Monday, January 31, 2011

Musical Chairs

Back in grade school, the game of musical chairs seemed like good, innocent fun. Little did we know that it was actually designed to prepare us for the harsh realities of the world. Oftentimes in life, there are only a limited number of spots available, and when the music stops, it sucks to be the last one standing.

Several starting pitchers for the Twins will enter spring training in a musical chairs mindset this year. The signing of Carl Pavano creates a logjam in the rotation, with six viable candidates and only five spots available. We're safe in assuming that Pavano and Francisco Liriano are guaranteed spots. We're also safe, I think, in assuming that Scott Baker is guaranteed a spot -- he's been a relatively durable and effective arm in each of the past three years, throwing 170-plus innings in each with an ERA never exceeding 4.50.

One can argue that top prospect Kyle Gibson has a shot at earning a job, but I can't see that happening unless an injury or two strikes; there's simply no reason to start his arbitration clock unless pushed by necessity. So it comes down to Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing and Kevin Slowey competing for the two remaining spots.

Each hurler can make a good case for himself.

Blackburn was the most stable force in the rotation over the 2008 and '09 seasons. He averaged 200 quality innings, and the Twins rewarded that performance with a four-year contract last spring. After signing the new deal, however, Blackburn's contact-happy pitching style began to catch up with him, and he found himself demoted to Triple-A in July. Late in the year, he returned to the big-league rotation and pitched effectively, earning himself a spot in the playoff rotation (though his turn never came).

Duensing stepped into the rotation in 2009 and made a crucial contribution down the stretch, helping propel the Twins to a postseason berth. Last year, he once again played a significant role in the team's success, moving from the bullpen to the rotation when Blackburn's struggles created an opening in July and posting stellar numbers as a starter down the stretch. In 23 career major-league starts, Duensing is 12-3 with a 2.93 ERA.

Slowey pretty clearly has the best stuff and upside of the three, but he has also experienced the least success over the past couple years. A wrist injury limited him to 90 innings in 2009, and last year his production was suppressed by injuries and stamina issues, to the degree that he was left off the postseason roster. However, Slowey is the youngest and he's the only one with a sustainable recipe for success; Duensing's performance last year was propped up by a virtually unrepeatable .270 BABIP and Blackburn will always be heavily dependent on luck and defense. Slowey has a historically great strikeout-to-walk ratio and was flat-out dominant at every level in the minors.

My guess is that, barring a truly awful performance in spring training, Blackburn can stake his claim to one of the rotation spots in question. His greatest value is in his durability (team-leading 92 starts over the past three years), which I believe is the chief reason he got a long-term contract a year ago. He also doesn't offer much as a bullpen arm, and I suspect that is why, following his demotion to bullpen last year, he was sent to the minors after only two relief appearances to keep his arm in starting shape.

If I'm correct in that presumption, we'll be looking at a spring battle between Duensing and Slowey for the fifth and final spot. My opinion right now is that Duensing should be the odd man out. That's not so much an indictment of the left-hander as an acknowledgment that, among all three candidates, he's the only one with any history of success as a reliever. Before moving to the rotation last season, Duensing had registered a 1.67 ERA and held opponents to a .591 OPS in 39 appearances out of the bullpen. Outside of Matt Capps and Jose Mijares, the Twins are short on relief candidates with recent major-league success, so Duensing and his experience would be a vital addition.

Beyond being more well-suited to pitch in relief, Duensing is due for some serious regression as a starting pitcher. His 2.93 big-league ERA as a starter dwarfs his 4.00 mark in Triple-A, and despite his outstanding poise his stuff just isn't very good. This was on display when he failed to induce a single swinging strike in his ALDS start against the Yankees -- a stat I just can't get out of my head.

Eventually, mediocre stuff catches up with you. Look no further than Blackburn's 2010 campaign as evidence. That doesn't mean Duensing is going to suddenly turn into a pumpkin -- and it does help that he throws with his left hand -- but he's much more likely to be the team's fifth (or sixth) best starter this year than their third-best, as some people seem to view him.

I can see the argument for the other side. Certainly Duensing has done enough over the past two years to earn a rotation spot on merit, and given Slowey's stamina issues it's not hard to see his stuff playing better out of the bullpen. The difference-maker for me is Duensing's experience as a reliever, and the fact that -- much like the last two years -- he'll be ready to step into the rotation when things go south. If healthy, Slowey could easily recapture his 2008 form and become a legitimate top-end starter, while Duensing would have to rely on continuing to outperform his underwhelming peripheral numbers (against lineups stacked with righties, against whom he is extremely vulnerable in comparison to lefties) in order to achieve that kind of success.

Duensing has been there when the Twins have needed him over the past two years, and he's played an underrated role in their back-to-back division titles. He's shown an uncanny ability to step up and perform in whatever role he's asked, and that's all the more reason for him to open the season in the bullpen, where his dominance against lefty hitters can be fully utilized. Without a doubt, the Twins will need an extra starter at some point, and when that time comes, Duensing will hopefully be ready to step in with added confidence. Just like last year.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Three-Bagger: Hughes, Morneau & Weak Beer

* Earlier this week the Twins claimed left-hander Dusty Hughes off waivers from the Royals, designating Rob Delaney for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster.

This qualifies as an extremely minor move that will probably end up not mattering, but I still find it a little puzzling. Hughes is a 28-year-old who stuck in the majors for the first time last year, putting up mediocre numbers in the Kansas City bullpen. He adds another upper-20s borderline AAA/MLB arm to a mix that already included Eric Hacker, Jeff Manship, Glen Perkins, Anthony Swarzak, Phil Dumatrait, Chuck James and Jim Hoey.

Ostensibly, the value of Hughes is that he gives the Twins another left-handed option for the bullpen. It stands to reason, though, that the team will carry only two left-handed relievers; one will surely be Jose Mijares and the other might be Brian Duensing. So Hughes has been signed and given a 40-man roster spot to compete with Scott Diamond, Perkins, James and Dumatrait for a role that may or may not even be available?

By bringing in Hughes, the Twins risk losing Delaney on waivers. A 26-year-old right-hander with middling stuff and velocity, Delaney isn't the prospect his 2.96 career ERA in the minors makes him out to be. Most likely, he doesn't have enough arm to succeed in the majors. But he's younger than a lot of these pitchers the Twins keep adding and he's posted a 130-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.27 WHIP over 127 innings in Triple-A over the past two years. If nothing else, he seemed like a candidate to come up and throw strikes in the big-league bullpen this year, as many of the other relief options have exhibited serious command issues. Delaney is nothing special, but he just doesn't seem like a guy you risk losing for the sake of bringing in an aging non-prospect who was cut by the Royals.

Like I said, not a big deal one way or the other. Delaney might not even get claimed. I'm just continually having a hard time understanding the front office's line of thinking this offseason -- with moves big and small.

[UPDATE: Delaney was claimed on waivers Friday by the Rays.]

* TwinsFest will get underway this weekend, transplanted from its usual location in the Metrodome to the National Sports Center in Blaine. One person who won't be in attendance is Justin Morneau, who the Twins have asked to remain in Arizona and concentrate on his recovery.

I wrote a lengthy story on the subject of Morneau and concussions for this year's Maple Street Press Twins Annual (which you can pre-order now, by the way), but I haven't touched on it directly too much here on the blog. There's a reason for that.

We can try and read between the lines on quotes from him and the team, we can look at past examples of serious concussion cases in sport, and we can conjecture a whole host of possibilities. Ultimately, we need to acknowledge that with Morneau, and with Joe Nathan, we're not going to have any idea what to truly expect this year until we see them on the field in spring training.

Fortunately, that's now only a month away, so we won't have to deal with this lingering uncertainty hovering over our heads for too much longer.

* Like Morneau, I won't be attending TwinsFest this weekend. I went once -- seven or eight years ago -- and while it was a fairly enjoyable time, I'm not a big collector so there's only so much value I can get out of the event.

This isn't the kind of news that's going to bring me back.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Kevin Slowey: Know When to Hold 'Em

The Twins avoided arbitration with Kevin Slowey yesterday, reaching agreement on a one-year, $2.7 million deal that equals the exact midpoint of the figures submitted by each side. The contract probably won't receive much fanfare, as Slowey hasn't done much to endear himself to fans (or, as I've heard, management) over the past couple years, but I see it as a great deal.

I know I've come to sound like a curmudgeon at times this offseason, but Slowey is one player I'm bullishly optimistic about. While there are a number of players on the roster who seem unlikely to perform up to the level of their salary, Slowey is a strong candidate to outperform his -- and perhaps by a lot.

Paging the calendar back four years, a 22-year-old Slowey was a fast-rising star in the Twins' farm system. After being selected in the second round of the 2005 draft, the right-hander had rocketed through four levels of minor-league competition in a little over one season with jaw-dropping numbers at each stop, and along with Matt Garza he represented a bright future for the Twins' rotation.

Despite posting dazzling stats everywhere he went while ascending through the minors, Slowey's potential as a major-leaguer was downplayed by scouts and prospect buffs who proclaimed his high-80s fastball and unimpressive secondary pitches wouldn't play in the bigs. They had a point, but there's something to be said for any pitcher who can dominate level after level of pro competition as a 22-year-old in his first full professional season.

What Slowey lacked in raw stuff, he made up for with everything else. Described often by those who cover the team as a particularly bright person, Slowey achieved success by outwitting opposing batters and hitting his spots with absolute precision. In 220 innings over that first season-and-change, Slowey issued only 30 walks.

For many pitching prospects who make a living off overpowering hitters with smarts or command rather than pitch quality, the results tend to tail off in the upper levels of the minors. That wasn't the case for Slowey. In 2007, he pulled together his most impressive minor-league performance yet, posting a 1.89 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 107-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 133 1/3 innings at Triple-A. He also received two big-league call-ups that season, struggling in his mid-summer debut but returning with a 3.34 ERA and amazing 28-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 29 2/3 innings during a September call-up.

From all evidence,  Slowey was ready to become a frontline pitcher for the Twins. At 23, he had dominantly conquered every level of the minors in just over two seasons, and was already adjusting to major-league competition.

His 2008 season, spent almost entirely in the Twins rotation, was an extremely impressive one. In 160 1/3 innings spread across 27 starts, Slowey went 12-11 with a 3.99 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 123-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Not only was the young Slowey already turning in an elite walk rate and a very respectable strikeout rate, he was also establishing himself as a bulldog. His current reputation certainly doesn't reflect this fact, but Slowey hurled three complete games, and two shutouts (which was one more shutout than any other pitcher in the American League threw that year). In 55 minor-league starts, he'd turned in seven complete games.

When I reference Slowey's "current reputation" in a negative way, it's because the right-hander's standing in the eyes of Twins fans has dropped drastically over the past two years. It's not hard to see why -- he's struggled to even hover around mediocrity during that span. The thing is, you can make a pretty good case that those struggles are almost entirely the result of injuries.

Late in the 2008 season, in a game against the White Sox, Slowey was hit in the wrist by a Juan Uribe line drive. X-rays showed no broken bones, but the injury had a lasting effect. Slowey struggled out of the gate in 2009, saw his performance deteriorate rapidly in late June, and opted for season-ending wrist surgery in July. The procedure was rather serious, involving the placement of metal screws in Slowey's pitching wrist, and many wondered whether he would be able to once again harness his elite command.

The righty showed positive signs of that happening in 2010. He came back with pre-surgery velocity and, after some early hiccups, settled back into his groove as a perpetual strike-thrower. (He had a stretch of 17 consecutive outings spanning May, June, July and August in which he didn't walk more than one batter in a game.)

While his core numbers rebounded, Slowey began having stamina issues. His inability to last deep into games was partially rooted in the organization's stringent adherence to a set pitch count for young starters (Slowey exceeded 106 pitches in a start only once) but his opponents' OPS rose from .730 in innings 1-through-3 to .812 in innings 4-through-6, and those who watched him will attest that he regularly seemed to run out of gas before the sixth inning.

It's not clear whether this was related to residual wrist issues or the chronic sore elbow that forced him to have a start pushed back in early August and placed him on the disabled list later that month.

Either way, Slowey will enter the 2011 season with an offseason of rest (which was all that doctors deemed necessary) for the elbow and nearly two years removed from his wrist surgery. Still only 26, he seems like a prime candidate to have a breakout year, recapturing and building on his success from the '08 season.

Unfortunately, his struggles over the past two years -- along with the presence of five other starters on the roster -- do provide the Twins front office with an excuse to move him. I've always gotten the sense they don't see his personality as a clubhouse fit, which is why one of my three offseason predictions back in October was that he would be traded. I desperately hope that I'm wrong about that.

When the cards get dealt out this season, it's not likely that Slowey will come out an ace. But if he's healthy he'll be a very high card. And in a rotation that already features a potential ace in Francisco Liriano, an excellent veteran in Carl Pavano and a hopefully resurgent Scott Baker, that might be all the Twins need.

In poker, you never deal away a high card if it's got a chance to give you a great hand.


On an unrelated and more serious note, if you have any money you can afford to spare for a good cause, please consider contributing to One Clap for Zach. It's a fundraiser for the medical expenses of Zach Gabbard, who collapsed while playing basketball in Seth's hometown of Perham and is now hospitalized with a serious heart condition. Short of a monetary donation, I'm sure Zach's family would appreciate your thoughts and prayers.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Michael Cuddyer: Underrated?

Last week,'s Jayson Stark published his version of baseball's All Underrated Team. It was a fun little read with a few notable snubs, but I had to pause when I reached the right field section.

Stark listed Michael Cuddyer as one of the most underrated players in all of baseball.

The same Cuddyer who will make $10.5 million coming off an extremely disappointing campaign; who was described during that disappointing campaign by his manager as team MVP; who is widely cherished by a fan base that lovingly looks past his flaws in embracing his contagious smile and cannon arm... underrated? That's an awfully tough case to make.

In making it, Stark enlists the wisdom of an anonymous scout, who provides us with this jewel:
"If I was going to give a one-word description that defines him, that would be the word 'winner,'" the scout said. "He's not the reason you win. But he makes everybody else better."
I dare say this scout is doing a bit of a disservice to his profession by spouting vague and hackneyed cliches that offer no insight into Cuddyer's actual value as a player, but I digress.

When he's at his best, Cuddyer is a very good hitter who helps the team significantly. Certainly this was the case in 2009, when his late surge was elemental in pushing the Twins to an unlikely postseason berth, and in 2006 when he hit .284/.362/.504 with 24 homers and 109 RBI. The problem is that in the surrounding seasons, the 32-year-old has annually posted a sub-.800 OPS with less than 20 home runs and mediocre (at best) defense at non-premium positions.

Right field and first base, the two spots where Cuddyer tends to spend most of his time, bear higher offensive expectations than anywhere else on the field.  Even in his best seasons, Cuddyer has not ranked as one of the elite performers at his position, and when all is accounted for, his production could best be described as "solid" and "unexceptional."

A defender of Cuddyer will surely point to the outfielder's intangibles: his work ethic, his willingness to move around the field without complaint, his fan appeal, and so forth. I recognize and appreciate these things, but don't necessarily see how they go above and beyond what should be considered basic expectations for a professional athlete. Answering the manager's call to change positions, being friendly toward fans, and maintaining professional and respectable habits off the field -- these should be standards for a person being paid over $8 million to play baseball, no? Yet we frequently see these attributes glorified through media articles that minimize his undeniably underwhelming production on the field, perhaps because Cuddyer has such a bright personality and is easy to like for those who spend time around him.

Underrated? Maybe by those who decry his supposed lack of clutch hitting and label him "Cruddy" or "Cuddaver," but that strikes me as a fringe minority. Unless my read on the general public perception of Cuddyer is way off, it seems to me like "overrated" would be a far more accurate descriptor.

That doesn't mean Cuddyer is a bad player, and it doesn't mean I mind having him on the team this year. The Twins will need his right-handed bat and he could be a real difference-maker if he can stay healthy and produce like he did in '09.

But in my mind he's got a long way to go before his actual value surpasses his perceived value, which continues to be inflated by flattering but ultimately empty portrayals like the ones provided by Stark and his scout.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Saying Goodbye

Nick Punto has been a fixture for the Twins ever since being acquired alongside Carlos Silva in a 2003 trade. Over the past seven years, perhaps no player has incurred more wrath than the fan base than Punto, who undoubtedly earned more playing time (2,707 plate appearances) and money (over $14 million) than his ability warranted during his tenure in Minnesota.

As anyone who's played on a baseball team will attest, being in the manager's good graces can be very beneficial. Punto knows this better than anyone. For whatever reason, Ron Gardenhire seemed entranced with him, perhaps seeing some of his old self in the versatile, hustling, light-hitting infielder. Without a doubt, Punto's value was overblown by the Twins' coaching staff -- and, perhaps as an extension of that, the front office.

For that reason, it's curious that the Twins were unwilling to bring him back at a point where it would have seemingly made sense to do so. The Twins and Punto officially parted ways on Friday, when the free agent signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Cardinals.

Punto was surely stretched as a starter, so it was frustrating to see him paid (and often times played) like one over the past several years. But he's a quality defender at no less than three different positions. Players like that aren't easy to find. He's a good backup and not a bad fallback option to have on the roster; after all, Punto's best seasons ('06, '08) have come when he's started as a backup and stepped in for a struggling or injured starter. Given the uncertainty surrounding the Twins' infield this season, a player with that history would be valuable, especially at the price the Cards got him for.

That the Twins were willing to let Punto walk over such an insignificant price indicates that they feel the 33-year-old's assets -- namely, defense and foot speed -- are ready to decline, though there wasn't much evidence of that last year. Matt Tolbert, on the surface, looks like a decent enough replacement, but the modest difference in price wouldn't seem to override the sizable difference in big-league track record.

Punto's exit is widely being met with glee by fans. He'll probably be remembered more for his historically awful 2007 campaign and his third base overrun in the '09 ALDS than his numerous highlight reel plays, but that's the nature of the beast.

If the Twins were ready to move on, I'm willing to assume that he's done as a useful player. I can't imagine them parting with him over $700K, in their current situation, unless they thought that was the case. As such, I'm not exactly feeling sweet sorrow over this parting.

Nevertheless, it wasn't such a bad run, all things considered.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bert Blyleven: It's About Time

I've got nothing new for today, but please enjoy the following guest post on Bert Blyleven and the Hall of Fame, provided by supporter of this blog I realize now that I never discussed Bert's induction in this space, so feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section. 

What would you call a pitcher in today's game with a minimum of 13 wins a year for his career?   How about one that averages 11 completed games a year for his career?  What if this player during his prime was averaging over 200 strikeouts a season and had a career average of 168 strikeouts per year?  What if this same player had a career ERA of 3.31?  For many teams, this would be their ace, and in some years, this player would be the superstar of the league.  At the end of such a career, you would likely expect this player to be a first ballot Hall of Famer.  Unfortunately, it took the BBWAA 14 years to induct former Twin Bert Blyleven into the Hall of Fame.  They finally got it right when they inducted the former pitching great into the hall, and it is about damn time.

Bert Blyleven was elected into the Hall of Fame earlier in the month after garnering 79.7 percent of the vote from the BBWAA.  It takes 75 percent in order to be inducted, and this honor had been a long time coming.  Blyleven won 287 games over his 22 year career, a stint that saw him throw 60 shutouts, 3,701 strikeouts, and an astounding 242 completed games.  His 3,701 strikeouts is fifth all-time.  A gambler that plays poker online would have bet on Blyleven being in the Hall before now, but that was not the case.

Sadly, a combination of factors have led to his not being inducted before now.  First, he played in an era that saw the emergence of many all-time great pitchers: Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry, Rollie Fingers, and Jim Palmer, to name a few.  Next, while Blyleven had tremendous numbers, they just weren't as impressive in many cases as some of the other greats.  He also failed to win 300 games, and for many writers, that was one of the key stats for a pitcher to get into the Hall. 

Interestingly enough, the one thing that I personally think helped Blyleven's case the most was the Steroid Era.  I realize some of you just gave me a confused look.  However, just look at some of the recent players that were up for election that would have likely made it into the Hall over Blyleven if not for steroids.  Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmiero and  Jeff Bagwell are the best examples of those who were left out this year either because of direct involvement with steroids or perceived involvement.  Most of the players from that era would have been better off to gamble on Texas Hold em than on steroids.

How did this help Blyleven?  There was nothing about Blyleven's career that ever even hinted that he did anything wrong.  He went out start after start and put up very good numbers.  Granted, newly popularized stats such as WHIP did indeed help his cause.  However, in a year where you had a lot of candidates that played in a questionable era, this gave the Hall the chance to put someone in that may not be up to certain writers standards, but one whose stats were above repute.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Mauer Factor

As most people reading this are probably aware, I've been fairly critical of the Twins this offseason. They have parted with some valuable players, taken dangerous gambles on Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, overpaid Matt Capps by several million dollars, and invested a great deal of hope in two aging veteran free agents after outstanding seasons they'd be hard-pressed to recreate.

But, I will confess that I'm probably being a bit too hard on the Twins this winter. I've been unimpressed by their frugal approach over the past few months, but the truth is that they actually made the biggest blockbuster move of any team this offseason. They just did it a year early.

Cliff Lee's $120 million contract with the Phillies wouldn't have been the largest handed to a free agent this offseason had the Twins not swooped in early with an eight-year, $184 million mega deal for Joe Mauer. We might not have fully appreciated it at the time because it took place in spring training, wedged between a very active offseason and the opening of a new stadium, but the Mauer deal was monumental.

Many fans are already speaking about the celebrated extension begrudgingly, and it's true that Mauer's $11.5 million raise going into 2011 (equivalent to the price of an elite free agent) is a big reason they've been restricted in their offseason activities. Maneuvering around that $23 million makes for some tough decisions, and while I don't necessarily agree with the way the front office has addressed those decisions I can at least understand them a little better.

While fans in Philadelphia are absolutely ecstatic about their prized offseason acquisition (if I hear "FOUR ACES!" one more time I'm going to lose it), Twins fans seem almost ambivalent about Mauer. That's because his signing took place a year ago, and his 2010 campaign was far less extraordinary than the one before it.

But I'm thinking positive here. The Twins have not done a lot to help themselves this offseason, and on paper they look to me like the division's third-best team right now, but Mauer is the biggest reason I would never dream of counting them out in the AL Central.

It's true that Mauer didn't perform like a $23 million player last season, but we shouldn't let his drop from superhuman to merely great make us forget that a year ago he was widely viewed as one of the two best position players in all of baseball. He endured one injury after another last summer and his numbers undoubtedly suffered because of it, but he got his knee fixed up with a minor surgery at the end of the season and enters 2011 as one of the team's few key players without major health concerns.

If he can stay healthy and produce at the level he did in 2009, Mauer can effectively carry the club. That 2009 team that surrounded him was flush with flaws; several holes in the lineup and no starting pitcher with an ERA under four. It was the gargantuan five-month season from Mauer that tipped the scales in a hard-fought struggle with Detroit for the division title, and that performance rightfully earned the catcher MVP honors.

As I see it, this 2011 Twins team is a distilled version of the one before it, with several question marks and little in the way of depth to prevent disaster should dominos fall the wrong way. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a bit down on them, but I'll never count the Twins out.

Not as long as they have the Mauer factor.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Optimism vs. Pessimism

For several weeks now, the Twins and Carl Pavano have been reported by various to sources to be close to a deal. Yesterday, the two sides finally reached agreement on a two-year, $16.5 million contract.

People will see this deal how they want to see it.

The optimist will focus on Pavano's marvelous 2010 campaign, in which he won 17 games with a 3.75 ERA. The pessimist will recall that in 2009, Pavano posted a 5.10 ERA with very similar peripherals.

The optimist will point out how durable Pavano was last year, when he racked up 221 innings and seven complete games. The pessimist will note that the 35-year-old right-hander has a lengthy injury history -- 2010 marked just the third time in a 13-year career he's surpassed 200 innings.

The optimist will celebrate the Twins opening the wallet to re-sign a high-quality veteran player. The pessimist will bemoan the loss of two high draft picks that would have come to the organization had they allowed Pavano to sign elsewhere and opted for an inexpensive one-year deal with Brandon Webb, or Jeff Francis, or Chris Young, or a similar starter.

The optimist will marvel at what a great deal the Twins got on Pavano. He will average just $8.25 million over the next two seasons; that's an incredible bargain for a free agent pitcher coming off the kind of year he just had.

The pessimist will conclude that Pavano's willingness to settle for a relatively modest $16.5 million after all this time indicates that the rest of the league wanted nothing to do with him. Granted, his Type A status was an inhibitor, but teams will generally give up draft picks to sign a player they like. Pavano was the opposite of a hot commodity. Few teams openly expressed any interest in him and the general manager for one team that was connected to him through media reports felt the need to come out and publicly dispel those myths.

With Pavano joining Jim Thome, Matt Capps and others on a roster that is rapidly taking shape and will apparently feature very few new faces from outside the organization, the optimist will commend the Twins for trying to hold together as much of last year's 94-win club as their expanded payroll restrictions will allow.

The pessimist will wonder why they're simply concocting a weaker version of the same recipe that got them booted from the playoffs in three games last October.

Toward which side do you lean?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


In the wake of the Twins' quick exit from the playoffs last year, as I prepared myself for the offseason by looking through the team's financial particulars, I came to one clear conclusion: "The Twins would be insane to bring back Matt Capps."

In my blog post discussing the subject, I surmised that the Twins and arbitrators would overemphasize the value of Capps' saves, comparing him to other closers with similar totals. I concluded that "it's not hard to imagine Capps at least doubling his $3.5 million salary in 2011."

Of course, there was little doubt that the Twins would be bringing back Capps. They obviously overvalue the heck out of him, otherwise they wouldn't have traded away a top prospect to have him come in and close when they already had a guy who was adequately handling the job.

So I wasn't at all surprised when I heard that the Twins had tendered Capps a contract at the early-December deadline. The decision created a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach that kept growing and growing until the inevitable news came through yesterday: the Twins and the arbitration-eligible Capps have agreed on a one-year, $7.15 million deal.

In justifying the move on ESPN 1500 yesterday afternoon, after Phil Mackey astutely pointed out that the team could have kept two of its other departed relievers by not tendering Capps a contract, general manager Bill Smith said that the Twins want a good closing option should Joe Nathan be unable to fill the role. As if Capps -- who was non-tendered by the Pirates following a terrible campaign just a year ago -- is all that different of a pitcher from Jesse Crain ($4M next year), or Jon Rauch ($3.5M).

The Twins are talking out of both sides of their mouths with regards to Nathan. On the one hand they claim that they're very optimistic about his recovery, to the point where they apparently won't carry any trustworthy setup men other than Capps and Mijares. On the other hand, they're spending over $7 million on insurance at the closer position, where they've already got $11.25 million invested in what has been illuminated as a mistake of a contract. (I was on board with that extension myself at the time, but let's face it, losing Nathan had virtually no effect on the team's outcome last year.)

Meanwhile they refuse to spend $5.8 million -- the amount in J.J. Hardy's new one-year deal with the Orioles -- on insurance at shortstop. Even if you don't think Hardy should start, he's a drastically better backup plan than anything they have and it seems at least as risky to count on the perpetually underachieving Alexi Casilla to be a competent starting shortstop as it does to count on Nathan to close.

In what world is closer a more valuable and irreplaceable position than starting shortstop? And how would the Twins not be more aware of this than anyone? They've cycled through bad shortstops faster than the Vikings go through quarterbacks over the past decade but they've had no trouble turning solid setup men like Eddie Guardado and Nathan into All-Star closers.

What's that saying about insanity and trying the same thing over and over again while expecting different results?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Jim Thome and the (Modest) Price of Insurance

There are a number of storylines relating to the Twins that will increasingly come into focus as we edge toward spring training. The answers to a handful of important questions will play a large part in dictating whether the season is a success or a failure. Will Tsuyoshi Nishioka be able to effectively transition his game from Japan to the States? Will Joe Nathan be the same dominant late-inning reliever he was prior to surgery? Can Francisco Liriano blossom into one of the league's premier aces?

All players worth following. But to me, no storyline looms larger than the recovery of Justin Morneau, who hasn't been able to comfortably swing a bat since sustaining a concussion on July 7 of last year. If Morneau experiences another setback in spring training or takes any kind of bump to the head while on the field, the Twins will be facing the very real possibility of having to play without him for an extended period of time.

Up until this week, the front office had done little to address such a scenario. But on Friday, the Twins announced that they'd reached agreement with Jim Thome on a one-year, $3 million deal. The contract, which includes incentives based on playing time, ensures that a great bat from 2010 will be back in the mix this year, and also supplies the Twins with some Morneau insurance.

As great as Thome was last year, he's not necessarily an ideal fit. He's 40 years old and incapable of playing any position, which limits flexibility in an already suspect bench. He's a left-handed hitter who's weaker against southpaws, so if Morneau's healthy Thome does nothing to offset the Twins' vulnerability to lefties at the DH spot. (This was an issue many fans were pointing their fingers at after the Yankees took a two-game ALDS lead on starts from CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte.) 

Of course, those concerns are secondary when you consider the price. It's impossible not to like this signing at the terms the Twins were able to get. Thome is guaranteed only $3 million, which is a pittance for a player who became one of the league's best hitters upon stepping into regular duty last season.

After Morneau went down on July 7, Thome batted .303/.438/.669 with 15 home runs and 31 RBI in 50 games. His production was a key reason the Twins were able to handily lock up the AL Central despite losing their best hitter amidst an MVP-caliber season.

That performance, along with his excellent clubhouse rapport and tremendous fan appeal, has already earned Thome his 2011 salary, in my mind. As a fan, it's always more enjoyable to watch a player who truly likes being here. This was evident in Thome's demeanor last season and in the fact that he reportedly turned down at least $1 million from Texas to return to Minnesota. He's a class act and it will be a pleasure to watch him blast home run No. 600 -- only 11 more to go -- in a Twins uniform.

As a bench bat, Thome will be a godsend for a group that features Drew Butera, Matt Tolbert and Jason Repko. But there is room for concern over what will happen if indeed Morneau -- or Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel, for that matter -- should go down and force Thome into regular duty.

One can't realistically expect the Hall of Fame slugger to repeat his spectacular performance from last year. It was one of the top five seasons of his career, and duplicating that at age 40 with a balky back could be an impossibly tall order. One miraculous season for an aging star does not promise another -- just ask Brett Favre.

I've noted before that the track record for historically elite sluggers after turning 40 is not particularly pretty. Even the all-time greats tend to decline swiftly at this age. Then again, there wasn't much precedent for what Thome did last year, and he claims his back is feeling good, so why doubt him? He might not be ideal in terms of balancing the roster, but he's a great hitter and a great guy at a bargain price. I've got a lot more peace of mind now than I did a week ago when it looked as though he might be leaning toward the Rangers.

That peace of mind came in handy this weekend as I read the final paragraphs a Joe Christensen story updating the progress of Morneau's recovery:

Smith has had multiple conversations with Morneau's doctor and noted a recent change in the recovery plan.

"In July, August and September, the protocol was if he had any concussion symptoms, he needed to back off," Smith said. "Now I think the doctors have given him a little more of the go-ahead. If you have mild symptoms, you need to work through it, play through it.

"So we think that's a great sign, and the doctor was very pleased with where [Morneau] was when he saw him the last time."

I can't help but be troubled by what Smith was trying to frame as a positive update on the first baseman's condition. It indicates that, more than six months after initially sustaining his concussion in Toronto, Morneau still has not shaken symptoms. I'm not distrustful of the team's doctors, but it does strike me as a bit of a slippery slope advising Morneau to "work through" his symptoms -- this is a brain injury, not a sprained ankle. I'm sure that ultimately they'll exercise appropriate caution, as they have all along in this process.

Should worse come to worst with Morneau, it's comforting to know that the team now at least has someone on the roster capable of making up for even a fraction of that missing power production. In the best case scenario, Thome will serve as a late-inning weapon on the bench and occasional DH. For those purposes, you couldn't ask for a better hitter -- or person -- than a man who will soon become the eighth in major-league history to reach 600 home runs.


For some quick additional reading, check out this article from the Stats & Info Blog on the historical significance of Thome's numbers against right-handed pitching. You might be surprised by how high he ranks.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Live Twins Chat Tonight at 7

I've had a few readers ask me recently if I'd be interested in holding a live Twins chat here on the blog to help everyone through this slow and painful offseason. It's an idea I've longed toyed with, so I figure it's worth a shot. Come on by tonight at 7 PM, central time, and bring your questions, comments, gripes and insults. Should be a good old time.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What's the Catch?

The Twins yesterday released a list of 19 non-roster spring training invites. The name that will stand out to most people is Kyle Gibson, the team's first-round draft pick from 2009 who finished last season in Triple-A and could make a legitimate bid for a rotation spot in March.

My eyes scanned further down, to the list of minor-league catchers receiving invites to camp. There are six: Jair Fernandez, Chris Hermann, Steve Holm, Danny Lehmann, Danny Rams and Rene Rivera. It will be interesting to follow this group in Ft. Myers, because as things currently stand, pretty much any one of those guys could be one injury away from finding himself on the big-league roster this year.

One offseason trade I haven't discussed at all in this space was a December swap that sent Jose Morales to Colorado in return for a minor-league pitcher. The Twins never trusted Morales' defense, so it was hardly a surprise to see him go, but between him and Wilson Ramos the Twins have over the past six months gotten rid of the only two backstops in the organization outside of Joe Mauer with any kind of offensive ability. Morales was not the great hitter that his .311 average from from 2009 would suggest, but he was competent with the stick and that's not something you can say about any of those spring training invites mentioned above. It's also not something you can say about Drew Butera, who figures to be Mauer's top backup from the get-go this year.

Mauer is no stranger to injuries, which is to be expected given that he plays such a physically demanding position. Even in what we would deem a healthy year by his standards, he still misses about a month's worth of games. There will be many occasions this year where he'll be hurt, written into the lineup as a DH, or simply given the day off. With Morales gone, those opportunities to catch will all fall to Butera, who batted .197/.237/.296 last season and is arguably the worst hitter in the major leagues. In the event that Mauer has to miss a sizable chunk of time, Butera will be viewed as a regular and one of the minor leaguers mentioned above would become the big-league backup.

It's a disastrous scenario. Of the six non-roster invites, only Holm and Rivera have any MLB experience. They've both had cups of coffee and neither has managed to establish himself as any kind of legitimate prospect. The other four are raw young players unlikely to yield any more offensive production than Butera.

Of course, offense is clearly not a major consideration for the Twins when evaluating backup catchers, otherwise they wouldn't have traded Morales away. They're probably correct in that mindset; it's the most important defensive position on the diamond and teams can easily take advantage of liabilities like Morales.

But what the Twins have been missing since Mike Redmond's departure is a backup catcher with a solid glove who can actually hold his own at the plate. That's not Butera, and it's not any of the six other guys who will be vying for the third spot on the depth chart during spring training.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Swapping Sluggers?

It was on this date last year that the Rangers reached agreement on a one-year deal with Vladimir Guerrero, tabbing the former Angel as their designated hitter at a reasonable price following the worst season of his outstanding career.

Guerrero turned out to be a great value for the Rangers. He rebounded as a 35-year-old, posting an .841 OPS with 29 home runs and 115 RBI while helping lead Texas to a division title and World Series berth.

The storyline wasn't all that different for the Twins and Jim Thome, whose value was also down last offseason after a sub par year in '09. Thome signed a one-year contract for $1.5 million guaranteed and made Guerrero's team-friendly deal look like a rip-off, posting a 1.039 OPS while racking up 25 homers and 59 RBI in 108 games with the Twins.

That production, coupled with Thome's resounding popularity, leaves no one wondering why Minnesota's front office has expressed desire in retaining the Hall of Fame slugger. Yet, here we are in mid-January and there have been no indications of serious talks between the Twins and Thome's agent. Yesterday, reports surfaced from's Buster Olney that the Rangers are "actively trying to lure Thome to Texas."

The Rangers are a logical fit for Thome; they will be using right-handed Michael Young as their primary DH with Adrian Beltre signed on to play third. At age 40, Thome shouldn't be looked at as anything other than a bench bat and part-time DH, and as a plodding left-hander who doesn't swing particularly well against southpaws, he doesn't make a whole lot of sense for a club that already employs Jason Kubel.

The Rangers' former DH, Guerrero, might make for a better fit for the Twins. While he's no spring chicken, Guerrero is five years younger than Thome, and although he's not a good option in the field, he can more realistically be counted on for everyday duty. That's important, considering the uncertainty surrounding Justin Morneau.

However, just because Guerrero makes sense for the Twins doesn't mean the Twins make sense for Guerrero. He's reportedly seeking a two-year deal, and in the GM Handbook we guessed that he might get $16 million in such a contract. It's quite possible he'll have to settle for less than that, but with the Angels, Orioles and Rays all reportedly showing interest, he's not likely to come especially cheap.

Having Guerrero around as a part-time DH and powerful right-handed bat off the bench is a nice thought, but my guess is that the Twins don't have the money or guaranteed playing time to entice Vlad.

If Thome does indeed sign with the Rangers or another club, and that seems likely unless he's willing to take a big discount to stay in Minnesota, the Twins will be left with no insurance option at DH in the event that Morneau, Cuddyer or Kubel run into trouble. That's something that will need to be addressed one way or another.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Winter of My Discontent

If there's one thing I hate doing as a Twins fan, it's admitting when the White Sox have completely, unequivocally crushed my team. That is what's happening this offseason, and it's been painful to watch it unfold. Chicago's brazen aggressiveness only serves to magnify the lack of activity from a Twins' front office that seems content to watch divisional rivals power up while they power down.

The Sox don't like admitting when they've been crushed by the Twins either, obviously. That's surely what sparked this winter of wheeling and dealing. They went 5-13 against the Twins last season, and were effectively eliminated from contention after being swept at home in a humbling mid-September series.

Whatever the White Sox tried last year, the Twins had an answer. By the end of the season, Ozzie Guillen was basically bowing down to Ron Gardenhire and his magical cast of baseball demigods, who were so great they couldn't manage a single victory in the playoffs.

Chicago GM Kenny Williams is not one to take such blows to his pride lightly. So he set out this offseason to construct a team that would fare much better against the customary AL Central champs.

First, there was the blockbuster signing of Adam Dunn, one of the game's premier power hitters. Less than a week later, the Sox re-signed free agent first baseman Paul Konerko, another elite power hitter coming off a 39-homer year. They also re-upped their catcher, A.J. Pierzynski.

In the bullpen, the Sox bid farewell to Bobby Jenks (apparently due to personality conflicts) but in his place they've signed power righty Jesse Crain away from the Twins. This past weekend, they inked left-handed reliever Will Ohman, who last year posted a 3.21 ERA while holding lefty hitters to a .636 OPS with the Marlins.

Ohman joins a White Sox bullpen that already included dominating portsiders Matt Thornton and Chris Sale, both of whom are closer candidates. With three lefty-stifling southpaws potentially populating his bullpen, Guillen will be in position to start playing match-ups against the Twins' overwhelmingly left-handed lineup as early as the sixth inning.

It would be nice if the Twins had acquired some sort of legitimate right-handed bat to offset that advantage, but they've done no such thing. In fact, the team hasn't really made any positive strides this winter. Through signings and trades, they've added a number of minor-league players (including Tsuyoshi Nishioka, essentially the equivalent of a minor-leaguer), which bolsters organizational depth but does little to combat Chicago's bold roster renovations.

The Twins' salary shedding moves have been far more prevalent. They dealt away their starting shortstop for minor-leaguers because they didn't want to pay him. They've watched their starting second baseman and two of their most valuable relievers from last year, Matt Guerrier and Crain, sign elsewhere because they were too expensive. Little interest has been shown in retaining two other free agent relievers, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes.

The only action from the Twins this offseason that has clearly reflected any kind of determination to defend their spot at the top of the division is a move that hasn't even been made yet: the apparently impending Carl Pavano signing.

While one can argue that this move was an absolute necessity, it's a risky investment clearly aimed at trying to maintain the status quo rather than meaningfully advancing the team's chances at a deep postseason run.

Some will argue that the front office's financially conservative approach to this offseason is the unavoidable result of a payroll that has already swelled up due to a big raise for Joe Mauer and several overly bloated salaries for players under contract (Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Matt Capps, etc.). I'd counter by pointing out that, for one thing, the Twins have nobody to blame for bloated salaries but themselves. Furthermore, payroll isn't really that high, when you think about it.

During their free agent shopping spree, the White Sox have watched their payroll climb to around $120 million, Meanwhile, the Twins are still trying to haggle Pavano's price down so they can stay in the $115 million range. This team is playing in a brand new stadium that sells out every night and their ownership holds no less cash than Jerry Reinsdorf -- is there really any reason at this point that they should be so much less willing to spend?

The point has made been, and will be made again, that there are several weeks left in the offseason and the Twins often wait until February to strike free agent deals, when the market tends to settle down. That's all well and good, but I don't find it acceptable that they've watched so many players that could help the team sign elsewhere while waiting to hunt the bargain bin at the end of the offseason, all because they're handcuffed by their own questionable past decisions. Minnesota taxpayers funded their new stadium and filled it up every night last year; they have the right to expect more than business as usual.

Friday, January 07, 2011


Earlier this week, I remarked that a return to Minnesota for Carl Pavano was "beginning to seem all but inevitable." As such, I was hardly surprised last night when I read a report from Ken Rosenthal of that the right-hander and the Twins are closing in on what sounds like a two-year deal.

That qualifies as settling for Pavano, at least in his mind. At the outset of the offseason, he and his agent were allegedly seeking a three-year deal, and given the dearth of strong starting pitching options in free agency behind Cliff Lee, it seemed feasible that he could manage that. As it turns out, though, teams around the league aren't keen on handing pricey multi-year deals to 35-year-old pitchers with troubling injury histories. Especially not when they have to give up a high draft pick to do so.

The Twins' arbitration offer to Pavano, a Type A, might have been his death knell. Because despite his solid results in 2010, the veteran has apparently drawn almost no interest from teams other than the Twins in free agency. Those with needs in their rotations have looked elsewhere. The general manager of the Nationals, who had been tied to Pavano through recent media reports, downplayed his team's interest earlier this week:
"I hear we are 'the finalist' along with the Twins," said [Mike] Rizzo, acerbically. "We've never spoken to Pavano and we haven't talked to his agent since the winter meetings." 
The Twins never would have given Pavano three years, and rightfully so. For two, it sounds like they're willing to take the plunge. Fully analyzing this deal is impossible without hearing the financial terms, and it's possible those aren't even finalized -- Rosenthal only said the two sides were "closing in." My guess is that Pavano's salary will end up being around $9 million per year.

Nine million dollars isn't exactly the going rate for stud frontline starters, but it's a significant chunk of change for a team with a stretched budget. That figure would exceed the combined salaries next year for J.J. Hardy and Matt Guerrier, both of whom the Twins could have kept. At that price, the front office would be investing a lot of hope that Pavano can carry his success from 2010 forward into 2011 and 2012, at the ages of 35 and 36.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of reason to believe he's got two more seasons like that in him. Only twice in his 13-year career has Pavano pitched at such a high level, and frankly the way he wrapped up his solid 2010 campaign serves as a perfect reminder of his downfalls.

Over 53 innings in his final eight regular-season starts, Pavano struck out only 20 hitters (good for a Blackburnian 3.4 K/9 rate) while allowing 70 hits and nine home runs. In his one postseason start against the Yankees, he yielded 10 hits and a homer while striking out only three of the 28 batters he faced.

The command is always going to be there for Pavano. He'll always limit walks and hit his spots. And when he's going good, he'll manage to keep the hits and home runs in check while missing a few bats. When he's not going good, like he was late last season and more frequently in a 2009 campaign where he posted a 5.10 ERA, he doesn't do those things. How often can we hope he'll be going good as he moves into his late 30s?

The Twins have watched several good players walk away this offseason, and now it's starting to look like they did it in order to make money available for this deal. It's a risky decision and one that could very easily backfire.

Then again, considering the lack of depth in this young rotation and the gamut of question marks surrounding the bullpen, maybe they had no choice. At the very least, Pavano should be able to eat up innings in bunches if he's healthy. That's the very least the Twins will need from him.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Eyes on Diamond

Much uncertainty surrounds the Twins pitching staff at this point. Unless Carl Pavano or another starter is added, the organization lacks any proven rotation options beyond their starting five, which is a frightening proposition given that three of them are coming off seasons marred by elbow issues. The bullpen possesses even less stability.

It's possible that more players will be added to both of those units via free agency or trade, but money is short so the coaching staff is going to have to get creative in trying to assemble pitching depth. This reality increases the likelihood that the team's selection in the Rule 5, Scott Diamond.

Diamond is a 24-year-old left-hander fished out of the Braves organization, where he went 8-7 with a 3.46 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A in 2010. Though he went undrafted, Diamond has carved out a nice minor-league career thus far, posting a 3.28 ERA and 1.37 WHIP while rising steadily through Atlanta's farm system. He's never never posted an ERA higher than 3.52 at any level and has turned in respectable strikeout and walk rates with consistency. He's also allowed only 19 home runs in 442 professional innings, suggesting proficiency with keeping the ball down.

The shiny stats might have some fans raising their eyebrows. Recalling the team's past success with a certain left-hander acquired in the Rule 5, these intrigued might be wondering if the Twins have found (in what is almost certain to become a horribly overused cliche) a diamond in the rough. Is excitement warranted?

 I've heard that the Twins were pleasantly surprised that they were able to get Diamond, and that his chances of making the 25-man roster (where he'll have to stick all season, or be returned to Atlanta) are quite good. Obviously they've had some success scouting undervalued players from other organizations in the past, so there's some cause for optimism.

Then again, there's a reason Diamond wasn't selected by any club in MLB's massive draft, there's a reason the Braves made him available in the Rule 5, and there's a reason that many teams passed on him there (Diamond was the the 12th player selected). Peter Hjort, who covers the Braves for the Sweet Spot affiliated Capitol Avenue Club blog, ranked Diamond as the organization's 39th best prospect at season's end, summarizing him thusly:
Scott Diamond went undrafted in 2008, but the Braves signed him shortly thereafter and he’s been a durable, mostly effective starter in their system ever since. Employing an unspectacular, kitchen-sink repertoire-a 86-90 MPH fastball, cutter, change-up, and curveball-with solid command and pitchability, Diamond has produced a 7.3 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 442 and 1/3 minor-league innings. He’ll return to Class AAA Gwinnett at the onset of the 2011 season, but if the Braves need another lefty-specialist or their rotation plans fall apart, Diamond could get a look.
Well, he doesn't exactly sound like Johan Santana. But the Twins would settle for a decent strike-throwing southpaw who can provide some solid depth in the upcoming season, and when your competition is Glen Perkins it's not hard to stand out. Unless he really fails to impress in spring training, I'm guessing Diamond will find himself on the club's Opening Day roster.

Barring an injury, Diamond probably doesn't have a real good shot at grabbing a spot in the rotation over any of the five established members (especially if Pavano re-signs). Throwing him into the bullpen would require some adjustment, as Diamond worked almost exclusively as a starter in the minors (74 of his 76 career appearances have been starts), but the Twins transitioned Brian Duesning from minor-league starter to major-league reliever on the fly with good results, and there's little reason to think they wouldn't try it here with bullpen depth a pressing concern.

If the Twins find that they like Diamond in spring training but don't feel he's quite ready for a full season in the bigs, they could always swing a trade with Atlanta to keep him in the organization. With so many relief spots unclaimed, however, I suspect they'll be more willing than usual to take the plunge and keep him on the 25-man roster for the duration of the season.

As a kid from Canada who was overlooked by every team in the draft, and overlooked even by the organization that signed and raised him this winter, Diamond has plenty to prove.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Three Bagger: Pavano, Thome & D-Lee

Apologies for the lack of updates here over the past two weeks. I decided to take a bit of a holiday respite, and fortunately the Twins made that easy by doing absolutely nothing. To get back into the groove, I'll touch on a few different subjects here in the first entry of 2011:

* Both Carl Pavano and the Twins are running out of options, so a return to Minnesota for the veteran right-hander is beginning to seem all but inevitable.

Since my last writing, Zack Greinke has been traded to the Brewers and Brandon Webb has signed with the Rangers. That's two potential destinations for Pavano effectively off the table, and also two potential rotation additions for the Twins erased. It's hard to believe that the team would enter the 2011 season with only five viable starting options -- none of them older than 29 -- so one would think a veteran acquisition has to be on the way. The Twins' patient approach has seen many potential options land elsewhere, so who else would they go with?

It's not hard to see why the front office would see fit to invest in Pavano. He was an ideal fit last year, personifying everything this organization loves in a veteran starter. He threw strikes, ate innings and greatly lessened the bullpen's burden.

But I'm wary of an expensive multi-year deal for Pavano. He turns 35 this week, and the fact that he's been healthy and durable over the past two seasons does not by any means ensure that he'll repeat it next year; especially not the year after. Let's not forget that two years ago Pavano was considered one of the most fragile pitchers in the league.

Even if he stays healthy Pavano could just as easily post the 5.10 ERA from 2009 as the 3.75 from 2010; the rest of his numbers weren't all that terribly different. I guess I just see a big contract for Pavano right now as buying high, especially when you consider that the Twins would be losing the high draft pick that would come to them should Pavano sign elsewhere.

A return to Minnesota for the mustachioed righty is starting to look highly probable, but I question the wisdom of investing so much in the hope that an aging player will be able to repeat a surprisingly excellent season. Which brings me to my next talking point...

* Jim Thome's name hasn't been bandied about much this offseason. After amazingly piecing together one of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame carer at the age of 39, the slugger expressed interest at season's end in returning to the Twins. Given the uncertainty surrounding Justin Morneau and the tremendous popularity of Thome, the team would undoubtedly like to bring him back. It's just not clear how feasible that will be, as beat writer La Velle E. Neal III speculated this weekend that Thome's camp could be thinking "that it's time make up for what he didn't earn last season while he swats career homer No. 600 in a Twins uniform."

Thome is the definition of a luxury. He's a great hitter, even in the likely event that he regresses some from last season, and was perhaps the best value in baseball with his meager contract. Yet, a substantial pay raise (Neal noted in the aforementioned article that Thome's camp "raised its eyebrows" when Lance Berkman signed a one-year, $8 million deal with St. Louis) ups the ante. How much can Bill Smith really justify paying a 40-year-old part-time player who can't field a position and could succumb to his problematic back at any time?

* One intriguing alternative option for the Twins came off the table over the weekend, as Derrek Lee signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles. While 2010 was a down season by the first baseman's standards, he still hit 19 home runs and posted a higher OPS than Michael Cuddyer. Over the ten years prior, Lee had posted an OPS of .820 or above in all of them and hit 20-plus homers in all but one. On top of all that, he is a right-handed hitter with great career numbers against lefties, and he's considered an outstanding fielder.

Seemingly, Lee would have been an ideal fit in Minnesota. As both an insurance policy at first base and a platoon partner for Jason Kubel at DH, you couldn't do much better. Now, Lee has signed with another team (the Orioles, no less, who seem intent on making my offseason as miserable as possible).

Perhaps he wasn't a feasible target. Maybe he refused to sign somewhere he wasn't guaranteed a starting job, and maybe the Twins don't have $8 million available in the budget. All I know is that operating under the assumption that Morneau is certain to return and play a full season would be foolhardy, and the Twins had better find a contingency plan that doesn't involve subjecting fans to a full year of Cuddyer as a regular starting first baseman and Kubel as a regular starting outfielder.

Thome doesn't do that.