Wednesday, December 30, 2009

State of the Rotation

It goes without saying that the starting rotation was one of the most disappointing units on the Twins last season. After the upstart and inexperienced group of young hurlers had come together and helped carry the team to the brink of a postseason berth in 2008, many expected only better things in '09 as the five matured and learned from experience.

Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned. Injuries and ineffectiveness derailed the rotation this past season, and ultimately starting pitching was one of the club's biggest flaws for much of the year as the Twins struggled to stay above the .500 mark.

This big drop-off left many fans yearning for Bill Smith to make meaningful improvements to the starting pitching corps during the offseason; yet, as we prepare to flip our calendars to the new year, the Twins' GM has not made one single external addition at the position. In fact, so far all he's done is remove starting pitching depth, dealing away a potential starting option in Boof Bonser.

Nevertheless, the Twins seem relatively well positioned in the rotation as we look forward to the upcoming season. One key move that Smith did make was offering Carl Pavano arbitration. Failing to find intriguing offers on the free agent market, Pavano and his agent decided to accept the offer, thus ensuring that the August acquisition will figure into the team's plans next year.

With Pavano locked up and Kevin Slowey ready to return from a wrist injury that cost him much of his '09 season, we essentially know how the top four spots in the Twins' rotation are going to shape up:

1. Scott Baker
2. Kevin Slowey
3. Carl Pavano
4. Nick Blackburn

It's not a bad top four. Baker, Slowey and Pavano all basically fall into the same mold: strike-throwing right-handers who post respectable K-rate and are extremely stingy with walks, but will generally allow a fairly high number of hits and homers. Those are good guys to have around, and any one of them is capable of posting a sub-4 ERA, but none are particularly likely to be an ace-caliber performer. And if the hit or home run rates get out of hand for any of them, they could be in for a tough year. Of the three, Slowey likely has the greatest upside given his youth, his outstanding K/BB ratios and his spectacular minor-league track record, but he was inconsistent last year even before going down with an injury so he has much to prove. Blackburn, of course, is a high-contact middle-of-the-rotation guy who has held his own through two big-league seasons but lacks significant upside.

With those four in place, the Twins are left with one spot to fill. While it's conceivable that Smith could go out and find another starter via free agency or trade, it seems somewhat unlikely at this point. The Twins have a handful of guys who could compete for the last spot in the rotation, but given that the four already in place are all right-handed I suspect they'll look to fill that final slot with a southpaw. There are currently three main contenders: Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing.

It is widely believed that Perkins will be moved before this offseason is over, and I'm inclined to agree with that train of thought. Duensing became a crucial contributor down the stretch last year after stepping into a starting role, which likely gives him the advantage over Liriano, who struggled all year long. Of course, considering that none of the four right-handers already entrenched seem to have legitimate top-end potential (with the possible exception of Slowey), Liriano remains an intriguing option since he was throwing like an ace as recently as the second half of 2008.

Right now it seems most likely that the Twins will enter spring training with an open competition for that fifth spot. Liriano and Duensing are shaping up as the main contenders, but if Perkins is still around he'd certainly be in the mix and if the Twins decide they don't care about having a southpaw in the rotation then Anthony Swarzak and Jeff Manship could have a shot as well. If I had to guess right now, I'd say that Duensing will probably open the season in the rotation with Liriano in the bullpen and the rest in the minors (or another organization). But spring training is still a long ways off and there's plenty of time for Smith and the Twins to try and add more clarity to what currently looks like a jumbled picture at the bottom of the rotation.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Waiting Game

General managers across the American League have been relatively busy reconfiguring their teams for the 2010 season. Of particular note are Brian Cashman and Jack Zduriencik, the respective GMs of the Yankees and Mariners, who have both been quite impressive up to this point in the offseason. Cashman has reinforced the roster of the defending World Series champs by bringing in Curtis Granderson and Javier Vazquez in trades that most analysts viewed as lopsided in favor of the Yankees. Meanwhile, Zduriencik has seeked to build on his team's 24-win improvement during his first year as GM by adding Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins. Earlier this week, the M's dealt underperforming former top prospect Brandon Morrow to the Blue Jays for Brandon League in a deal that puzzled many but that I liked given that I've long coveted League.

Meanwhile, Bill Smith and the Twins have been awfully silent. Since making a big early splash by trading Carlos Gomez for J.J. Hardy just a couple days after the World Series, the Twins have been relatively inactive, with the only noteworthy moves coming in the form of an arbitration offer to Carl Pavano (which was accepted) and a minor trade that sent Boof Bonser to the Red Sox for a low-level pitching prospect.

Seeing rival GMs wheel and deal while Smith has remained in the shadows has irked a number of Twins fans, but the reality is that the Twins are probably playing this the right way. Despite the number of significant trades that have gone down, the free agent market has remained stagnant. Several options at positions of need -- including Felipe Lopez, Mark DeRosa and Adrian Beltre -- are still out there, and it seems like agents and teams are waiting for a few early contracts to set the tone before they start hammering out deals. The Twins probably don't have a lot of financial flexibility left to sign additional players, and they almost certainly can't afford to meet the current demands of guys like DeRosa and Beltre. Yet, as time goes by, the prices will only drop. The same is true for potential trades.

I'm not suggesting that the Twins once again wait until late February when the only remaining option is a hobbled and desperate Joe Crede before they start seriously investigating solutions to their infield holes, but fans should show a bit more patience with the front office. Waiting is the right strategy for the time being.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Turning the Tables

Flash back two years, to the winter following the 2007 season.

Just one year removed from capturing the AL pennant, the Detroit Tigers were boldly making their move. During the winter meetings, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal with the Marlins that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Motown in return for a gaudy package of prospects highlighted by Cameron Maybin and Adam Miller. The move came just shortly after Dombrowski had acquired Edgar Renteria from the Braves for a pair of quality pitching prospects.

The Tigers were moving cheap, promising players for established commodities, and were showing little concern with the financial repercussions. A busy offseason for Dombrowski ballooned his team's payroll from $95 million in 2007 to $138 million 2008, positioning them as the highest-spending club in baseball outside of the Yankees.

Meanwhile, the Twins' 07/08 offseason consisted of trading away the league's best pitcher and letting one of their core hitters and clubhouse anchors walk. In both instances, the players were deemed too expensive for the Twins to retain on their limited budget. Despite a few second-tier free agent signings, the Twins saw their budget shrink from $71 million in '07 to $56 million in '08, dropping them into the bottom third of all MLB teams in terms of payroll.

Flash back to present. The Tigers, who fell just a game short of the playoffs this season, are amidst an epic firesale. They shipped off one of their core offensive players in Curtis Granderson and a key starter in Edwin Jackson, fresh off a breakout year. They were forced to let key contributor Placido Polanco walk and weren't even able to offer theType A free agent arbitration and collect valuable draft picks because they couldn't afford the risk of having to pay him several million dollars in 2010 should he accept. There are rumors that the Tigers still aren't done shedding salary, with names like Cabrera and Justin Verlander continuing to spring up in trade speculation.

The nation's economic downturn has hit Detroit hard, and its formerly free-spending baseball club is feeling the effects.

Things look significantly brighter here in Minnesota.

The Twins have ramped up spending recently at an unprecedented level. I wrote last week about how the organization has displayed a dramatic increase in willingness to open the wallet over the past year, whether on the international market (Miguel Angel Sano), in the draft (Kyle Gibson), on players acquired via trade mid-season (Jon Rauch/Orlando Cabrera/Carl Pavano/etc.) or offseason moves (J.J. Hardy/Pavano). In its most recent display of fiscal freedom, the Twins elected to tender contracts to all of their arbitration-eligible players. That includes Jesse Crain, who is in his final year of arbitration and could make close to $3 million after earning $1.7 million this past season. The Twins would have had every excuse to non-tender Crain, given that he's coming off a rather unexceptional year and spending several million dollars on someone who figures to be -- at best -- the third or fourth right-handed option out of the bullpen is a luxury that in the past they've shied away from. Yet, Crain possesses solid upside for next year considering his strong finish this season (2.20 ERA in August/September) and his being almost two years removed from shoulder surgery. That he's seemingly being brought back bodes well.

The Twins' payroll is already approaching $100 million, a notion that seemed borderline absurd on Opening Day this season when that figure sat at $65 million. Even with the big increase in spending that we've already seen, the Twins still claim to have interest in signing another infielder. They also still have yet to work out a new contract for Joe Mauer, which many (including myself) believe they will do before spring training opens next year.

So, the Twins are taking on salary, spending big on international talent, going over-slot to sign draft picks, and likely are on the verge of doling out one of the biggest contracts in league history to retain their star player? All while the rest of the division is pawning off expensive stars and selling out the present for the future in order to cut costs? Is this some sort of parallel universe?

Longtime fans from around these parts can be excused for reacting with some confusion, but what we're seeing are the benefits associated with the move to a new park. I'd posit that these drastic increases may also be attributable in part to a less frugal philosophy held by ownership now that power has shifted from Carl Pohlad -- who passed away early this year -- to his sons.

Whatever the combination of causes, this new situation is a sweet one for Twins fans, and one we've never really experienced before. The Twins still fall far short of the truly big-market clubs, but they're now beginning to resemble a team that can hold its own when it comes to acquiring and retaining talent. This might not put an enormous dent in the disadvantage the Twins feel when trying to measure up to the Yankees and Red Sox of the world, but it puts them in excellent position in an AL Central division where at least three teams are pretty clearly in rebuilding mode.

Right before our eyes, we're seeing the transformation of a franchise. Long known as the division's "Little Engine That Could," the Twins are beginning to emerge as financial heavyweights in the AL Central. As the holidays approach, now seems as apt a time as any for fans to appreciate this unfamiliar feeling.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Winter Meetings Wrap-Up

The winter meetings came to a close yesterday without any meaningful activity from the Twins, which is hardly surprising. Last offseason, it took Bill Smith and Co. until February to make any significant moves, so the fact that the team has already addressed two major areas of need by trading for J.J. Hardy and locking up Carl Pavano for another season should help satisfy hot-stove hungry fans.

Despite the slew of moves that took place this week, plenty of intriguing players remain available in free agency and the Twins have been connected to several trade rumors, so there will be plenty of stuff to track in the coming weeks. With that being said, I expect a lull until at least the turn of the new year.

A few more notes to wrap up the week of winter meetings...

* After designating him for assignment earlier this week, the Twins have traded Boof Bonser to the Red Sox for a player to be named later. This is good in that the Twins would have gotten nothing in return for losing Bonser had he gone unclaimed and become a free agent this weekend, but the player they ultimately receive from Boston will likely be a low-level prospect with marginal upside.

* The Rule 5 draft took place yesterday. The Twins didn't select any players nor have any poached away in the major-league phase. Twins' farmhands Angelo Sanchez and Winston Marquez were both selected in the minor-league phase of the draft, but neither pitcher is a major loss.

* Finally, I did a Twins-related Q&A this week over at the blog SimonOnSports. You can check that out here.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Finite Resources

Even without external additions, the Twins were in line for a healthy bump in payroll next season, with newly arbitration-eligible players and those already under contract due salary increases. The acquisition of J.J. Hardy and the retainment of Carl Pavano only add to this escalating figure. As Joe Christensen noted on his blog yesterday, the Twins' 2010 payroll is already approaching $90 million, and we're not even halfway through December yet.

With these recent additions (not to mention some in-season trades that brought on extra salary), and with the Twins demonstrating an increased willingness to spend on the international market in the draft, fans might be falling into a false sense of security. The club's move to Target Field certainly jolts their ability to spend -- and that's been made clear by the aforementioned aggression in various avenues -- but it doesn't suddenly turn the Twins into a large-market team. A $90 million payroll in 2010 would already represent an increase of roughly $25 million (nearly 40 percent) over the payroll they sported on Opening Day 2009. That's pretty impressive in its own right, and I'm not sure I'd expect much more in terms of added salary.

In fact, we might already be seeing the Twins making some moves to trim salary in the face of these major increases. Yesterday, in order to make room for Pavano on the 40-man roster, the Twins elected to designate Boof Bonser for assignment. That the Twins decided on the arbitration-eligible Bonser rather than, say, the less expensive and less useful Bobby Keppel, would seem to speak volumes. Bonser, who missed the '09 season after undergoing shoulder surgery but was apparently recovered and ready to pitch in September, has been a frustrating pitcher whose results have never matched the quality of his stuff, but he'd shown promising flashes after moving to the bullpen late in 2008 and it's tough to view this move as anything other than money-driven.

I suspect that the Twins are finished addressing the rotation. There's almost certainly not enough money left to sign an established, reliable starter, and I'm guessing there will be enough suitors for the low-risk/high-reward/injury-prone breed (Rich Harden, Ben Sheets, Erik Bedard, etc.) that none of them will come particularly cheap. (Although, if any of them do, the Twins have enough depth that they'd in excellent position to take a flier on one.)

Meanwhile, although at least one hole remains in the Twins' infield and several attractive options remain on the market, I'm beginning to lose faith in the notion that the Twins will actively pursue any of these options as I look over the team's financial particulars. The prices for which players like Marco Scutaro and Chone Figgins have signed thus far suggest that quality infielders like Orlando Hudson and Adrian Beltre might be had for relative bargains, but these players are still likely to cost upwards of $5 million annually and I'm just not sure the Twins have that much left to commit, particularly considering that the Joe Mauer situation still needs to be worked out.

At this point, it seems likely that the Twins will either end up snatching a bargain player like Joe Crede later in the offseason, or trading for a relatively inexpensive solution from another club (a package deal for the Padres' Kevin Kouzmanoff built around Glen Perkins would seem to make a lot of sense, for instance). But if you're expecting any big splashes in the high-profile free agent market, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Pavano Accepts Arbitration

Yesterday marked the deadline for Carl Pavano to decide whether to accept or decline the Twins' arbitration offer, and to my surprise he elected to accept, ensuring that the August acquisition will wear a Twins uniform once again in 2010.

Reports indicate that Pavano and his agent were seeking a multi-year deal from the Twins and other teams, but ultimately didn't get any bites. Rather than running the risk of being forced to settle for another incentive-laden deal with a low base, Pavano decided to make the one-year commitment to the Twins and will likely end up making around $7-$8 million next season.

I say I'm surprised by this outcome because Pavano signed a one-year make good deal last offseason with the Indians, and it seemed to me like he did make good. The historically injury-prone hurler racked up 200 innings without much issue while displaying elite control (his 1.76 BB/9 IP rate ranked second in the AL) and an ability to miss bats (solid 7.2 K/9 IP rate). He even finished his year by putting forth a dazzling performance on the national stage against an offensive powerhouse by holding the Yankees to two runs over seven innings in Game 3 of the ALDS.

My sense was that some pitching-starved club would view these promising signs as meriting a two-year deal, but apparently the past injury problems and the inflated ERA this past season were enough to scare away other general managers.

I have suggested in the past that the Twins bring him back on a two-year, $12 million pact. While such a deal would have likely entailed a lower annual base, retaining Pavano on a one-year commitment is preferable because his historical tendency to get hurt makes any multi-year guarantee a concerning risk.

I concluded about a month ago that "even though Pavano is merely a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter, bringing him back should be a priority." The Twins now have him locked up for next year, and he should be able to combine with Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn to form a very competent 1-through-4 in the rotation. Pavano's relatively high price tag does, however, figure to limit the Twins' financial flexibility over the remainder of the offseason. We'll dig into that predicament later this week.

Friday, December 04, 2009

One Option Off the Table

Just two days after he became a no-strings-attached free agent when the Tigers declined to offer him arbitration, Placido Polanco returned to his erstwhile baseball home by signing a three-year, $18 million contract with the Phillies yesterday.

In my offseason blueprint, I suggested that the Twins sign Polanco to a two-year, $9 million deal. I'm not surprised that I underestimated his annual value (though the $6M rate he got from Philly is not all that much higher than my estimate), but I am a little surprised he got a third year. Polanco is already 33 and it seems like there's a good chance the Phillies will be overpaying him by the end of this deal, particularly if his outstanding defense doesn't hold up while he ages and transitions to regular duty at third base, a position where he has played only 20 percent of his career defensive innings.

I obviously would have liked to see Polanco sign with the Twins, but at that length it probably wouldn't have been a wise move for Bill Smith, and considering how quickly the second baseman inked with the Phillies it seems likely that he was eager to return to the town where he broke into the big leagues anyway.

Orlando Hudson and Felipe Lopez remain as attractive but likely spendy high-end options at second base. On the next tier, you still have guys like Jamey Carroll and Adam Kennedy. Of course, Adrian Beltre also remains as a potential option at third base, with Nick Punto sticking at second.

Even with a desirable option off the board in the form of Polanco, many potential solutions to the Twins' infield vacancy remain on the board. Much depends on how much they're willing to spend, and how aggressive Smith is willing to be in his pursuit. I suspect we'll start to learn more about both of those uncertainties next week when the MLB Winter Meetings kick off.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Setting Sights at Second

I was mistaken in yesterday's post when I posited that the deadline to offer arbitration to free agent eligible players fell on Monday night; it actually fell last night. As expected, the Twins did indeed offer arbitration to Type B free agent Carl Pavano, so now Pavano will have the opportunity to either except and return to the Twins on a one-year deal (likely worth around $7 million) or hit the open market. Should he decline arbitration and sign elsewhere, Pavano would net the Twins a supplemental pick in next June's draft. Either outcome is a fairly beneficial one for the Twins, and as such Bill Smith's move to acquire Pavano in August is looking like a savvy one.

Perhaps the more interesting development from yesterday's deadline, though, is that neither Placido Polanco nor Orlando Hudson were offered arbitration by their respective clubs. Both Polanco and Hudson qualified as Type A free agents, but with the Tigers and Dodgers electing not to offer arbitration, signing them will not cost a draft pick. These are both players that the Twins should be extremely interested in; they're veteran second basemen whose offensive skills make them well suited to bat second and who are very competent in the field. My offseason blueprint suggested that the Twins tab Polanco, but I'd have absolutely no problem with Hudson, who I pushed hard for last offseason.

The Twins have been awfully quiet since they traded for J.J. Hardy just after the conclusion of the World Series, but with the Winter Meetings fast approaching the time has come for Bill Smith and Co. to once again ratchet up their offseason dealings. Honing in on Polanco and Hudson should be among their very highest priorities.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Catching Up

It's been quite around these parts lately, but frankly there just hasn't been a whole lot to write about. Let's quickly catch up on a couple Twins tidbits.

* A small blurb near the bottom of Charley Walters' Sunday column in the Pioneer Press reads as follows: "It's unclear what it will take for Joe Mauer to re-sign with the Twins before he can become a free agent after next season. A little birdie says, though, that any offer for fewer than seven years won't do it."

Now, it's worth noting that historically any statement in a Walters column that is sourced to "a little birdie" has often been a baseless fabrication, but the sentiment here seems to be on track. The Twins can't reasonably afford to pay Mauer the same annual salary that a team like New York or Boston might be able to, so odds are they will have to win him over with length. I suggested in the GM Handbook that the Twins sign Mauer to an eight-year, $150 million deal, which would essentially add up to a seven-year extension since my proposed contract tears up the end of his current deal and begins next season.

That might seem like an awfully lengthy deal, particularly for a catcher, but it's worth noting that Mauer would still only be 34 such a contract expired. There are few scenarios in which I can imagine the Twins would want to let Mauer leave before he reaches that age, and even in the event that he does begin to wear down as he reaches his mid-30s, I think that's something the Twins should be willing to stomach in return for locking up a likely Hall of Fame player during his prime years at a reduced cost.

* Speaking of Mauer, I'm guessing there are a number of female fans around this fine state that are wishing this would have happened to him rather than a division rival's studly marquis player.

* Doubtlessly any Twins fans who were forced to endure Chip Caray's awful play-by-play during Game 163 and the ALDS this year will surely be pleased with this news.

* I believe that last night marked the deadline for offering arbitration to free agency eligible players, but as I write this I've not yet heard whether or not the Twins offered to Carl Pavano. My assumption is that they did, since he's a Type B free agent and the reward of receiving a supplemental draft pick should he sign elsewhere more than outweighs the risk of having to pay him around $7 million on a one-year deal (which might not even really be a bad thing).