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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #8: The Minnesota Twins

I didn't watch many Twins games until late in the season, but in September and October I discovered that Minnesota had fielded a very compelling, likable team, albeit one that was obviously flawed. That the Twinkies were able to make it as far as they did, despite carrying one of baseball's worst rotations and several automatic outs at the back-end of their lineup, is a testament to Ron Gardenhire's leadership and also to the superior quality of the Twins bullpen and the top half of their lineup. It became clear, especially in the ALDS, that if you looked at only the best half dozen or so players on each team, the Twins were as good as the Yankees, or any other team in league for that matter. It was their lack of depth which proved to be their undoing. Minnesota's front office will be looking to improve at several positions before they open Target Field in 2010, but the Twins, never exactly a free-spending franchise, may be even more cash-strapped this winter as they protect the reserves necessary to sign Joe Mauer to the nine-figure deal which seems an inevitability.

During the last seven seasons the Twins have consistently maintained a payroll between $55 and $65 Million. Mauer's next contract will almost certainly earn him nearly $20 Million a season, as much as a third of Minnesota's limited resources. Add to that the $14 Million a year that Justin Morneau will be making through the 2013 season and it's utterly apparent that unless Minnesota commits to a considerable budget increase, they are going to have no financial flexibility. The signing of Mauer completely eliminates any possibility of retaining guys like Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Joe Nathan, and J. J. Hardy, all of whom will be eligible for free agency in the next two years, and it precludes Minnesota's ability to compete for the top tiers of free agents for the next four or five seasons at least. Can Minnesota bring home division titles, much less championships, when two players eat up 60% of the payroll?

On the other hand, letting Mauer walk is publicity suicide. He is the definition of a franchise player, a guy who not only dominates on the field, but has cultivated a personal connection with the community. Albert Pujols is probably the only analogous baseball player in today's game. In all honesty, probably the best place to look for a situation which resembles Mauer's is Cleveland, where the impending free agency of Lebron James is also haunting a city. Players like these are worth almost any amount of money. You not only build teams around them, but stadiums and brands, the material benefits of which will last even beyond the player's career. Ask the Chicago Bulls, or the Baltimore Orioles.

Free Agents:

Orlando Cabrera (35) SS
Joe Crede (32) 3B
Ron Mahay (39) RHRP
Carl Pavano (34) RHSP
Mike Redmond (39) C

Arbitration Eligible:

Boof Bonser (28) RHSP
Jesse Crain (28) RHRP
Matt Guerrier (31) RHRP
J. J. Hardy (27) SS
Brendan Harris (29) SS/3B
Francisco Liriano (26) LHRP
Pat Neshek (29) RHRP
Delmon Young (24) LF

ETA 2010?:

Justin Huber (27) 1B/DH
Jeff Manship (25) RHSP
Jason Pridie (26) CF
Anthony Swarzak (24) RHSP

The Twins ability to duplicate their 2009 success will be predicated primarily upon the health and effectiveness of their starting rotation. Three of Minnesota's best young pitchers - Kevin Slowey, Boof Bonser, and Pat Neshek - missed all or most of 2009 with injuries. Two others, Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins, struggled to regain the command and control they had displayed in previous seasons. If you had told Ron Gardenhire in April that Brian Duensing would be a key member of his September rotation, he probably would've assumed the Twins had long since lost any hope of contention. If at least a couple of their young guns can rebound, taking the pressure off Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn, than the Twins will have a formidable rotation. Also, prospects Anthony Swarzak and Jeff Manship have both showed enough promise to offer Twins fans some solace in the event of another rash of injuries.

In addition to Mauer, who doesn't actually qualify for free agency until next year, the Twins have three major contractual decisions this winter. The most pressing is clearly Orlando Cabrera. OC was the sparkplug during the stretch run last fall, after being acquired from the A's, and provided some postseason heroics to boot. Gardenhire publicly applauded his veteran presence. The acquistion of J. J. Hardy, however, leaves Cabrera without a position. The Twins have suggested they would be willing to negotiate with him if he would consider moving to second base, but the former Gold Glove winner has understandable reservations. Cabrera and his agent gained considerable leverage this week when the Twins decided not to offer him arbitration, which means negotiations with other teams will not be hampered by his A designation and dramatically reduces the chances of his resigning with Minnesota.

The Twins may pursue alternatives like Orlando Hudson or Placido Polanco, but more likely will choose to either role the dice again on Alexi Casilla, who had a tough year in '09 but is still very young, or hand the position to the defensively spectacular, but offensively-challenged Nick Punto.

One could argue that Minnesota's needs at third base are even more pressing. In 2009, the Twins got next to nothing from the hot corner. Joe Crede's back kept him out of the lineup most of the year and hampered him when he was in it. His replacements - Punto, Matt Tolbert, Brian Buscher, and Brendan Harris - were considerably worse, none of them achieving an OPS above 675 (league average = 763). There are an abundance of affordable third basemen available. The Twins could gamble on a power bat coming off an injury, like Crede, Aubrey Huff, or Troy Glaus. They could go a more defensively-minded direction with Pedro Feliz. Or for a little more money they could woo a more well-rounded veteran like Adrian Beltre or Miguel Tejada. My guess is that they'll go cheap and risky.

The final and probably least critical decision for Twins management is whether or not to retain Carl Pavano. Pavano made a dozen starts for the Twinks after arriving via a trade with the Indians last summer. He was hardly dominant (4.64 ERA), but he looked like a prototypical innings-eater, going six or more in ten of his twelve starts. On a staff that has tons of talent, but no pitcher older than 28, Pavano could be an inexpensive stabilizing presence.

Recent history has been pretty good to teams opening new ballparks. In 2006 the Cardinal christened the new Busch Stadium with a championship and last year the Yankees did the same in inauguration of their latest launching pad. Twins fans must hope that Target Field resembles these precedents rather than those of Citi Field (2009) and Nationals Park (2008).

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster (Revised 1/1):

CF Denard Span (L)
SS J. J. Hardy (R)
C Joe Mauer (L)
1B Justin Morneau (L)
RF Michael Cuddyer (R)
DH Jason Kubel (L)
3B Troy Glaus (R) FA
LF Delmon Young (R)
2B Nick Punto (S)

SP Scott Baker (R)
SP Kevin Slowey (R)
SP Carl Pavano (R)
SP Nick Blackburn (R)
SP Francisco Liriano (L)

CL Joe Nathan (R)
SU Jon Rauch (R)
SU Matt Guerrier (R)
LOOGY Jose Mijares (L)
MR Pat Neshek (R)
MR Jesse Crain (R)
SWING Brian Duensing (L)

C Jose Morales (S)
IF Brendan Harris (R)
IF Matt Tolbert (S)
OF Jason Pridie (L)

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