SB Nation’s main MLB hub at Baseball Nation.

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