Monday, October 31, 2011

My Offseason Blueprint

When the World Series came to an end on Friday night, the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook officially became available. If you haven't already ordered a copy, you can purchase and download one immediately from the TwinsCentric website.

One section of the bulky 136-page e-book is called "Offseason Blueprints," wherein all four TwinsCentric writers utilize the information in the Handbook to map out our own suggestions for the Twins' front office.

We're interested in seeing your ideas, too, so we're holding a contest. Using your Handbook, or whatever tools you like, we want you to craft a blueprint of your own -- one that fills the team's needs as you see them and stays within a reasonable budget. Submit it to us at [email protected], and in a few weeks we'll toss the names of all participants into a hat and draw a random winner. If you're selected, we'll set you up with a free copy of our Twins Annual in the spring, and we'll also dissect your blueprint on the TwinsCentric blog.

To get you started and generate some discussion, here's my offseason blueprint from the Handbook:

Hedging Your Bets

The Twins face an extremely challenging paradox this offseason. On the one hand, they are coming off a 99-loss season and their roster is filled with holes, with the majority of their best prospects still several years off. On the other hand, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are in their physical prime and are owed a combined $37 million next year. If both those players return to form, you won’t want to waste the opportunity by fielding a poor roster that can’t support them. At the same time, you don’t want to put all your eggs in the 2012 basket because, realistically, it’s just not that likely that this injury-hampered group can make a 30-game swing in the standings. The best bet is to add cheap, low-risk short-term help while maintaining flexibility down the line. Here’s my attempt:

1) Let Michael Cuddyer walk.
Losing Cuddyer will be tough. Not only is his powerful right-handed bat sorely needed in the Twins’ lineup, he’s also a major asset in the clubhouse and community. Unfortunately, while he’d help a lot in 2012, his contract would likely become a burden in the later years as he ages into his mid-30s. It may be unpopular, but unless he’s willing to take a discount, letting Cuddyer walk and taking the draft picks is the smart call.

2) Re-sign free agent reliever Joe Nathan for two years, $14 million.
Nathan struggled out of the gates and finished with an unimpressive 4.84 ERA in 2011, but by the end of the year he looked very much like the dominant reliever we remember prior to Tommy John surgery. After coming off the disabled list in June, Nathan posted a 3.38 ERA and 28-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 29 1/3 innings. He’s a reliable and familiar closer.

3) Re-sign free agent outfielder Jason Kubel for three years, $21 million.
Kubel’s value is down after an injury-plagued campaign. Once a premier designated hitter, he’s been underwhelming in each of the past two years, so the opportunity is ripe to lock him up with an affordable multi-year deal if you believe the 2010/11 numbers don’t reflect his true offensive ability.

4) Offer arbitration to Alexi Casilla ($2.5M), Jose Mijares ($700K), Kevin Slowey ($3.3M), Glen Perkins ($1.8M) and Francisco Liriano ($6M).
Perkins and Casilla are essentially no-brainers, as they offer relatively inexpensive depth at positions of need. Bringing back Liriano and Slowey might be a somewhat difficult call following frustrating 2011 campaigns, but the Twins need all the rotation help they can get and both are candidates for bounce-back years.

5) Sign free agent catcher Ryan Doumit for two years, $9 million.
With Mauer’s status hanging in the balance, the Twins need to add depth at catcher, preferably in the form of a player who could play somewhat regularly and add offensive punch to the lineup. Doumit has spent his career as a part-time guy with the Pirates, never playing in more than 124 games, but his .271/.334/.442 career hitting line is very solid for a catcher and he’s only 30. He’s not considered a strong defensive backstop, but Drew Butera can be kept around to fill that role and Doumit can also fill in at first base and in right field.

6) Sign free agent starting pitcher Rich Harden for one year, $3 million plus incentives.
Bringing aboard one of the game’s most notoriously injury-prone starters may not sound appealing to Twins fans who watched almost the entire team spend chunks of 2011 on the disabled list, but this club needs high-upside arms and only the risky types like Harden will be affordable. The 29-year-old righty was limited to 82 2/3 innings and posted an ugly 5.12 ERA, but did manage to notch 91 strikeouts. He’s struggled mightily with the long ball over the past two seasons, but Target Field should help alleviate that. To help with his durability and maximize his stuff, it might be worth trying Harden in the bullpen if he’s willing.

7) Sign free agent infielders Nick Punto (one year, $750K) and Ramon Santiago (one year $1.5M).
Neither of these players is generally viewed as a starter, but both are sure-handed, versatile veterans that can at least hold their own at the plate. Let them compete for the starting shortstop job in spring training, with the loser holding down a utility job while Tsuyoshi Nishioka opens the season in the minors.

Summary: Ideally, you’d like to see Mauer and Morneau return to their previous roles and thrive. Given the circumstances, though, you can’t really plan around that best-case scenario. The above structure gives you some flexibility with those two. I went heavy on free agency additions because I felt the Twins had a lot of needs but don’t have much in the way of tradable assets on the big-league roster; dealing away prospects at this point is the wrong idea. The infield signings don’t add much offense but fans and coaches will welcome some steady veteran reinforcements after watching rookies kick grounders all over the place last year.

In the end, this might not be a terribly exciting blueprint but 2012 is shaping up as a transitional year, where the Twins can try out some different things on the big-league roster while letting their talented young prospects develop. It’s also not inconceivable that this group could compete in the AL Central if the rotation rebounds and the switch to less physically demanding roles rejuvenates the bats of Mauer and Morneau.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Can the Twins Contend in 2012?

Twins fans are generally a hopeful bunch. This is, in large part, a byproduct of the team's recent success -- they've missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons only once in the past decade, and have surmounted unthinkable deficits in dramatic fashion on multiple occasions. Beyond that, the people of Minnesota seem predisposed to optimism and positivity, at least when compared to some of the more venomous large markets.

Yet, as we prepare for the offseason to officially get underway, I'm sensing a great deal of despondence from the fan base when it comes to the 2012 team. In fact, many of the same commenters who scolded me for being overly negative in my preseason assessment of the 2011 club are now writing off the Twins' 2012 chances, dismissing the notion that they should rebuild with an eye on contending next season.

That's understandable. After all, the Twins lost 99 games this season, and they're plagued by persisting injuries, and their farm system is mostly barren in the upper levels. Still, we've gone through this whole song and dance too many times before. You can't write this team off.

While I didn't expect the Twins to come out on top of the AL Central this year, I did expect them to be competitive. And halfway through the season, they were. It's easy to forget this since our freshest memories are from those horrid final two months, where the team completely tanked and went 13-41, but in late July -- despite their horrible start and innumerable setbacks -- the Twins were six games out of first place and on the fringe of contention.

The offseason is a long time. It's a four-month span where players can dedicate themselves to resting and/or strengthening. There are no guarantees when it comes to Joe Mauer's knees, Justin Morneau's head, Francisco Liriano's shoulder or Scott Baker's elbow. But these same players that were key contributors for a 94-win team just a year ago are all eligible to return next year, and not one of them is older than 30. With better health, there's no reason they can't be the driving force behind a drastic team-wide improvement.

Granted, the Tigers appear to be in good shape right now, riding high after a very successful season that resulted in a postseason berth. But the same could have been said for the Twins a year ago. Crazy things happen in baseball. Unless Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski gets the green light to go on a shopping spree this winter, the AL Central should remain eminently winnable next year.

The flaws of this Minnesota roster are obvious and in some cases glaring. But, while the core players may be riddled with question marks, it's still a highly talented and relatively young crop. While an "all-in" approach for 2012 would be silly, the idea that Bill Smith and Co. should proceed as if the season is already lost is almost equally silly.

So, what's the best way to build for the long-term while remaining viable in the short term? We can discuss that on Monday when I share my offseason blueprint. Until then, you can brush up over the weekend by ordering a copy of the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook, which releases today tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Easy Option

This offseason will carry plenty of difficult decisions for the Twins' front office, but they got one of the easier ones out of the way yesterday when they declined Joe Nathan's $12.5 million option for 2012.

The move officially consummates a contract that the closer originally inked prior to the 2008 campaign. Over the life of his four-year pact, Nathan pitched 181 innings with a 2.49 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 206-to-54 strikeout-to-walk ratio. When healthy, he remained one of the league's best relievers, but he also missed the entire 2010 season due to injury and went through some rough patches while working his way back in 2011.

It's a cautionary tale for handing expensive multi-year contracts to aging relievers -- one the Twins will have to bear in mind as they contemplate their next step with Nathan. After collecting his $2 million buyout, he'll hit the free agent market and he should have no trouble finding suitors. Despite a 4.84 ERA this past season, Nathan finished strong and posted encouraging peripherals (8.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1.16 WHIP).

Losing their longtime closer would be a tough blow for the Twins, who desperately need effective arms at the back end of their bullpen. Yet, there are two major factors working in their favor. One is Nathan's age; he'll turn 37 next month, which, in combination with his surgically repaired arm, could be seen as a red flag. Another is that the free agent market for relievers is considerably deep.

Joining Nathan in the free agent pool are names like Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Ryan Madson, Francisco Cordero, and Frank Francisco. All are hard-throwing righties with a history of closing, and all are younger than Nathan.

With this depth of competition, the Twins' all-time saves leader will probably have to settle for a two-year deal where the total money is close to the $12.5 million he would have made with his option.

So it's easy to see why the Twins bought out Nathan's 2012 season, even though it cost them a couple million. It's also easy to see why they should make a hard push to bring him back anyway.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Is Denard Span Trade Bait?

Earlier this month, when pondering whether the Twins would be wise to pursue trades as a means of improving the roster this winter, I concluded that they lacked movable assets on the big-league roster. One player that I didn't mention, however, was Denard Span. Certainly, that seems to be a name worth discussing, considering that by some accounts the Twins were very close to dealing away the center fielder just three months ago.

In late July, when trade deadline speculation was at a frenzied high point, La Velle wrote a story for the Star Tribune carrying the headline, "Span not fazed by trade rumors." Yet, I've gotten the sense from some corners that the team's well publicized discussions involving Span created something of a rift between outfielder and organization. And while the aforementioned article relayed the outfielder's stated desire to remain in Minnesota, Span's follow-up quote seemed to carry a sour note:
"This is where I have been my whole career," he said. "But, at the same time, I'm the type of person who has a chip on the shoulder. If they want to trade me and think they can be a better team without me, then do what you have to do.

"I just want to play baseball. I'll go somewhere else and play baseball."
The Twins apparently feel that they have a viable replacement for Span in Ben Revere. And the deadline rumors may or may not have caused some friction. So, could Bill Smith revisit the idea of a Span trade during the hot stove season?

On the surface, there appears to be little reason for the front office to seriously consider such a move. Span had the second half of his season wrecked by a concussion, which remains an ongoing concern, and he has finished with a sub-.700 OPS in each of the last two campaigns.

At the same time, he's still only 27 and he's got a very team-friendly contract. Span is due only $3 million next year and remains under team control at a reasonable cost through 2014. He's a disciplined hitter, a speedy base-runner and a prolific defensive outfielder. There's a reason many Twins fans (including myself) were rankled by the Span-for-Storen rumors this past summer. He's a valuable player. If there are teams out there feeling confident that he'll be able to overcome the concussion symptoms and migraines, it's not unthinkable that Span could fetch some decent offers.

In that scenario, it'd be something worth thinking about. The outfield is one area where the Twins look to be flush with talent in the coming years, and there are a lot of needs elsewhere. In addition, one could argue that the Twins should embrace any opportunity to unload one of their various health question marks.

But doing so would mean letting Span, a fan favorite and long-term anchor at a crucial position, go somewhere else and play baseball. Should they be willing?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Experience Still Matters

Before the 2011 season got underway, I expressed some shock that the Twins hadn't sought out veteran depth to back up their young starting infielders. The roster looked especially thin in the middle infield, where I noted that, since 2006, the two Opening Day starters had missed at least 97 games between them every year. The following paragraph summarized the problem:
Whether because of injury, poor performance or trade, the Twins have annually gotten far fewer games than expected from their season-opening keystone combos. Unless Casilla and Nishioka can miraculously shatter that trend, we should expect to see other players getting significant time in the middle infield this year.
As it turned out, Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka did not shatter that trend. Quite the contrary. Between injuries and sheer ineffectiveness, they missed more time than any other duo over the past six years, playing in only 165 games combined. This left a lot of middle-infield work in the hands of players like Matt Tolbert, Trevor Plouffe, Brian Dinkelman and Luke Hughes; as you saw, the results were not pretty.

The Twins clearly underrated the importance of experienced depth in the infield last year, a mistake they are unlikely to repeat. After sitting through a season marred by booted grounders, errant throws, missed relays and plain old lousy fundamentals, Ron Gardenhire has undoubtedly stated his desire for the front office to shore up this unit.

So, what's out there? Among the free agent crop, some names that pop out at me are Ramon Santiago, Cesar Izturis, John McDonald, Edgar Renteria, Nick Punto and Jamey Carroll.

I realize that none of these options are all that enthralling. They're not high-impact, premium names and in some cases they shouldn't be viewed as starting candidates. But these are veterans who have been around the block, and since the Twins seem unlikely to break the bank for a player like Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins, they are the types of infielders I expect to see targeted in the coming months.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Three-Bagger: Rosario, Kubeddyer & The Handbook

* La Velle posted an update on his blog yesterday that is definitely worth reading. It includes notes on various players and prospects. The most interesting tidbit, from my perspective, was that the Twins are trying minor-league outfielder Eddie Rosario at second base in instructional league, and plan to carry the experiment over to spring training.

Rosario, who turned 20 last month, has played the outfield exclusively in his minor-league career, which thus far has spanned only 118 games. He had a breakout season in the Appalachian Rookie League this year, batting .337/.397/.670 with 21 home runs and 60 RBI in only 67 games.

Between Ben Revere, Joe Benson, Aaron Hicks, Angel Morales, Oswaldo Arcia and perhaps Miguel Sano, the Twins are overloaded with talented young outfielders that have a chance to help them in the coming years. Rosario's bat is certainly looking legit after he led the Appy League in homers. If the Twins can successfully shift him from an area of organizational strength to an area of extreme weakness (middle infield), it'd be a huge win.

Rosario has played only one full professional season, so a transition to the infield could be easier than it would be for, say, Ben Revere. La Velle noted that the Puerto Rican prospect was "all for" trying second base, and that front office execs Deron Johnson and Mike Radcliff both said Rosario "looked pretty good there during instructional league."

* The same article wonders whether the Twins can afford to bring back both of their long-tenured free agent outfielders this offseason. Jason Kubel has been with the organization for 11 years and Michael Cuddyer for 14 years, so these are decisions that will be taken very seriously.

There are a lot of good arguments for bringing Cuddyer back, and I'd guess that if it comes down to a choice between the two, the Twins are leaning heavily in that direction. However, from a pure baseball standpoint, Kubel sure looks like the better bet to provide good value for the money over the life of a new contract.

After posting an .805 OPS in 2008 and a .907 OPS in 2009, Kubel is coming off a pair of down years where injuries have been an issue. This, combined with his defensive deficiencies and platoon split (which softened this year), will keep him from commanding a king's ransom on the open market. However, even with his reduced productivity over the last two years, his core numbers (.756 OPS, 33 HR, 150 RBI) are very similar to Cuddyer's (.777 OPS, 34 HR, 151 RBI).

Yes, Kubel is another lefty bat and he doesn't offer the same flexibility or leadership that Cuddyer does. But he's also three years younger and he's going to be a whole lot cheaper. It will be interesting to see how those factors weigh on the Twins.

* I'm pleased to finally announce that this year's edition of the TwinsCentric GM Handbook is now available for pre-order. If you lock up your copy now, you'll get a nice discount at 5.99 -- down from the official price of 9.99 -- and you won't have to wait long for your copy, as we'll be dropping the e-book PDF file in your virtual mailbox as soon as the World Series is finished. You can click on the image below to secure yours:

Add to Cart

As always, the Handbook puts you in the shoes of the Twins GM and provides all the information you'll need to navigate the offseason and renovate the roster. We've got full run-downs of the free agent market, trade targets, arbitration eligibles, 40-man roster decisions and more, all packed with insight and advice from your TwinsCentric guides.

The GM Handbook has become our flagship product, and I hope that everyone who's interested in a comprehensive preview of this hugely important offseason will pick up a copy. Thanks, as always, for the support.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Incremental Upgrades

The Twins got their offseason roster renovations underway last week by outrighting Jason Repko, Matt Tolbert, Rene Rivera and Anthony Slama. This created four openings on the 40-man roster, though two of those spots are now filled by Nick Blackburn and Alexi Casilla, who were reinstated from the 60-day disabled list.

Repko and Tolbert were both set to be arbitration eligible this offseason, so this decision confirms what many already believed: that the Twins had no interest in employing those players next year at more than the league minimum.

Repko was a fifth outfielder and Tolbert was a utility infielder. Neither held a particularly significant role for the club. Still, both were exceptionally awful hitters in 2011, even by the low standards that accompanied their titles. Among all MLB players who made 200 or more plate appearances, Tolbert's .518 OPS was sixth-worst. Meanwhile, Repko's .555 mark fell nearly 100 points below his already poor career mark.

Replacing these two with more competent options would qualify as "incremental upgrades." It's a term I first used a couple weeks ago when talking about bringing back Nick Punto as a bench player, and you're likely to hear it often from me over the course of the offseason. Given their circumstances, the Twins shouldn't be looking to land one or two superstars; rather, they should be seeking to trim fat from the roster and build better depth across the board.

Unlike different casino games, dumping Repko and Tolbert in search of better options isn't much of a gamble. What do you think?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

To Trade or Not to Trade?

In November of 2009, Bill Smith set the tone for an extremely active offseason when he traded Carlos Gomez to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy. It was a relatively major deal, and one that turned out well for the Twins, who got a quality -- though injury-shortened -- season from Hardy at shortstop while Denard Span took over in center field.

Of course, Smith's trades haven't always gone so smoothly. With his pattern of buying high and selling low, I can only hope he doesn't invest much money in the stock market. He's dealt away players like Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Wilson Ramos and Hardy only to watch them thrive elsewhere; meanwhile, acquisitions such as Delmon Young, Matt Capps, Jim Hoey and the entire Johan Santana package have largely fizzled in Minnesota.

But it's not just Smith's history of getting fleeced that has me believing the Twins would be wise to stay away from the trade market this offseason. Based on the current roster composition and state of the franchise, I don't see any players that the team both can and should be dealing away.

Among those with movable contracts, there are few on the major-league roster with meaningful trade value. It's not hard to see the Twins shopping Francisco Liriano this offseason, but they'd be getting rid of him with his value at a low point; as mentioned earlier, this is a habit Smith must get away from. The same goes for potential trade candidates like Kevin Slowey (who's probably as likely to get non-tendered as traded), Danny Valencia and Denard Span.

One could point to Carl Pavano and his $8 million salary as an expendable asset, but the veteran righty led the team in innings pitched by 60 frames this year. With so much ongoing health uncertainty in the rotation, it's tough to argue that Pavano is dispensable unless the return is very appealing.

Of course, the Twins could look to the minors for prospects to package in a trade, but should they really be doing that? While it's not unthinkable that the team could return to contention next year with a lot of good breaks, the front office should really be building with an eye toward 2013 and 2014, when their next wave of organizational talent will be nearing the majors. Trading away from that group for more immediate help simply wouldn't fit with the direction this organization should be going.

The Twins have a lot of needs to fill, but they lack areas of strength from which it would be prudent to trade. Unless Smith can get uncharacteristically creative and pull a rabbit from a hat, I'd prefer to see the club upgrade its roster almost exclusively through free agency.

That can prove a challenging and expensive proposition, but fortunately they'll have some funds to work with this winter.

Friday, October 07, 2011

What's Cuddyer Worth?

The Twins have three long-time staples hitting the free agent market this offseason, making it the biggest organizational crossroad since 2007, when the contracts of Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva expired.

The team had to let both those players go, while also trading Johan Santana, because in all three cases the contract demands were exorbitant. That's how it tends to go when 29 other teams are in the negotiating mix. With Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan all set to shop themselves this winter, some tough decisions lie ahead for the brain trust at Target Field.

Unlike 2007, the Twins are equipped financially to bring back all three players, although doing so might consume the bulk of their spending money. With a daunting variety of areas to address, as I outlined on Wednesday, it seems unlikely that all three players will be retained. I suspect that one or even two of these familiar faces will land elsewhere.

Of the three, Kubel is probably most expendable. Losing his reliable righty-mashing ability would sting, but the Twins -- ideally -- already have two middle-of-the-lineup left-handed bats on the roster and he's coming off a pair of underwhelming seasons. On the flip side, his injury hampered season might keep him affordable.

Nathan would be tougher to lose. The Twins are bereft of quality right-handed relief arms, and Matt Capps almost certainly won't be back. The team will clearly decline Nathan's $12.5 million option for next year but might be able to get him back on a two-year deal at the same price. If not, there will be quite a few alternatives on the market.

Cuddyer is the guy that the Twins really don't want to let get away. He's generally considered the clubhouse leader and is cherished by coaches, teammates and fans alike. He's the team's best outfield power bat, and his ability to play first has been invaluable with Justin Morneau's ongoing injury issues. If you remove Cuddyer from the roster, the best remaining right-handed bat might be… Danny Valencia? Trevor Plouffe? Not good.

Unfortunately, of the three players discussed here Cuddyer has the most leverage entering this offseason. He's coming off a very solid campaign in which he posted an .805 OPS with 20 home runs while making his first All-Star team. He might just be the second-best right-handed bat on the market behind Albert Pujols.

The Twins reportedly offered Cuddyer a two-year, $16 million extension during the season, but they had to know that wouldn't come close to getting it done. Given his high rank within the free agent class and his sterling reputation, Cuddyer should be able to get three or even four years at an average of $10 million or more.

At that point, the Twins need to look past their affinity for him and honestly assess how they think his game will age. Locking into a contract that assures a potentially declining 36-year-old big money down the line is not a situation the Twins need to get themselves into.

My guess? The Twins' best offer will be a three-year deal, at maybe a little over $30 million, with a team option for 2015. If Cuddyer won't budge on a guaranteed fourth year, I'd guess he'll be playing for another team next season.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Prioritizing Offseason Needs

Yesterday I wrote that the depleted Twins could stand to upgrade their roster across the board during the offseason. It's probably not realistic to expect impact players to be added at every position, though, so today we'll prioritize the team's needs. Where are external additions mandatory, as opposed to optional luxuries? Let's assess the roster from top to bottom, starting with the most urgent area of need, and you can draw the line:

1. Shortstop

It could be argued that the shortstop is the most important player on the diamond. He is the captain of your infield, and the recipient of a very high volume of fielding chances -- often carrying a considerable degree of difficulty. The Twins were extremely weak at shortstop this season, with a .238/.292/.320 hitting line that came attached to very poor defense. It is simply unacceptable to enter the 2012 campaign with Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Trevor Plouffe as the sole options there.

2. Catcher

When healthy, Joe Mauer is obviously one of the league's elite catchers, but he wasn't healthy this year and as result the Twins got a .185 batting average from the position. Mauer's health is in flux and it's not at all clear he'll be able to crouch behind the plate for the majority of the team's games next season. To plan for that outcome, they absolutely must carry better backups than Drew Butera and Rene Rivera, who don't belong in the major leagues.

3. Relief Pitcher

The bullpen wasn't a crippling flaw in the team's 2011 roster composition only because the Twins so rarely had leads to protect. Make no mistake, this group was painfully bad. Minnesota relievers ranked dead last in the majors in ERA, opponents' batting average and K/BB ratio. Worse yet, Joe Nathan and Matt Capps are eligible for free agency, leaving Glen Perkins as the sole trustworthy holdover. The Twins might be able to cull a couple decent performers out of their collection of marginal relief arms, but they'll need to hit the trade market or free agency and add some reliable back-end relievers if they have eyes on contending in 2012.

4. Starting Pitcher

The Twins really need to supplement their rotation during the offseason, but the fact that this position ranks fourth tells you just how dire their needs are at the first three spots. The Twins do have some options on the existing roster, as they still control all the guys that they brought into this 2011 season when the rotation was largely considered a strength. The problem is that nearly every player at the position is afflicted by injury concerns, and the staff's pitch-to-contact tendencies don't play nearly as well with a sub par defense.

5. Outfield

Rather than breaking down the outfield position-by-position, we'll just say that the Twins could use some help out there in general, since it's not clear at this point how things are going to shake out. Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are both eligible for free agency, and if neither returns we would be looking at a Ben Revere/Denard Span/Joe Benson (or possibly Trevor Plouffe?) starting alignment. While that would be a stout defensive group, they'd be dreadfully low on power and very questionable offensively overall. Only if the Twins are in full rebuilding mode could they responsibly move forward with such a plan.

6. First Base

Coaches have already openly talked about moving Justin Morneau to DH in order to preserve his health, a move that would leave some big shoes to fill at first. Chris Parmelee made a strong impression in September, but his pedestrian minor-league track record suggests that he would struggle if pressed into full-time duty. Outside of him, there just isn't anyone in the organization with enough bat to step in as the regular first baseman next year. Unless it's Mauer.

7. Second Base

Alexi Casilla figures to return next year and while his .252/.310/.337 career hitting line isn't particularly exciting, he did enough this year to justify another shot. He has always proven susceptible to prolonged slumps and has never reached the 100-game mark in a season, so adding some depth ought to be a focus unless the Twins feel comfortable with Luke Hughes or Brian Dinkelman as their principle insurance plans.

8. Designated Hitter

It's not clear whether Kubel will be back next year, but with the uncertainty surrounding Morneau and Mauer, it seems likely that at least one of them will put in significant time as the team's DH next year. If they're both able to stick in the field (a good problem to have), the Twins will be tasked with finding a no-glove guy who can hit a little bit, which seems like a relatively minor obstacle given the rest of their headaches.

9. Third Base

Ron Gardenhire might consider this a higher priority, since he wasn't too shy about voicing his frustration with Danny Valencia over the course of the summer. Still, the sophomore led the team in games played and his offensive drop-off was completely attributable to a BABIP plummet, as his peripherals remained largely intact. He's nothing special -- particularly when you account for his iffy glove -- but considering his price tag and health, Valencia should be safe.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Great Challenge Begins

Coming off a truly horrendous season of baseball, Minnesota's front office faces an unbelievably daunting task: retool a devastated roster on the fly and return a 99-loss club to contention.

It will be a steep uphill climb. As Phil Mackey noted earlier this week, no team has ever won their division a year after losing 98-plus games. One could certainly make a valid case that a short-term rebuilding period, with an eye toward competing in 2013 or 2014, would be appropriate. Given the circumstances, though, it's safe to say that's simply not going to happen.

Obviously we don't know what specific moves the Twins will make in the upcoming offseason, but it should be pretty easy to guess their general approach. The consistent message will be that they already have the pieces in place, and that getting players like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span healthy will be the biggest key to a rebound. That's a fair slant.

But the problems with this roster run deeper than non-production at the top level. In some areas they absolutely need to get better and in others they would like to get better; there's not one position on this team with enough health, strength and depth to instill much confidence.

The Twins finished the 2011 season ranked 28th in the majors in OPS, 25th in starting pitchers' ERA and dead last in bullpen ERA. They also need to get significantly better defensively, especially in the infield. In other words, there are a whole lot of cracks in the foundation, and with payroll likely to creep back down toward $100 million, the front office won't have a ton of cash available for renovations despite some salaries coming off the books.

I expect considerable roster turnover this winter but I wouldn't anticipate much in the way of blockbuster moves. It's more likely that the front office will look to fill holes and build depth through numerous relatively minor signings and trades while holding steady to the idea that their returning core players are going to dictate the club's fate in 2012.

All in all, not a bad strategy. But the quality of these moves will determine whether the front office can regain the trust of an embittered fan base in the wake of a poor offseason and an even worse campaign.

I'll be following the action here all winter, and I hope you'll all keep stopping by to provide your thoughts on things as they develop. We'll get started tomorrow by prioritizing the areas of need.