Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Another Look at the Rondell Re-Signing

In a move that most of us were expecting, the Twins re-signed Rondell White today, inking a one-year deal worth $2.75 million. Much like the contract White signed with the Twins last winter, this one includes a second-year option as well as incentives for reaching 650 plate appearances in each of those seasons.

Of course, the Twins are hoping that White can hit like he did in the second half of the 2006 season, when he posted a .321/.354/.538 line with seven homers and 23 RBI over 156 at-bats. If he's able to perform anywhere near that level offensively, the salary the Twins are paying him will be a bargain when you take into account the deals being signed around the league. Then again, we have to remember that White was totally incapable of hitting the ball for a solid four months last year. The hope is that most of White's early struggles were a result of his ailing shoulder affecting his plate approach during the first few months of the season, with his solid performance down the stretch signifying that the problems were behind him. That's a reasonable thought process, and it gives me optimism that White can piece together a solid campaign and provide the type of right-handed consistency that the Twins need in their order.

At this point, it seems that the team's tentative plan is to feature White as their regular left fielder while starting Jason Kubel at designated hitter. White is not a good defender, but Kubel is a wild-card at this point and if his knee problems continue to limit his range in the outfield it's probably for the best that he sticks at DH for the time being. With Lew Ford and Jason Tyner available as late-game defensive replacements, White's sub par fielding ability should not be a major problem. Of course, if Kubel is back at full health, I'd much rather see him out in left; the notion that White cannot hit as well without playing the field is quite silly to me.

If White can retain the form that he showed in the latter months of the '06 season and some other players can build on the success they had last year, the Twins should have a pretty decent offense in 2007. Much will depend on Jason Bartlett's ability to hit like he did when he first came up (.342 average June-August) and not like he did at the end of the year (.228 average in September) as well as Nick Punto's ability to show consistency over the entirety of the season.

And, of course, RonDL's ability to stay healthy and hit the way we know he's capable of.

Radke Retires, White Re-Signs

For a very slow and uneventful offseason, this week has actually been "action-packed." Yesterday was probably one of the sadder days Twins fans have recently witnessed. Brad Radke, the 12-year veteran pitcher, officially retired. Now, unless you really thought there was a chance Radke would return, there was no surprise in this.

With that in mind, like many others out there, its fair to "memorialize" Brad in a way. He did, after all, give twelve very good years to the Twins organization and its fans, along with his right arm. I don't want to retread too much on things I've said before, but if there is one thing to remember Radke by, its his sheer will and determation.

There were many things over the years that endeared me to Radke. While constantly frustrated by his infamous first-inning struggles, the man constantly gave his team a chance and watching him pitch was always a joy. His effortless delivery and impeccable control was something to be amazed at. Radke was also the model of what altheletes should try to be. He stuck with the team that drafted him for less money twice out of loyalty and because it seemed like the avid outdoorsman liked Minnesota for the same reasons many of us do.

He was always soft-spoken, honest, and a professional. He never made offhand comments about teammates or his managers. He didn't point the finger. Instead, he just pitched his heart out every fifth game. And, of course, like so many this year, you it was impossible to not be effective by how much Radke gave this season, pitching with a torn labrum and a stress fracture in his shoulder. We'll never know how much pain he really pitched through, but we know how much he cared about the game, his teammates, and winning ballgames for the fans of the Minnesota Twins.

I'm going to miss Brad Radke this next year for sure, but I have to happy to have had the chance to watch the guy compete all these years. And no one can be really upset; the guy deserves his time now with his family.

As for other Twins news, Rondell White signed a one-year deal with the Twins yesterday. According to the Associated Press release, White has a second-year option and with performance bonuses, White could make $8.5 million if he has 650 plate appearances or more in each of the next two seasons. The one-year deal is for a guaranteed $2.75 million and will be completed once White passes a physical.

White's batting line last year was a unspectacular .246/.276/.365 with only 7 HRs and 38 RBI. He also, notably, scored only 32 runs in 337 at-bats, which is alarmingly low number. Naturally, many have pointed to his second half numbers as a marker of success, as he hit .321/.354/.538 with all seven homers and 23 RBI. Of course, he also hit only .143/.143/.357 in 28 August at-bats and was a ghastly .241/.281/.322 with RISP. His inconsistency was the major problem; he was actually almost halfway decent in May as a DH, hitting .263, but with no power. He had three awful months, in April, June, and August, one marginally better month in May, and two good months in July and September.

The most important split, though, is between his stats as a DH and as a left-fielder. Playing the outfield, he hit .328/.366/.507 and DHing, he hit .194/.215/.276. Obviously, because the Twins are worried about White's age (35 next year) and injury history, the second-year option only kicks in with 525 plate appearances. I'd also be concerned about White's general inconsistency and his awful arm in left-field. The Twins already spent the last few years with noodle-arms in left-field, particularly with the defensively-challenged Shannon Stewart.

However, at $2.75 million, its hard to complain too much considering the market. Let's remember that in recent days, a pitcher who had a 6.02 ERA got a three-year, $21 million deal when he should have gotten an incentive-laden contract instead and numerous other mediocre players have been raking in the money from clubs foolish enough to give them long-term deals.

With the White and Cirillo deals, the Twins haven't exactly done tons in the offseason, but they have made a smart investments. Neither contract is long-term or for high amounts of money, meaning that even if White is hurt or inconsistent or if Cirillo falls off very quickly, it won't hurt the Twins that much. These are, in that sense, the kind of deals the Twins have to make while they focus on the all-important extensions for Mauer, Morneau, and company.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Twins Add Cirillo

After making handing minor-league contracts to a pair of relief pitchers and a designated hitter within the past couple weeks, the Twins made their first legitimate move of the off-season today by signing third baseman Jeff Cirillo away from the Brewers. Cirillo, 37, will likely serve as a backup option at third base and first base and may also fill the DH role on occasion.

While Cirillo's one-year, $1.25 million deal is similar to the one Tony Batista signed prior to last season, it should be noted that Cirillo is essentially the anti-Batista. Cirillo has never really been known for his power, but he hits for good average, controls the strike zone and plays solid defense.

Once upon a time in his career, Cirillo was an absolute stud. In 1999 with the Brewers, he hit .326/.401/.461 with 15 HR and 88 RBI. He then moved on to Colorado, where he had two highly productive seasons. In 2002, Cirillo moved on to Seattle, where things fell apart completely for him. In his first season with the Mariners, he hit just .249/.301/.328. The next season those numbers dropped to .205/.284/.271. In 2004 Cirillo hit .213 in 75 at-bats with the Padres and it seemed at age 34 perhaps things were coming to a close. Instead, Cirillo caught on with the Brewers and had a bit of a revival, hitting .281/.373/.427 in 185 at-bats in 2005 and maintaining that production last year by batting .319/.369/.414 last year.

In an off-season where outrageous contracts are being signed by mediocre players around the league, Cirillo seems like a sneaky bargain. He's no spring chicken and his most productive days as a hitter are likely behind him, but he fills some major areas of need for the Twins. He gives them needed depth at third base as well as first base, and he's a right-handed hitter who hits extremely well against southpaws. Perhaps most importantly, Cirillo provides an insurance plan in case Nick Punto struggles offensively in 2007. While Punto had a nice overall season in '06, it cannot be ignored that he hit just .267 with zero power outside of the month of July. If Punto is stagnant offensively in the upcoming season, Cirillo would be able to take over at third, allowing Punto to return to his utility role. Cirillo would also be able to take over the hot corner in the event that the gimpy Luis Castillo becomes injured and unable to play and Punto has to slide over to second.

Much like with the Batista signing last year, the Twins have brought in a former All-Star third baseman who has fallen from glory in recent years. Unlike Batista, however, Cirillo has been a competent player over the past couple seasons and there is reason to think he can be a valuable asset to the Twins. This is a good signing that strengthens the team's bench immensely heading into the 2007 campaign.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Recent Developments

As most Twins fans know, the Twins have been seriously lagging behind in the offseason. It's tempting to say thats a good thing, considering how insane the market is. It was recently reported that Jason Marquis signed a three-year deal with the Cubs worth between $20 and $28 million. The guy, if you remember, had a 6.02 ERA last year. It used to be that if you were that awful, you had to do an incentive-laden deal.

There is another guy much like Marquis, who had one good year with a 3.71 ERA a few years back, that the Twins reportedly have interest in: Sidney Ponson. This, apparently, is Terry Ryan's solution to the off-season need of a pitcher. As Kelly Thesier, the Twins beat reporter, tells us, "with Ryan's reluctance to deal any of the organization's talented young arms or some of the club's bullpen depth, it could be another year of testing the lower tiers of free agency to find a fit." Instead of pursuing Colorado right-hander Jason Jennings, the Twins are instead looking at the veteran Ponson, whom the Twins want to sign to a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training.

Like Marquis, Ponson was simply awful last year. He pitched 85 innings, allowing 108 hits, a 6.25 ERA, a 1.69 WHIP, and a 48/36 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Yikes. Sure, he had one good year in 2003, going 17-12 with a 3.75 with the Giants and Orioles, but his control was never particularly great, even in that year. The Twins would likely point to pitching coach Rick Anderson, who may be able to help him with control and pitching in general, but a 29-year-old pitcher with alcohol issues and no control is not exactly a solution.

Pursuing Jennings was the best option for the Twins and they should know it. Hiding behind the logic of protecting young pitchers and bullpen depth is fine most of the time, but it doesn't really work in this situation. As a major league team, you have to take chances in order to get to the World Series. The ALCS debacle against Oakland exposed a need that for starting pitching beyond Johan Santana and Boof Bonser as well as a need for some more offensive depth.

Jennings would give the Twins innings and a solid ERA, something Ponson certainly can't be counted on for. And Carlos Silva isn't the solution either, even if he comes at a discount price considering this year's insane contracts. Giving up a rapidly aging and growingly mediocre Juan Rincon and a prospect like Scott Baker is not such a bad thing. Especially when the Twins have Matt Garza, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, and plenty of others waiting in line.

As for bats, the Twins plan is also not so great. At this point it sounds like it will be Jason Kubel at DH and Rondell White in left field. Unless Kubel miraculously gets a "new conditioning" program, it's doubtful he'll be healthy enough to go all year at the position and put up good numbers. And White, though he hits fine, is an awful defender in left. Settling because of the market is incredibly naive and probably won't work in the end. There are deals to be had out there.

For one, replace Jason Tyner with a guy like Kenny Lofton. Lofton is 39, but he plays defense basically the way Tyner does, he stole 32 bases last year (unlike Tyner, who never uses his speed on the basepaths), and Lofton has occasional power. Lofton also hit .301 last year, so the Twins wouldn't lose Tyner's precious batting average. At DH, there is 34-year-old Cliff Floyd. Floyd has had a bad injury history, but he has had a few good years and DH suits him well. He is basically this year's Rondell White.

There is also third baseman Jeff Cirillo, whom the Twins are also reportedly interested in. He was great years ago, but has no power left. He'd been fine for infield depth, but he won't give the Twins what they need. And don't even mention Shea Hillenbrand. Sure, Lofton and Floyd would cost the Twins $7-8 million, about all they have to spend, but it would be better than standing pat.

As it stands, the only offensive signing the Twins have made this off-season was the acquisition of Royal wash-out Ken Harvey. They signed him a minor-league deal yesterday, and apparently view him as a potential answer at DH. Harvey was a good minor-league hitter, posting a .330/.390/.508 line, but he hasn't shown enough power at the major-league level to be a legitimate DH-type and back injuries have limited him to 12 games total over the past two seasons.

Also, the Twins lost several players in the recent Rule V draft without picking up much of anything. The Twins had pitchers Justin Jones, Kevin Cameron and Levale Speigner snagged away, as well as outfielder Erold Andrus. Of course, all four players would have to spend the entire 2007 season with the major-league clubs in order for the Twins not to get them back, which is unlikly in most of those cases. I could see Jones sticking with the Nationals though, who are a cellar-dwelling team that is badly in need of left-handed pitching. Who did the Twins get out of the Rule V? Most notably, Alejandro Machado from the Washington Nationals, who batted .260 with 12 doubles, four triples, four home runs and 32 RBIs in 116 games with Boston's Triple-A club. Great. Another shortstop who plays defense and can't hit and has no power.

Here's what Vern Followell, the Twins' pro scouting coordinator, had to say: "He's a middle infielder and a veteran player, which is a different sort of player than we usually take in the Draft...He has a lot of experience and is more of a defensive guy. But we are looking for backup help at the Major League level and we're hoping that he can fit." Sounds like a Juan Castro clone.

This is yet another example of the problem with the Twins offseason: more of the same. Didn't the organization learn from last year's issues? The team needs more infielders who can't hit and they need more consistent power throughout the order. They need better pitchers than Ponson to round out their rotation. The Twins are right to avoid the ridiculous free-agent signings, but there are good deals to be had out there and that is what they should be pursuing.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

You Must Be Kidding

I can no longer withhold my bewilderment at the absolutely ridiculous contracts being signed this off-season. Three years and $34 million for Vicente Padilla? Gil Meche wants 4 years/$40 million?! Outrageous. I've heard much complaining about Alfonso Soriano's $136 million mega-deal, but at least that guy has done something to deserve a big payday. Padilla and Meche are career mediocrities. How could they possibly be worth upwards of $10 million per year? All these ridiculous pitching deals have got to be making the Twins feel good about having a wealth of young cheap starters who have shown an ability to pitch at least competently at the major-league level.

From everything I've read and overheard during the past few weeks, I have formulated a prediction for the Twins' off-season. I think they'll trade Juan Rincon and Scott Baker to the Rockies for Jason Jennings. That sets up the first four starters for their 2007 rotation: Johan Santana, Jennings, Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva. That would leave the fifth spot open for either Matt Garza or Glen Perkins, and it would probably depend on which young hurler has a better spring.

I believe that that will be the extent of the Twins' involvement in winter transactions. I think they'll re-sign Rondell White to return at designated hitter and then they'll concentrate on hammering out some multi-year deals with their middle-of-the-lineup hitters.

That might not be a very exciting off-season haul, but it would be a very typical one for Terry Ryan and the Twins. Personally, I'd be perfectly happy with the rotation laid out above, which could be very solid outside of Silva. It's worth keeping in mind that Garza is something of a wild card; he was very much rushed to the big leagues in 2006, but his dominant numbers in the minors would suggest that with the experience he collected and with an off-season of preparation, he could do some impressive things in '07. I don't foresee a Liriano-esque breakout, but Garza's got electric stuff and he knows how to pitch.

Of course, while I do expect the Twins to bring in Jennings and to perhaps add a couple bargain-bin free agents, I don't think any of these moves are particularly imminent. As La Velle E. Neal III notes in today's Star Tribune, Ryan is perfectly content with sitting back and patiently waiting for things to fall into place. That might not be ideal for us Twins fans who are antsy to see the 2007 Twins team start to fall into place, but we'll just have to make due.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Making Moves

With the annual GM winter meetings taking place this week, baseball's Hot Stove is getting ready to heat up. As we've discussed previously on this blog, it is unlikely that the Twins will be major players in the market this off-season, but that doesn't mean they won't do anything. I expect to see them take part in a relatively minor trade or two and I believe they'll sign a couple lower-level free agents.

I haven't seen the Twins pop up in a whole lot of trade rumors, but one player that Terry Ryan is reportedly shopping is Juan Rincon. Apparently the Astros and Rockies have interest in the right-handed reliever, and as notes, Morgan Ensberg would be a nice return. Ensberg, a 31-year-old third baseman, would be a good fit for the Twins, who could use a powerful right-handed bat in their lineup. Ensberg batted just .235 last year, but he walked 101 times in 495 plate appearances and still managed 23 home runs. In 2005, Ensberg was phenomenal, hitting .283/.388/.557 with 36 homers and 101 RBI. If he could return anywhere close to that form, he would be tremendously valuable addition to the Twins' lineup. I doubt the Astros would be willing to part with Ensberg for just Rincon, so Ryan would probably have to put together a package of some sort.

While they might dabble with some trades, Ryan and his staff will probably be spending most of their effort in the coming weeks on negotiating long-term contracts with Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer. All three are arbitration-eligible and all three are in line for big raises. For the short term and for the long term, it would be best if the Twins could lock all three players up with reasonable multi-year contracts, but that will depend on the players and their agents. Obviously the deals being signed around the league over the past month have not helped the Twins' chances of getting a good deal on any of these elite players.

It should be an interesting week, and here's hoping that Ryan and his staff can make some moves to help improve this team in 2007 and beyond.