Monday, March 27, 2006

Trading With Tampa

Remember when the Twins were absolutely overloaded with outfield talent? At the outset of the 2003 season, they had Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Michael Cuddyer, Bobby Kielty, and Dustan Mohr all warranting play-time in the outfield. Several other minor leaguers seemed deserving of shots, including Michael Restovich. Over the next year, guys like Kielty and Mohr departed, but other guys like Shannon Stewart and Lew Ford entered the picture, preserving the Twins' outstanding outfield depth.

Starting as soon as next season, we are going to see a dramatic reversal in this trend. The Twins will be scrambling to fill holes left by the departures of Stewart and possibly Hunter. Stewart's contract expires following this season and, at age 32 and with his performance in apparent decline, it is unlikely the Twins will make an effort to bring him back. Hunter has an option for the 2007 season, but it would be very expensive to bring him back. He could be even be traded in July of this year.

If both of those players depart, the Twins will be left with two glaring holes in their outfield. The situation could be worsened if anything bad happens with Jason Kubel this year, as he is being counted on as the future solution in right field. With this in mind, it is time that the Twins start thinking about future options for their outfield. They are fortunate in that they have a minor league system rich with pitching prospects. With that in mind, I took a look around at some teams that had an abundance of young outfielders and was in need of pitching.

There are a few possible options rising in the Twins' minor league system. Alex Romero hit .301/.354/.458 in Double-A last year, and the 22-year-old has consistently hit for good average throughout his minor league career. He lacks the type of power you'd like to see from a corner outfielder, however. The same can be said about Doug Deeds, who is a career .305/.386/.472 hitter in the minor leagues but has hit only 28 home runs in 1,146 at-bats. Center field prospect Denard Span is highly regarded in the Twins' organization for his speed and defensive ability, but I won't consider him a legitimate prospect until he can show more patience at the plate and add at least some gap power to his game. These guys are all possibilities, but none have played above the Double-A level and all have holes in their game that make you question whether they will develop into productive big-league hitters.

Instead, the Twins might want to look into trading for a young outfielder with proven Major League ability. In February I wrote an article discussing the possibility of the Twins dealing with the Reds to acquire one of their outfield bats. One guy who I discussed as a likely trade piece for the Reds was Wily Mo Pena. Turns out I was right, as the Reds dealt Pena to the Red Sox last week for pitcher Bronson Arroyo. This would have been an intriguing move for the Twins to investigate. No doubt Reds GM Wayne Krivsky realizes that Kyle Lohse is a better pitcher than Arroyo, and Pena would be a nice addition to the power-starved Twins, as he projects possible 40+ HR type power. Still, Pena has a lot of flaws in his game, namely that he has an atrocious 2.9 AB/K ratio in his Major League career, doesn't walk much for a power hitter, and isn't an asset defensively. Pena would not have been a bad acquisition, but I won't sit here and complain about Terry Ryan passing on him.

Instead, I look to another team that is stacked with young outfield talent and desperately in need of pitching help. That team is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The D-Rays already have three star players patrolling their outfield and they have a couple more quickly rising through their minor league system. These are the speedster Joey Gathright and the #1 pick in the 2003 draft, Delmon Young.

Gathright has an almost identical skill set to Span, so trading for him wouldn't make a whole lot of sense. Young, rated as the number one prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, is almost certainly off-limits. That said, these guys are good enough to be playing in the Major Leagues this year, which would mean the Devil Rays -- who posted the worst team ERA in the MLB last season -- would have to trade one of their current outfielders to make room.

The Rays' outfield is currently comprised of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Aubrey Huff. I'll break down the possibility of acquiring each of these players and why each would be beneficial to the Twins.

Aubrey Huff
Huff can play either of the corner outfield spots, but he also has a ton of experience at first base and third base, which could be an asset to the Twins who lack depth at either of those positions.

Huff broke out in 2002, hitting .313/.364/.520 in 113 games with the Rays. The next year he played in all 162 of the team's games, hitting an outstanding .311/.367/.555 with 34 home runs and 107 RBI. He posted similar numbers in in 2004, but then had a bit of a down year last year as his OPS dropped from .853 to .749, but he still hit 22 home runs and drove in 92.

At age 29, Huff isn't exactly young, but he is an excellent hitter who could fill several major areas of need for the Twins.

Rocco Baldelli
After missing all of the 2005 season with knee and elbow injuries, Baldelli appears to be ready to go for this season. Picked 6th overall in the 2000 draft, Baldelli is an intriguing player. His Major League numbers aren't jaw-dropping; .289/.326/.416 in his rookie season of 2003 and a nearly identical line the next year. Baldelli is a 24-year-old free-swinging speedster with some power who plays great defense in center field. Unfortunately, the Rays would probably be a lot more likely to trade Gathright, since they just signed Baldelli to a contract extension last November and he is a better player.

Carl Crawford
If the Twins can somehow manage to get their hands on Crawford, they will be in very good shape. He is the best player in this group, but is also the most valuable and would require significant return. Crawford hit .301/.331/.469 last season with the Rays with 15 home runs and 81 RBI. He can fly on the basepaths. He swiped 46 bases last year and was caught only 8 times. He is one of the league's elite base-stealers, having ripped 59 in 2004 and 55 in 2003. He has tripled 34 times in the past two seasons, leading the league both years. He's only 24.

I don't know what it would take to pry Crawford away from the Devil Rays, but it would have to be package of very high value. Perhaps if some of the Twins' minor league pitchers greatly improve their stock and Scott Baker has a good year at the Major League level, a package could be made there. Maybe it's just wishful thinking. What I do know is that Tampa Bay has a corner outfielder that is just about Major League ready in Young, and they really need some pitching if they want to have any chance of competing in the offense-loaded AL East. They could get that in a trade with the Twins. Keep an eye on the Devil Rays as a potential trading partner for Terry Ryan, either around the deadline during this season or in the next offseason.

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We can breath a sigh of relief. The Twins have released Darrell May. I wish him the best, but he was not going to help this ballclub. The battle for the final two relief spots is pretty much now between Francisco Liriano, Dennys Reyes, and Willie Eyre.