It might be time to start looking ahead to the future for the Minnesota Twins.
I'm not a ridiculous pessimist, and I'm not going to sit here and write off the team's 2006 season in the middle of May. On the other hand, I have to acknowledge that at this point it is pretty unrealistic to think the Twins have a chance to be in the playoffs at the end of the year. Right now they are four games under .500 and 8.5 games out of first place. They trail three teams in the division, and passing three teams to return to first place would mean a whole lot would have to go right. While a couple winning streaks would cure a lot, the Twins have had their hands plenty full getting victories at home against teams like the Mariners and Royals. The pitching is not good, the offense hasn't improved a whole lot, and the management is shaky at best.
Let's take a look at the facts. It is more than likely that each of the following players will be gone next year: Juan Castro, Tony Batista, Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter, Brad Radke and Kyle Lohse. Each of those players is currently in the last year of their contract (in Hunter's case, there is an option for next year that the team will probably buy out because it is inordinately expensive). That's half the current starting position players and 2/5 of the rotation, all gone after this year. Those are key spots on a baseball team and, in many cases, there are not immediate answers as to how these spots will be filled.
At shortstop, Jason Bartlett should finally get his chance at the everyday gig in 2007, since the Twins really won't have any other options unless they trade or acquire one in free agency. The answer at third base is less apparent. The third basemen in Rochester (Glenn Williams, Terry Tiffee) are backups at the major league level at best. 2003 first-round pick Matt Moses is off to a very strong start at Double-A this year, but who knows whether or not he will be ready to start in the majors by the beginning of next season. Luis Rodriguez may provide a stopgap until Moses is ready, but that's only if the team can get over stubborn refusal to play him there regularly.
The outfield is an even stickier situation. The Twins should retain three outfielders next year in Michael Cuddyer, Lew Ford and Jason Kubel. Many feel that Denard Span is the team's future at center field, but like Moses he is still in Double-A right now and it's not real likely that he'll be ready to jump in and start in the majors at the outset of the 2007 season. Ford is a potential stopgap there, but if he's in center the options for the other outfield spots become more limited. Would an outfield made up of Ford, Kubel and Cuddyer be a decent one? Optimistically, yes. Kubel has been a very good hitter in the minors and projects to be a solid major leaguer. Cuddyer is extremely hot right now and appears to have turned a corner after failing to put it all together in his first several years in the majors. Ford probably doesn't have a future as a starter in the majors, but takes good at-bats and is good enough defensively to fill in at center for an extended period of time. On the other hand, if Kubel struggles in his transition to the majors, Cuddyer reverts back to his past mediocrity, and Span fails to develop, the Twins will have a problem on their hands. There are no corner outfielders in the Twins' farm system that will be ready to make an impact as a starter at the major league level in the near future.
As for the spots in the rotation that will be vacated by Radke and Lohse, the solution here should be a little less tricky. One of these spots will go to Francisco Liriano. The other could be filled by one of the Twins' solid minor leaguers like Boof Bonser, or a veteran free agent. The pitching rotation should be in pretty good shape for years to come, as the lower-level minor league teams are flush with great talent.
With all that in mind, it seems to me that the biggest thing the Twins need to address through a trade or free agency is a corner outfielder or designated hitter. If Cuddyer and Kubel both live up to expectations, they will be solid major league players but not spectacular in any area. What the Twins need is a guy who they can insert in the middle of the lineup behind Joe Mauer. While acquiring a marquis player of this type has been a pipe dream for Twins fans in the past, it is realistic at this point for a few reasons. The biggest thing is the fact that Hunter, Radke, Stewart, Lohse, Castro, and Batista currently combine to eat up over $30 million in salary. Take all that out of the picture and you've got some serious financial flexibility, presuming Carl Pohlad is willing to keep the payroll around $60 million. Even after Terry Ryan takes care of some of the necessary motions, like giving long-term deals to Mauer and Joe Nathan and extending Johan Santana's contract, there will be room for the addition of a relatively large contract or two.
That opens the door to offering a handsome deal in free agency or else bringing in a big and fairly expensive name via trade. As I stated before, the Twins' farm system is loaded with top pitching prospects, and there are several teams in the league with a dearth of good young pitching who would be willing to part with an elite offensive player to upgrade in that department (I have discussed Tampa Bay and Cincinnati at length as potential trade partners in past posts).
The fact is that the door is open for the Twins to make a trade, and they'd be wise to do so. If they can get any value for the players that are going to be leaving at the end of the year regardless, they should do so.