Monday, December 20, 2010

Tsuyoshi Nishioka: Hope vs. Expectations

When the Twins held a press conference on Saturday afternoon to officially announce the signing of Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, space was scarce. Patrick Reusse put the frenzy into perspective: "The formal interview room, which was built with the idea of hosting the media crowds for postseason games, was jammed to the point CEO Jim Pohlad took in the event while standing against the far wall."

Yes, the Nishioka era has begun in Minnesota, now that he and the Twins have officially reached agreement on a three-year, $9 million deal (with a $4 million option for 2014). Accounting for the $5.3 million posting fee and $250,000 option buyout, the Twins' commitment to Nishioka essentially amounts to $15 million. That's no chump change, but the team will likely find it a sound investment from a financial standpoint. The addition of a star Japanese player -- the first in franchise history -- will help build excitement among the fan base while greatly increasing the Twins' international appeal.

The more important question for hardcore fans is whether the team will find Nishioka's three-year contract a sound investment from a competitive standpoint.

I hope they do. I hope Nishioka can present an exciting new dynamic for the Twins' lineup, adding himself to a select list of successful transitions from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) to the major leagues. I hope he becomes an asset at the plate and in the field, and a fan favorite. I hope that by the time he's eligible for free agency in three years, he's a hot commodity.

But hopes are different from expectations. And I'd be lying if I said I expected any of that. There's just too much evidence leading me in the other direction.

Nishioka catapulted himself to a new level of stardom by winning the Pacific League batting title last year, hitting .346/.423/.482 with 11 home runs, 59 RBI and 22 stolen bases as a 25-year-old. He is also a five-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glover. These numbers have been widely touted by folks trying to stir up excitement over his acquisition, but they overlook an important fact: the level of play in NPB is roughly equivalent to Triple-A, and it's possible that even that's being generous.

As an example, consider the case of Matt Murton.  You might remember his name; he was a rather unexceptional big-league outfielder who scraped together a .286/.352/.436 career line while spending time with the Cubs, Athletics and Rockies -- mostly as a backup. Prior to the 2010 season, he signed a contract with the Hanshin Tigers of NPB and in his first year there he hit .349/.395/.499 with 17 home runs and 91 RBI over 144 games. As a major-leaguer, Murton had managed just 29 home runs and 112 RBI in 346 games.

If Nishioka can approximate Murton's big-league production while adding strong defense, he'd be a great get. But Nishioka's 2010 season stands as an outlier in an otherwise unspectacular NPB career. In the three years prior, he'd amassed a .287/.361/.427 line; while those numbers aren't bad, no one would get excited about seeing them from a Triple-A player. It is possible that Nishioka, who's just entering his prime years, turned a corner this past summer, but his production was largely fueled by his high batting average, which itself was propped up by an unsustainable .389 batting average on balls in play. Before 2010, he was a .284 career hitter.

Unless Nishioka carries over his great luck from this past year or makes meaningful improvements at the plate, his realistic upside is probably league-average offensive production (last year, for second basemen, that equated to .265/.330/.389). That kind of performance would be worth the price tag if it's coupled with above-average defense. But what to expect from Nishioka defensively is anyone's guess.

The fact that he's won three Japanese Gold Gloves, two of them at shortstop, should be taken with a grain of salt. Kaz Matsui won four NPB Gold Gloves, all at shortstop, but his defense at the position was considered so dreadful in the States that he was moved to second after one season. As another example, Akinori Iwamura won six Gold Gloves in Japan and was considered an ordinary fielder here.

Of course, the fact that neither of those players excelled defensively in the majors doesn't mean Nishioka can't. The Twins have always placed considerable value on infield defense, and likely wouldn't have made this bold move if their scouts didn't think he was capable. It's just important to keep in mind that, historically, great defensive reputations have not often carried over from NPB to MLB.

It's easy to get caught up in the Nishioka hype. He adds a unique new aspect to the franchise, he fills up press conferences and he's starred in an Adidas "Impossible is Nothing" ad. But among all that glitz and glamor, there's also the viewpoint of former MLB and NPB pitcher C.J. Nitkowski, who reacted to the lucrative signing by remarking that "AAA & AAAA middle infielders are wishing they were Japanese imports." (In other words, stating that Nishioka's talent level is really no different from an American player who stands out at Triple-A but isn't quite fit to be a regular in the major leagues.)

I want Nitkowski to be wrong. My hopes for Nishioka are set high. But my expectations are set considerably lower, to the point that he'd exceed them by turning into a league-average MLB middle-infielder.

Those expectations aren't very exciting, I suppose. But hey, that's what hope is for.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

No Relief

Jesse Crain signed a three-year, $13 million contract with the White Sox yesterday, officially ending a seven-year tenure with the Twins that was filled with ups and downs.

"Kenny Williams said I had been a pain in their butt the last couple of years and wanted to get me on their side," Crain told Charley Walters of the Pioneer Press. 

I bet I can pinpoint the exact moment that the White Sox decided they wanted to add the right-handed reliever. It was mid-September, and they were facing the Twins in Chicago while clinging to very slim postseason hopes. Trailing by one in the seventh, the Sox had loaded the bases with one out for their No. 4 and 5 hitters. Crain, amidst the best four-month stretch of pitching in his career, unleashed a barrage of nasty sliders and 95 mph fastballs on Paul Konerko and Manny Ramirez, striking them both out to end Chicago's threat and essentially their season. 

Two days later, I penned an article about Crain labeling him the team's "bullpen ace." It's what he was for the Twins from mid-May to the end of the year -- a guy you could rely on to come in and get outs in the most sticky of situations. On the surface, that's a very tough piece to lose. 

This isn't necessarily a traumatic development, though. In fact, it might ultimately benefit the Twins. They'll get a supplemental pick in the 2011 draft since Crain was a Type B free agent, and meanwhile one of their top divisional rivals is committing $13 million in guaranteed money to a guy who was rightfully being called "Crainwreck" by fans as recently as May of this year.  

When Crain's going good, he's a powerful weapon in the bullpen. But he's been prone to stretches of abysmal performance and 2010 was the first time he's posted a WHIP below 1.37 since 2006. He was a non-tender candidate last offseason, had a 7.31 ERA in mid-May of this year and now he's getting a three-year deal in a deep relief market? I'd have liked to bring Crain back, but with the Sox offering a contract like that the Twins were wise not to even consider matching it. 

Matt Guerrier also came off the market yesterday, signing a three-year deal with the Dodgers. He's been mostly effective over the past four years but his arm has seen more wear than any other reliever in baseball during that span. While his durability will be missed, it's tough to justify the kind of contract Guerrier got from Los Angeles. 

Right now, the Twins' bullpen situation looks bleak, yet I'm probably less concerned about the depth of this unit than the rotation or lineup. The market for relievers is flush this winter, unlike starting pitchers and middle infielders, so the Twins can afford to show patience and wait until January or even February when solid arms will still be available and likely without the need to make dangerous three-year commitments.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Shallow Waters

In 2010, the nine members of the Twins' Opening Day lineup missed a total of 319 games. The reasons differed -- injury, performance, routine days off -- but that's an awfully large number of games missed by players that the Twins expected to be regular contributors at the outset of the season.

We can point to a variety of reasons for the Twins' success in a 94-win season, but one that stands out above all others is excellent depth across the board.

You could see it in the lineup. When Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy were nicked up, Alexi Casilla was there to step in with solid interim performance. When Nick Punto and Brendan Harris couldn't hack it at third, Danny Valencia took over with a tremendous rookie campaign. When Justin Morneau went down, Jim Thome became a lineup staple and picked up the slack.

You could see it in the pitching staff, too. When Nick Blackburn earned himself a demotion to Triple-A, Brian Duensing helped keep the rotation afloat with strong outing after strong outing. When Joe Nathan went down in spring training, Jon Rauch (and subsequently Matt Capps) filled his shoes, and the bullpen's overall depth enabled the team to sustain the loss of its closer with virtually no ill effect.

If there's one thing that troubles me in taking a preliminary glance at the 2011 roster, it's a disturbing lack of depth.

Should Casilla or Tsuyoshi Nishioka struggle or get hurt, the top backups right now are Matt Tolbert and Trevor Plouffe. Should Mauer miss extended time, the Twins will be regularly trotting out one of the worst hitters in the major leagues in Drew Butera. Should Morneau be unable to go, we're looking at another summer of Michael Cuddyer at first and Jason Kubel in right. Should a starting pitcher struggle or go down, the Twins would almost have to look to 23-year-old prospect Kyle Gibson, ready or not. Don't even get me started on the bullpen, where there isn't one player you can confidently call a major-league pitcher past Capps, Jose Mijares and a recovering Nathan.

I believe that the starting nine currently slated to take the field in 2011 can absolutely be playoff-caliber -- yes, even without Hardy. What I worry about is what happens if those projected starters miss another 300 games. Or even 200. While not impossible, it's a stretch to believe that someone like Tolbert or Plouffe or Jason Repko is going to be able to step in as a competent regular over a lengthy period of time should a starting player go down or slump badly. Similar things can be said about the rotation and bullpen.

Of course, the good news is that we're in mid-December and there's still plenty of time to address these depth concerns. What's not clear is how much funding is available to do so. Trading Hardy and Harris cleared about $7.5 million from the payroll, but that money will only go so far. For instance, it would only cover a portion of Carl Pavano's salary, and while that signing would shore up rotation depth it would leave a host of issues remaining to be addressed in the bullpen and around the field.

As of now, the Twins have right around $100 million committed to the 2010 payroll. That's about where they were this year, so it will be interesting to see how much higher they're willing to go in the quest to build depth.

At first base, will the Twins invest in a righty-swinging backup who can provide legitimate Morneau insurance while also protecting Kubel from southpaws at DH? (Paging Derrek Lee...)

What about the rest of the infield? With question marks all around the diamond, the Twins will likely yearn for a strong defensive backup who can cover any position. In other words, there's a high probability that Punto is re-signed. (Sorry gang.)

What about the bullpen? Bill Smith can play coy and act like he's comfortable with what he's got, but let's think about that for a minute. Last year he was so uncomfortable with a bullpen that included Rauch, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier (now all free agents) that he felt the need to trade away a top prospect and spend millions in adding both Capps and Brian Fuentes. Now he's pretending to be comfortable with Pat Neshek as a potential setup man? Right. My guess is that the Twins re-sign one of Crain and Guerrier and then wait until January or February to see what kind of bargains they can get on leftovers from a deep relief market. Not a bad strategy, all things considered.

In the rotation, it sounds as though the Twins have their sights set on Pavano, but one has to wonder whether they can afford to spend close to $10 million on him alone with so many other needs to address. Maybe they can backload his contract, or maybe they'll have to look elsewhere. It's hard to imagine they'd be comfortable going forward with only five proven starters, particularly with the performance issues of Blackburn and the injury issues of Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey.

Finally, what of Thome? Everyone would love to have him back, but if he wants $3-4 million, can the Twins afford to spend it on a guy who can't field a position and is somewhat redundant with players they already have? He's the definition of a luxury, which is a lot more palatable at $1.5 million than twice that much.

These are questions to keep in mind as the offseason progresses.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Three-Bagger: Greinke, Hardy & Speed

"Three-Bagger" is a new feature I'll be running here from time to time. It refers to posts, like the one below, where I briefly cover three different topics rather than dedicating an entire lengthy entry to one subject.

* Joel Sherman of the New York Post and Jerry Crasnick of both suggested today that the Yankees aren't interested in trading for Zack Greinke because they don't believe he'd deal well with the pressure of pitching in New York. That's amusing because so many Twins fans have been clamoring for the team to pursue Greinke, reasoning that he'd be the true bulldog "ace" that Liriano isn't. Incidentally, the Yankees have apparently inquired about the availability of Liriano.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'd take Liriano over Greinke as my No. 1 starter on a contending team. That's not to say I wouldn't love to add Greinke to the Twins' rotation, but people who think he'd automatically solve the supposed "ace" dilemma aren't seeing things very clearly.

* Today's bitter J.J. Hardy fact: His .714 OPS last year ranks as the highest for a Minnesota shortstop who played 100-plus games since Cristian Guzman in 2001. For being such a replaceable commodity in the eyes of many, Hardy's production was awfully rare around these parts.

* The Twins supposedly are focused on increasing team speed this offseason. They claim that it's the main reason they've elected to part with both of their starting middle infielders from 2010. Yet, both Hardy and Orlando Hudson rated extremely well defensively, helping contribute to the Twins' No. 6 ranking among MLB teams in UZR. Among those clubs that finished among the top 10 in UZR, five made the playoffs. The Giants, who ranked second, won the World Series. Meanwhile, only one team ranking in the bottom 10 reached the postseason -- the Braves, who were ousted in the first round with ease.

On the flip side, three of the five lowest-ranked teams in stolen bases made the playoffs last year. That includes the Giants, who ranked dead last. Only one playoff team -- the Rays -- ranked among the top five in stolen bases.

If you believe their claims, the Twins' front office seems to think they can improve their 94-win team by subtracting defensive proficiency and adding foot speed. That's a shaky proposition based on the way things played out last year. Whether or not you put much stock into UZR as a statistic, it was clearly more closely correlated with success this past year than stolen bases. 

Of course, I don't really buy the rhetoric from the front office, and believe (and hope) their decisions this offseason have been guided almost entirely by a desire to cut costs.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Hardy Trade Cripples Infield Depth

Over the past two years, we've seen the Twins do nothing but spend, spend, spend. During the 2009 season, they added Orlando Cabrera, Jon Rauch and Carl Pavano, taking on salary in each deal. In the ensuing offseason, they traded for J.J. Hardy, retained Pavano at a relatively high price, signed Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome, and handed Joe Mauer one of the largest contracts in baseball history. Last season, they traded for Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes during the summer, again taking on millions in additional salary. Then, at the outset of this offseason, we saw them outbid all other clubs for the negotiation rights to a premier Japanese player, who they intend to sign.

At some point, this ride had to come to a stop. The Twins are obviously enjoying much more financial freedom with the backing of Target Field, but payroll wasn't going to keep escalating forever. Today, we saw it come to a thundering halt with the trade of J.J. Hardy and Brendan Harris to the Orioles for a pair of minor-league pitchers. The move was clearly a flat-out salary dump, and be assured, shaving a few million dollars from the payroll is the only positive thing it accomplishes.

After finding himself demoted not only from the major-league roster but also the 40-man roster during the 2010 season, Brendan Harris was owed $1.75 million next year as a result of a misguided contract handed to him last winter. The team's motives in moving him (while eating only $500,000 of his salary) aren't hard to figure out.

As for Hardy, Bill Smith's claim that "the driving force in trading the shortstop was the desire for a faster lineup" is either intended to mislead or demonstrative of some really poor logic. The Twins ranked fifth in the American League last year in runs scored despite down years from several key players (Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Jason Kubel) and costly injuries to two starters (Hardy and Justin Morneau). What the Twins needed to improve their already solid offensive production was better health; there's little evidence that a lack of speed was all that detrimental. 

I've come to have a lot of respect for Smith's judgment as a general manager, so I'm going to go ahead and assume his statements were only meant to mask a fact that would not be well received by the public: the Twins have hit a financial wall. 

The two pitchers received in the trade, Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey, should not be viewed as locks to make the big-league roster next year by any means. They're preferable to the brand of pitching prospect the Twins have often targeted in past trades, in that they throw hard and can miss some bats. But Jacobson is a 24-year-old who hasn't pitched above Single-A and Hoey, while capable of racking up tons of strikeouts, has issued a staggering 66 walks in 100 innings over the past two years at Double-A and Triple-A (think Juan Morillo). 

At best, these pitchers will be a couple additional question marks to throw into a 2011 bullpen mix that's already full of them. And in giving away a player who -- when healthy -- is a legitimate MLB starting shortstop (anyone who thinks Hardy isn't above average simply hasn't looked at the numbers of his peers), the Twins are apparently committing to a pair of question marks in the middle infield. There's no telling how the numbers of Tsuyoshi Nishioka, slated to start at second, will translate to the States. And we have little reason to believe that Casilla is suited to start at shortstop in the major leagues. He rates terribly at the position defensively, has never played 100 games in a big-league season and holds a .249/.306/.327 career hitting line in the majors. 

If the Twins couldn't afford to pay Hardy around $6 million next year, then they couldn't afford it. But it didn't have to be that way. Due to past mistakes, they're locked into paying Cuddyer $10.5 million and Capps $7 million or more. While I like the sentiment behind signing Nishioka, I don't like the idea of replacing an established commodity in Hardy with an unknown for the sake of saving a few million bucks. And if they go out and spend a bunch of money on re-signing Pavano, which they are reportedly making a "strong push" to do, this move looks dramatically worse. It means that the Twins had the money to retain Hardy, and that they're comfortable bringing back a pitch-to-contact, ground ball pitcher while removing two Gold Glove caliber defenders from their infield.

You pay for reliability. It's why the Yankees are in the playoffs every single year. Now, while their payroll is far from embarrassing, the Twins find themselves up against some financial limitations, due to escalating salaries and misallocation of funds. As a result, they're going to head into the 2011 season with several serious question marks that could potentially contribute to the team's demise.

In my opinion, the chances of either Casilla or Nishioka (or both) becoming liabilities as everyday players are much greater than the chances of either pitcher received in this trade making the team's bullpen significantly better next year. Perhaps down the line this deal will look better than it does right now, but as things stand this is probably the most disappointed I've been with any move during Smith's tenure as GM.

The Twins may be a large-market team in name at this point, but their inability to retain Hardy and carry some quality infield depth into the 2011 season is what differentiates them from the true big spenders out east, and it's the exact type of thing that will keep them from ever being able to surpass the Yankees in team talent.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Bullpen Dreams

One of the most annoying parts of the offseason is that we, as fans, are often given so little to work with that we are forced to dissect and interpret quotes that -- in their original context -- might bear very little meaning.

When asked about the state of the Twins' bullpen yesterday, Bill Smith gave a rather unsettling answer:
"Sometimes your best bet, rather than go out and get a third baseman, your best bet is to bring up Valencia and give him a chance," Smith said. "And we always like to do that. We love to bring players out of our system if they can help us win."

He added, "Perkins and Neshek and Nathan are three guys that would be great wild cards for us, because Perkins and Neshek pitched all season in Triple-A, or most of the season in Triple-A, and Nathan not at all."

"So if we can get Nathan back, competitive, to anywhere close to where he was, if we can get Neshek back to where he was several years ago -- and this would be the second year after Tommy John surgery. And Perkins threw the ball well in September, and had some stints of throwing the ball very well in Rochester."
My hope is that this is one of those offhand remarks that doesn't accurately reflect the mindset of the front office. Because if Smith and Co. are remotely comfortable with the bullpen pieces they currently have in place, they're out of their minds.

I don't mean to draw any unflattering Tim Brewster comparisons, but in the above quote Smith sounds like a used car salesman. Who does he think he's fooling? Pat Neshek and Glen Perkins spent most of 2010 in Triple-A because they were both completely ineffective and neither has proven to be fully recovered from their latest injuries. A "competitive" Joe Nathan is not exactly the jolt needed for a bullpen containing nothing but question marks past Matt Capps and Jose Mijares. The unit, as it currently stands, is exceedingly thin even if Nathan returns at full strength. And as Neshek's 2010 campaign proved, that first year back from Tommy John surgery can bring its share of tribulations.

There's no Danny Valencia caliber player ready to step into the Twins' bullpen and make us all forget about Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier. It's possible that Anthony Slama -- a strikeout machine with questionable control -- could make a positive impact, but the organization has never seemed all that high on him and it's telling that Smith would rather mention Perkins, who has compiled a 5.71 ERA between the majors and minors over the past two seasons. Beyond Slama, the Twins have zero relief prospects in the organization with the kind of numbers that would indicate they're ready to step in and handle late-inning duties for the big-league club.

I'm sure Smith must realize the gravity of the team's bullpen situation, so most likely I'm just over-analyzing a harmless early December quote. Still, for the sake of my blood pressure Bill, please refrain from making similar comments in the future.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Myth of Injury-Prone

A tweet on Friday afternoon from Kirsten Brown, administrator of K-Bro's Baseball Blog, posed the following question:
Hey baseball fans, what's your definition of "injury-prone"?
Kirsten was wondering about the amount of time a player would have to miss on average to bear that description in people's minds, but lately I've been thinking more about the term itself. What does "injury-prone" really mean, and how often is it assigned unfairly?

It's a buzzword that's been used a lot recently in connection with J.J. Hardy, who looms as one of this offseason's biggest question marks. Beat writer La Velle E. Neal III wrote over the weekend that the team plans on starting Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla up the middle next year and that the Twins have already discussed a Hardy trade with "about six teams."

Many fans have expressed that they won't be sorry to see Hardy go, citing his inability to stay healthy as a fatal annoyance. Among them is my typically level-headed friend Twins Geek, who doesn't "trust" Hardy to stay healthy, and lists the following separate ailments as evidence that the shortstop is a ticking time-bomb: "Back issue in 2009, played 115 games. 2010, 101 games. 2006, just 35 games, for ankle. 2004, shoulder, missed almost all."

I'm wondering if the intimation here is that Hardy's bones are somehow more brittle than the average player, or that his tendons and muscles are abnormally weak. Is there any other way to explain this innate proneness to differing injuries? I don't think anyone who's watched him can claim that Hardy plays the game in an especially reckless manner; heck, the wrist injury that plagued him last year was a fluke suffered on a routine feet-first slide.

While posting stellar numbers in 2007 and 2008, Hardy missed very little time (11 and 16 games, respectively). Over the past two seasons, he has missed a total of 87 games (accounting for time spent in the minors). If missing significant time in two consecutive seasons because of separate injuries qualifies a player as fragile, then I guess you can tag any player on the Twins' roster, save for a few.

Joe Mauer missed the entire month of April in 2009 due to a lower back injury. This year, he missed even more games due to a variety of different ailments. 

Justin Morneau was lost for all of September in 2009 because of a fractured vertebrae. This year a concussion knocked him out for the entire second half.

Back and thumb issues caused Michael Cuddyer to miss 18 games and sapped his power in 2007; he missed more than half the next season due to a cocktail of new injuries. (Cuddyer, by the way, has missed only 14 games total in two years since).

The list goes on, but there's your three top paid position players and they've all had lengthy stretches where they've had a hard time staying on the field. As a result, they've battled accusations of being "injury-prone," as if they're doing something wrong by getting hurt. Fans are painting some of the world's most pristine athletes out to be Samuel L. Jackson's character from "Unbreakable."

The reality is that these guys are playing a fast-moving sport at the highest level, where it's pretty easy to get hurt. Obviously they would like to avoid spending time on the disabled list but not everyone can be so lucky. In fact, very few players are lucky enough to evade major injury for several years in a row. 

There are certain cases in which the injury-prone label makes sense. For example, when a player is perpetually bothered by the same ailment (Joe Crede comes to mind quickly). In addition, it has been proven -- and makes sense -- that players are more susceptible to injury as they age.

But am I supposed to believe that Hardy's bad luck with past injuries somehow makes him more likely than another player to miss significant time in the upcoming season? Assuming that his major wrist injury and minor knee injury from 2010 are in the rear-view mirror -- as Hardy has stated -- then the shortstop carries no lingering injury concerns going forward. 

Sure, he might suffer another mishap and miss 40+ games for a third straight year at the age of 28. But when he was able to get on the field last year, Hardy was undoubtedly one of the best in the league at his position, in spite of playing through debilitating wrist pain at times. Bill Smith would be taking a pretty big risk by dumping that potential production for fear of another injury, especially if the plan is to entrust Casilla -- a perennial underachiever who has never played 100 games in an MLB season -- and Nishioka -- a relative unknown whose Wikipedia page points out that he has "established a reputation as somewhat of an injury-prone player" -- without any compelling insurance plan in place.

Without seeing what sort of follow-up moves might come along with it, I can't claim that dealing Hardy is the worst idea in the world. Maybe it's all part of a bigger plan. But considering how thin the market for middle infielders is at present, I have a really hard time seeing it. Shipping Hardy off with his value down over an irrational fear of injury or an obsession with increasing team speed would be tragically misguided.

Is Hardy an injury risk in 2011? Sure. So is everyone.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A Cursory Glance at Pavano's Potential Suitors

Last night marked the deadline for Carl Pavano, Orlando Hudson and Jesse Crain to accept the Twins' arbitration offers. As expected, all three declined, meaning they will test the open market as free agents. Should they sign elsewhere, the Twins will be compensated with draft picks.

Any of the three can be brought back, but the Twins are unlikely to come out on top of a bidding war for Pavano or Crain -- both of whom are reportedly drawing a great deal of early interest -- and the team hasn't even pretended to have any real interest in bringing Hudson back.

By signing elsewhere, each of the three players would supply the Twins with an additional sandwich pick between the first and second rounds of the 2011 draft. As a Type A, Pavano would also yield an additional pick. The placement of that draft pick is dependent on where Pavano ends up, so his eventual destination is well worth tracking.

The compensation system calls for the team signing Pavano to surrender their top pick. However, a number of first-round selections are protected (the first non-protected pick this year is the Tigers at No. 19, as this handy graphic illustrates); if a team with a protected first-rounder signs Pavano, the Twins would gain that team's second-round pick.

With this in mind, let's sort through a few of the clubs that have been rumored to have interest in employing Pavano and his illustrious mustache.

1. Nationals

Adam Kilgore, who covers the Nats for the Washington Post, tweeted yesterday that the team is in discussions with Pavano. After another dismal year, Washington is slotted to pick sixth in next year's draft so they're protected. The fact that they'd surrender only a second-rounder (which grow less and less valuable with each added supplemental pick) could make them a more likely destination than those teams with non-protected first-round picks. Teams like...

2. Rangers

The Rangers have become extremely aggressive in addressing their needs over the past year. They seem determined to try and bring back Cliff Lee, but if they're unable to do so Texas could turn to the best remaining option: Pavano. The Rangers' No. 26 pick in the 2011 draft is unprotected, but the departure of Lee -- a Type A -- would garner them two additional top picks and perhaps make that loss palatable.

3. Astros

Pavano's name was one of a handful that Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle tossed out as potential targets for the Astros, suggesting that the team may seek to bolster its appeal to potential buyers by adding some big names. The Astros pick 11th in the first round, so the Twins would receive their second-rounder.

The Marlins (14th pick, protected) were also rumored to be interested in Pavano, but they're likely out of the mix now that they've added Javier Vazquez. Same goes for the Rockies (20th pick, non-protected), who were in on Pavano before re-signing Jorge De La Rosa. That No. 20 pick would have been a great value for the Twins; it also would have been a very costly loss for Colorado, which may have played into their decision to bring back De La Rosa instead of pursuing Pavano.

With the Winter Meetings fast approaching, I'm sure we'll hear more and more rumors emerge regarding Pavano suitors. Twins fans can follow this storyline with great interest, and not just out of curiosity over whether the righty's stache will blend in with his uniform colors in 2011.