Wednesday, December 30, 2009

State of the Rotation

It goes without saying that the starting rotation was one of the most disappointing units on the Twins last season. After the upstart and inexperienced group of young hurlers had come together and helped carry the team to the brink of a postseason berth in 2008, many expected only better things in '09 as the five matured and learned from experience.

Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned. Injuries and ineffectiveness derailed the rotation this past season, and ultimately starting pitching was one of the club's biggest flaws for much of the year as the Twins struggled to stay above the .500 mark.

This big drop-off left many fans yearning for Bill Smith to make meaningful improvements to the starting pitching corps during the offseason; yet, as we prepare to flip our calendars to the new year, the Twins' GM has not made one single external addition at the position. In fact, so far all he's done is remove starting pitching depth, dealing away a potential starting option in Boof Bonser.

Nevertheless, the Twins seem relatively well positioned in the rotation as we look forward to the upcoming season. One key move that Smith did make was offering Carl Pavano arbitration. Failing to find intriguing offers on the free agent market, Pavano and his agent decided to accept the offer, thus ensuring that the August acquisition will figure into the team's plans next year.

With Pavano locked up and Kevin Slowey ready to return from a wrist injury that cost him much of his '09 season, we essentially know how the top four spots in the Twins' rotation are going to shape up:

1. Scott Baker
2. Kevin Slowey
3. Carl Pavano
4. Nick Blackburn

It's not a bad top four. Baker, Slowey and Pavano all basically fall into the same mold: strike-throwing right-handers who post respectable K-rate and are extremely stingy with walks, but will generally allow a fairly high number of hits and homers. Those are good guys to have around, and any one of them is capable of posting a sub-4 ERA, but none are particularly likely to be an ace-caliber performer. And if the hit or home run rates get out of hand for any of them, they could be in for a tough year. Of the three, Slowey likely has the greatest upside given his youth, his outstanding K/BB ratios and his spectacular minor-league track record, but he was inconsistent last year even before going down with an injury so he has much to prove. Blackburn, of course, is a high-contact middle-of-the-rotation guy who has held his own through two big-league seasons but lacks significant upside.

With those four in place, the Twins are left with one spot to fill. While it's conceivable that Smith could go out and find another starter via free agency or trade, it seems somewhat unlikely at this point. The Twins have a handful of guys who could compete for the last spot in the rotation, but given that the four already in place are all right-handed I suspect they'll look to fill that final slot with a southpaw. There are currently three main contenders: Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing.

It is widely believed that Perkins will be moved before this offseason is over, and I'm inclined to agree with that train of thought. Duensing became a crucial contributor down the stretch last year after stepping into a starting role, which likely gives him the advantage over Liriano, who struggled all year long. Of course, considering that none of the four right-handers already entrenched seem to have legitimate top-end potential (with the possible exception of Slowey), Liriano remains an intriguing option since he was throwing like an ace as recently as the second half of 2008.

Right now it seems most likely that the Twins will enter spring training with an open competition for that fifth spot. Liriano and Duensing are shaping up as the main contenders, but if Perkins is still around he'd certainly be in the mix and if the Twins decide they don't care about having a southpaw in the rotation then Anthony Swarzak and Jeff Manship could have a shot as well. If I had to guess right now, I'd say that Duensing will probably open the season in the rotation with Liriano in the bullpen and the rest in the minors (or another organization). But spring training is still a long ways off and there's plenty of time for Smith and the Twins to try and add more clarity to what currently looks like a jumbled picture at the bottom of the rotation.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Waiting Game

General managers across the American League have been relatively busy reconfiguring their teams for the 2010 season. Of particular note are Brian Cashman and Jack Zduriencik, the respective GMs of the Yankees and Mariners, who have both been quite impressive up to this point in the offseason. Cashman has reinforced the roster of the defending World Series champs by bringing in Curtis Granderson and Javier Vazquez in trades that most analysts viewed as lopsided in favor of the Yankees. Meanwhile, Zduriencik has seeked to build on his team's 24-win improvement during his first year as GM by adding Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins. Earlier this week, the M's dealt underperforming former top prospect Brandon Morrow to the Blue Jays for Brandon League in a deal that puzzled many but that I liked given that I've long coveted League.

Meanwhile, Bill Smith and the Twins have been awfully silent. Since making a big early splash by trading Carlos Gomez for J.J. Hardy just a couple days after the World Series, the Twins have been relatively inactive, with the only noteworthy moves coming in the form of an arbitration offer to Carl Pavano (which was accepted) and a minor trade that sent Boof Bonser to the Red Sox for a low-level pitching prospect.

Seeing rival GMs wheel and deal while Smith has remained in the shadows has irked a number of Twins fans, but the reality is that the Twins are probably playing this the right way. Despite the number of significant trades that have gone down, the free agent market has remained stagnant. Several options at positions of need -- including Felipe Lopez, Mark DeRosa and Adrian Beltre -- are still out there, and it seems like agents and teams are waiting for a few early contracts to set the tone before they start hammering out deals. The Twins probably don't have a lot of financial flexibility left to sign additional players, and they almost certainly can't afford to meet the current demands of guys like DeRosa and Beltre. Yet, as time goes by, the prices will only drop. The same is true for potential trades.

I'm not suggesting that the Twins once again wait until late February when the only remaining option is a hobbled and desperate Joe Crede before they start seriously investigating solutions to their infield holes, but fans should show a bit more patience with the front office. Waiting is the right strategy for the time being.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Turning the Tables

Flash back two years, to the winter following the 2007 season.

Just one year removed from capturing the AL pennant, the Detroit Tigers were boldly making their move. During the winter meetings, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal with the Marlins that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Motown in return for a gaudy package of prospects highlighted by Cameron Maybin and Adam Miller. The move came just shortly after Dombrowski had acquired Edgar Renteria from the Braves for a pair of quality pitching prospects.

The Tigers were moving cheap, promising players for established commodities, and were showing little concern with the financial repercussions. A busy offseason for Dombrowski ballooned his team's payroll from $95 million in 2007 to $138 million 2008, positioning them as the highest-spending club in baseball outside of the Yankees.

Meanwhile, the Twins' 07/08 offseason consisted of trading away the league's best pitcher and letting one of their core hitters and clubhouse anchors walk. In both instances, the players were deemed too expensive for the Twins to retain on their limited budget. Despite a few second-tier free agent signings, the Twins saw their budget shrink from $71 million in '07 to $56 million in '08, dropping them into the bottom third of all MLB teams in terms of payroll.

Flash back to present. The Tigers, who fell just a game short of the playoffs this season, are amidst an epic firesale. They shipped off one of their core offensive players in Curtis Granderson and a key starter in Edwin Jackson, fresh off a breakout year. They were forced to let key contributor Placido Polanco walk and weren't even able to offer theType A free agent arbitration and collect valuable draft picks because they couldn't afford the risk of having to pay him several million dollars in 2010 should he accept. There are rumors that the Tigers still aren't done shedding salary, with names like Cabrera and Justin Verlander continuing to spring up in trade speculation.

The nation's economic downturn has hit Detroit hard, and its formerly free-spending baseball club is feeling the effects.

Things look significantly brighter here in Minnesota.

The Twins have ramped up spending recently at an unprecedented level. I wrote last week about how the organization has displayed a dramatic increase in willingness to open the wallet over the past year, whether on the international market (Miguel Angel Sano), in the draft (Kyle Gibson), on players acquired via trade mid-season (Jon Rauch/Orlando Cabrera/Carl Pavano/etc.) or offseason moves (J.J. Hardy/Pavano). In its most recent display of fiscal freedom, the Twins elected to tender contracts to all of their arbitration-eligible players. That includes Jesse Crain, who is in his final year of arbitration and could make close to $3 million after earning $1.7 million this past season. The Twins would have had every excuse to non-tender Crain, given that he's coming off a rather unexceptional year and spending several million dollars on someone who figures to be -- at best -- the third or fourth right-handed option out of the bullpen is a luxury that in the past they've shied away from. Yet, Crain possesses solid upside for next year considering his strong finish this season (2.20 ERA in August/September) and his being almost two years removed from shoulder surgery. That he's seemingly being brought back bodes well.

The Twins' payroll is already approaching $100 million, a notion that seemed borderline absurd on Opening Day this season when that figure sat at $65 million. Even with the big increase in spending that we've already seen, the Twins still claim to have interest in signing another infielder. They also still have yet to work out a new contract for Joe Mauer, which many (including myself) believe they will do before spring training opens next year.

So, the Twins are taking on salary, spending big on international talent, going over-slot to sign draft picks, and likely are on the verge of doling out one of the biggest contracts in league history to retain their star player? All while the rest of the division is pawning off expensive stars and selling out the present for the future in order to cut costs? Is this some sort of parallel universe?

Longtime fans from around these parts can be excused for reacting with some confusion, but what we're seeing are the benefits associated with the move to a new park. I'd posit that these drastic increases may also be attributable in part to a less frugal philosophy held by ownership now that power has shifted from Carl Pohlad -- who passed away early this year -- to his sons.

Whatever the combination of causes, this new situation is a sweet one for Twins fans, and one we've never really experienced before. The Twins still fall far short of the truly big-market clubs, but they're now beginning to resemble a team that can hold its own when it comes to acquiring and retaining talent. This might not put an enormous dent in the disadvantage the Twins feel when trying to measure up to the Yankees and Red Sox of the world, but it puts them in excellent position in an AL Central division where at least three teams are pretty clearly in rebuilding mode.

Right before our eyes, we're seeing the transformation of a franchise. Long known as the division's "Little Engine That Could," the Twins are beginning to emerge as financial heavyweights in the AL Central. As the holidays approach, now seems as apt a time as any for fans to appreciate this unfamiliar feeling.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Winter Meetings Wrap-Up

The winter meetings came to a close yesterday without any meaningful activity from the Twins, which is hardly surprising. Last offseason, it took Bill Smith and Co. until February to make any significant moves, so the fact that the team has already addressed two major areas of need by trading for J.J. Hardy and locking up Carl Pavano for another season should help satisfy hot-stove hungry fans.

Despite the slew of moves that took place this week, plenty of intriguing players remain available in free agency and the Twins have been connected to several trade rumors, so there will be plenty of stuff to track in the coming weeks. With that being said, I expect a lull until at least the turn of the new year.

A few more notes to wrap up the week of winter meetings...

* After designating him for assignment earlier this week, the Twins have traded Boof Bonser to the Red Sox for a player to be named later. This is good in that the Twins would have gotten nothing in return for losing Bonser had he gone unclaimed and become a free agent this weekend, but the player they ultimately receive from Boston will likely be a low-level prospect with marginal upside.

* The Rule 5 draft took place yesterday. The Twins didn't select any players nor have any poached away in the major-league phase. Twins' farmhands Angelo Sanchez and Winston Marquez were both selected in the minor-league phase of the draft, but neither pitcher is a major loss.

* Finally, I did a Twins-related Q&A this week over at the blog SimonOnSports. You can check that out here.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Finite Resources

Even without external additions, the Twins were in line for a healthy bump in payroll next season, with newly arbitration-eligible players and those already under contract due salary increases. The acquisition of J.J. Hardy and the retainment of Carl Pavano only add to this escalating figure. As Joe Christensen noted on his blog yesterday, the Twins' 2010 payroll is already approaching $90 million, and we're not even halfway through December yet.

With these recent additions (not to mention some in-season trades that brought on extra salary), and with the Twins demonstrating an increased willingness to spend on the international market in the draft, fans might be falling into a false sense of security. The club's move to Target Field certainly jolts their ability to spend -- and that's been made clear by the aforementioned aggression in various avenues -- but it doesn't suddenly turn the Twins into a large-market team. A $90 million payroll in 2010 would already represent an increase of roughly $25 million (nearly 40 percent) over the payroll they sported on Opening Day 2009. That's pretty impressive in its own right, and I'm not sure I'd expect much more in terms of added salary.

In fact, we might already be seeing the Twins making some moves to trim salary in the face of these major increases. Yesterday, in order to make room for Pavano on the 40-man roster, the Twins elected to designate Boof Bonser for assignment. That the Twins decided on the arbitration-eligible Bonser rather than, say, the less expensive and less useful Bobby Keppel, would seem to speak volumes. Bonser, who missed the '09 season after undergoing shoulder surgery but was apparently recovered and ready to pitch in September, has been a frustrating pitcher whose results have never matched the quality of his stuff, but he'd shown promising flashes after moving to the bullpen late in 2008 and it's tough to view this move as anything other than money-driven.

I suspect that the Twins are finished addressing the rotation. There's almost certainly not enough money left to sign an established, reliable starter, and I'm guessing there will be enough suitors for the low-risk/high-reward/injury-prone breed (Rich Harden, Ben Sheets, Erik Bedard, etc.) that none of them will come particularly cheap. (Although, if any of them do, the Twins have enough depth that they'd in excellent position to take a flier on one.)

Meanwhile, although at least one hole remains in the Twins' infield and several attractive options remain on the market, I'm beginning to lose faith in the notion that the Twins will actively pursue any of these options as I look over the team's financial particulars. The prices for which players like Marco Scutaro and Chone Figgins have signed thus far suggest that quality infielders like Orlando Hudson and Adrian Beltre might be had for relative bargains, but these players are still likely to cost upwards of $5 million annually and I'm just not sure the Twins have that much left to commit, particularly considering that the Joe Mauer situation still needs to be worked out.

At this point, it seems likely that the Twins will either end up snatching a bargain player like Joe Crede later in the offseason, or trading for a relatively inexpensive solution from another club (a package deal for the Padres' Kevin Kouzmanoff built around Glen Perkins would seem to make a lot of sense, for instance). But if you're expecting any big splashes in the high-profile free agent market, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Pavano Accepts Arbitration

Yesterday marked the deadline for Carl Pavano to decide whether to accept or decline the Twins' arbitration offer, and to my surprise he elected to accept, ensuring that the August acquisition will wear a Twins uniform once again in 2010.

Reports indicate that Pavano and his agent were seeking a multi-year deal from the Twins and other teams, but ultimately didn't get any bites. Rather than running the risk of being forced to settle for another incentive-laden deal with a low base, Pavano decided to make the one-year commitment to the Twins and will likely end up making around $7-$8 million next season.

I say I'm surprised by this outcome because Pavano signed a one-year make good deal last offseason with the Indians, and it seemed to me like he did make good. The historically injury-prone hurler racked up 200 innings without much issue while displaying elite control (his 1.76 BB/9 IP rate ranked second in the AL) and an ability to miss bats (solid 7.2 K/9 IP rate). He even finished his year by putting forth a dazzling performance on the national stage against an offensive powerhouse by holding the Yankees to two runs over seven innings in Game 3 of the ALDS.

My sense was that some pitching-starved club would view these promising signs as meriting a two-year deal, but apparently the past injury problems and the inflated ERA this past season were enough to scare away other general managers.

I have suggested in the past that the Twins bring him back on a two-year, $12 million pact. While such a deal would have likely entailed a lower annual base, retaining Pavano on a one-year commitment is preferable because his historical tendency to get hurt makes any multi-year guarantee a concerning risk.

I concluded about a month ago that "even though Pavano is merely a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter, bringing him back should be a priority." The Twins now have him locked up for next year, and he should be able to combine with Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn to form a very competent 1-through-4 in the rotation. Pavano's relatively high price tag does, however, figure to limit the Twins' financial flexibility over the remainder of the offseason. We'll dig into that predicament later this week.

Friday, December 04, 2009

One Option Off the Table

Just two days after he became a no-strings-attached free agent when the Tigers declined to offer him arbitration, Placido Polanco returned to his erstwhile baseball home by signing a three-year, $18 million contract with the Phillies yesterday.

In my offseason blueprint, I suggested that the Twins sign Polanco to a two-year, $9 million deal. I'm not surprised that I underestimated his annual value (though the $6M rate he got from Philly is not all that much higher than my estimate), but I am a little surprised he got a third year. Polanco is already 33 and it seems like there's a good chance the Phillies will be overpaying him by the end of this deal, particularly if his outstanding defense doesn't hold up while he ages and transitions to regular duty at third base, a position where he has played only 20 percent of his career defensive innings.

I obviously would have liked to see Polanco sign with the Twins, but at that length it probably wouldn't have been a wise move for Bill Smith, and considering how quickly the second baseman inked with the Phillies it seems likely that he was eager to return to the town where he broke into the big leagues anyway.

Orlando Hudson and Felipe Lopez remain as attractive but likely spendy high-end options at second base. On the next tier, you still have guys like Jamey Carroll and Adam Kennedy. Of course, Adrian Beltre also remains as a potential option at third base, with Nick Punto sticking at second.

Even with a desirable option off the board in the form of Polanco, many potential solutions to the Twins' infield vacancy remain on the board. Much depends on how much they're willing to spend, and how aggressive Smith is willing to be in his pursuit. I suspect we'll start to learn more about both of those uncertainties next week when the MLB Winter Meetings kick off.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Setting Sights at Second

I was mistaken in yesterday's post when I posited that the deadline to offer arbitration to free agent eligible players fell on Monday night; it actually fell last night. As expected, the Twins did indeed offer arbitration to Type B free agent Carl Pavano, so now Pavano will have the opportunity to either except and return to the Twins on a one-year deal (likely worth around $7 million) or hit the open market. Should he decline arbitration and sign elsewhere, Pavano would net the Twins a supplemental pick in next June's draft. Either outcome is a fairly beneficial one for the Twins, and as such Bill Smith's move to acquire Pavano in August is looking like a savvy one.

Perhaps the more interesting development from yesterday's deadline, though, is that neither Placido Polanco nor Orlando Hudson were offered arbitration by their respective clubs. Both Polanco and Hudson qualified as Type A free agents, but with the Tigers and Dodgers electing not to offer arbitration, signing them will not cost a draft pick. These are both players that the Twins should be extremely interested in; they're veteran second basemen whose offensive skills make them well suited to bat second and who are very competent in the field. My offseason blueprint suggested that the Twins tab Polanco, but I'd have absolutely no problem with Hudson, who I pushed hard for last offseason.

The Twins have been awfully quiet since they traded for J.J. Hardy just after the conclusion of the World Series, but with the Winter Meetings fast approaching the time has come for Bill Smith and Co. to once again ratchet up their offseason dealings. Honing in on Polanco and Hudson should be among their very highest priorities.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Catching Up

It's been quite around these parts lately, but frankly there just hasn't been a whole lot to write about. Let's quickly catch up on a couple Twins tidbits.

* A small blurb near the bottom of Charley Walters' Sunday column in the Pioneer Press reads as follows: "It's unclear what it will take for Joe Mauer to re-sign with the Twins before he can become a free agent after next season. A little birdie says, though, that any offer for fewer than seven years won't do it."

Now, it's worth noting that historically any statement in a Walters column that is sourced to "a little birdie" has often been a baseless fabrication, but the sentiment here seems to be on track. The Twins can't reasonably afford to pay Mauer the same annual salary that a team like New York or Boston might be able to, so odds are they will have to win him over with length. I suggested in the GM Handbook that the Twins sign Mauer to an eight-year, $150 million deal, which would essentially add up to a seven-year extension since my proposed contract tears up the end of his current deal and begins next season.

That might seem like an awfully lengthy deal, particularly for a catcher, but it's worth noting that Mauer would still only be 34 such a contract expired. There are few scenarios in which I can imagine the Twins would want to let Mauer leave before he reaches that age, and even in the event that he does begin to wear down as he reaches his mid-30s, I think that's something the Twins should be willing to stomach in return for locking up a likely Hall of Fame player during his prime years at a reduced cost.

* Speaking of Mauer, I'm guessing there are a number of female fans around this fine state that are wishing this would have happened to him rather than a division rival's studly marquis player.

* Doubtlessly any Twins fans who were forced to endure Chip Caray's awful play-by-play during Game 163 and the ALDS this year will surely be pleased with this news.

* I believe that last night marked the deadline for offering arbitration to free agency eligible players, but as I write this I've not yet heard whether or not the Twins offered to Carl Pavano. My assumption is that they did, since he's a Type B free agent and the reward of receiving a supplemental draft pick should he sign elsewhere more than outweighs the risk of having to pay him around $7 million on a one-year deal (which might not even really be a bad thing).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Joe Mauer: AL MVP

When Joe Mauer's first swing of the 2009 season sent a ball sailing over the left field wall in the Metrodome, one got the sense that this was going to be a special year. Mauer missed the entire month of April due to a back injury, but in a way that might have been a blessing because his absence made local fans all the more appreciative of what he brought to the table once he finally was able to take the field. Even with a month's worth of missed games, there is no taking for granted what Mauer was able to accomplish this season, and fortunately the BBWAA voters saw it the same way as they awarded the Twins catcher with his first American League MVP award yesterday.

It had been widely assumed that Mauer would capture this honor ever since he batted .354 in September/October to put the finishing touches on a dazzling season and help launch his team to an improbable postseason berth, but yesterday it became official. Mauer becomes the fifth Twins player to win an MVP award, and the second in the past four years.

By now you're probably familiar with the numbers, but let's break them down again quickly. Mauer hit .365/.444/.587, leading the league in all three categories to capture the so-called "Sabermetric Triple Crown." He overcame a historical lack of power by bashing 28 home runs -- more than double his previous career high -- and drove in 96 runs while scoring 94 times. He walked more than he struck out (76/63). He hit .377 against right-handed pitchers and .345 against lefties. He posted a 1.067 OPS with runners in scoring position. It was a remarkable offensive season from just about any angle, and he did it all while putting in over 900 innings at the most demanding defensive position on the field. And while one can use the missed time early in the season as a mark against him, it's worth noting that Mauer was essentially an iron man after coming off the DL, resting less frequently than he ever has in the past and even catching both games of a crucial double-header late in the year. Even though he missed the entire month of April, Mauer played in 138 games and made 606 plate appearances; over the four seasons prior, he had averaged 131 games and 566 plate appearances.

Anyone with a working brain would have recognized Mauer as the AL's best player this year regardless of how the MVP voting results played out, but nevertheless it was quite encouraging to see Mauer place first on 27 of the 28 ballots while Mark Teixeira and his league-leading RBI total did not get one first-place vote. The ability of the BBWAA voters in this instance to look past traditional stats that tell you less about the performance of an individual player and more about the performances of his teammates, as they did with the Cy Young voting, represents refreshing progress.

Of course, the one downside to Mauer's capturing this award is that it will do nothing but strengthen his case at the negotiating table. And that is where our attention must now turn, because the Twins No. 1 priority at this point should be making sure they get their MVP locked up long-term.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wrapping Up the Week

Haven't gotten a post in since Monday, so let's touch on the past week's developments quickly...

* The BBWAA has pleasantly surprised me this week by electing deserving winners for both league's Cy Young Awards, uncharacteristically looking past relatively unimpressive win totals and awarding Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum for their fantastic bodies of work in the '09 season.

Greinke, who had a historically great season, was the clear-cut class of the AL this year, and any concerns that the voters would lean toward the gaudier win totals of less deserving candidates like Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander or CC Sabathia were erased when Greinke captured all but three first-place votes and won in a landslide. The NL picture was a bit less clear, and I was pretty torn between Lincecum and Chris Carpenter, but ultimately Linecum's huge strikeout totals and 2.48 ERA caused voters to overlook his weak 15-7 record. Adam Wainwright, who looked to many like the presumptive winner due to his league-leading totals in wins and innings pitched, surprisingly finished third.

With the quality selections in these categories, the much maligned BBWAA is starting to build up some good will among modern-thinking baseball analysts and fans everywhere. Of course, that could all be erased if Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols aren't announced as MVPs next week.

* Results for this year's Manager of the Year voting were also announced this week, and on the AL side, Ron Gardenhire finished just behind winner Mike Scioscia to notch his fifth second-place finish in eight years as Twins manager (there's also a third-place finish mixed in there). When pondering Gardenhire's candidacy for this award in late October, my conclusion was as follows: "I don't know if Gardenhire excelled more than any other American League manager this year -- Mike Scioscia and Ron Washington both did excellent work -- but he certainly deserves to be one of the front-runners for the Manager of the Year award." So, obviously I think Scioscia was a deserving candidate and I'm happy he won. The fact that Gardenhire recorded his sixth top-three finish in eight seasons since becoming Twins manager, though, only strengthens my perception that he is viewed much more highly around the country and around the league than he is here in Minnesota, and that he's probably a better manager than a lot of local fans give him credit for.

* Thrylos98, who authors the Tenth Inning Stretch blog, has been claiming on his Twitter account to have inside info on a developing blockbuster deal between the Twins and Marlins that will bring Dan Uggla and Ricky Nolasco to Minnesota.

Around the end of the regular season, Thrylos made a vague mention of a major move on the imminent horizon for the Twins, and after the J.J. Hardy trade was completed he claimed that this was the move he'd been referring to all along. Of course, that statement doesn't really jive with reports that the Twins started talks with the Brewers only 10 days before the Hardy trade was consummated, so you can color me skeptical. There's no way in the world I believe the Twins have the pieces (that they'd be willing to move, anyway) to reel in a marquis package like Uggla and Nolasco, but if such a swap actually goes down, I'll officially start referring to Thrylos by the nickname "Scoop."

* On Tuesday night, Seth Stohs had third base prospect Danny Valencia as a guest on his weekly podcast. An amusing moment came midway through the interview when Valencia took an opportunity to call out one of his harshest online critics.

"That guy, I don't know his name, he goes by TT," said Valencia. "It just seems like he doesn't like me, it's kind of unfair, but you know I guess it comes with what we do. TT, if I can make you like me man, let me know if I can get you on my side. I hate to read all the bad things you say about me, but we'll see what we can do."

Readers of this blog might recognize that name, as TT frequently engages in lengthy debates in the comments section here and also runs his own blog, Granny Baseball. I found the quoted portion of Seth's interview quite humorous given that I've always felt that TT has been far too critical of Valencia without any legitimate reason. In fact, just this week, when making his recommendations for additions to the Twins' 40-man roster on his blog, TT astonishingly skipped over Valencia while pointing out that the Twins seem high on the third baseman "despite his struggles at AAA last year." That seems like a rather absurd spin on a 758 OPS in a 24-year-old's first stint at the Triple-A level, and of course it's not difficult for any objective observer to see why the Twins are high on Valencia given his .299/.354/.480 hitting line in the minors and the relatively success he has experienced at every level, but it's hardly surprising to read that from TT.

Perhaps a personal appeal from the player himself will soften our friend's stance on Valencia. Somehow I doubt it.

By the way, make sure to check out Seth's podcast from Tuesday night here if you haven't had a chance. Aside from the interview with Valencia, who comes off as a real good kid, Seth also chatted with Steve Singleton, who just yesterday finished up a solid run in the Arizona Fall League.

* Finally, when you get a chance, make sure to check out the newest promising blog dedicated to the Twins and Minnesota sports at large, Undomed.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mythical Joe Crede

As the offseason gave way to spring training last year, rumors began to spring up regarding the Twins' interest in free agent third baseman Joe Crede. From pretty much the moment this speculation began, I took a stance against signing Crede, pointing out that with his troubling injury history and Tony Batista-esque career hitting line, his potential for plus power and defense were unworthy of a large financial investment.

The Twins ended up signing him, though they waited out agent Scott Boras until the price dropped to a reasonable $2.5 million guarantee plus incentives. At that type of minimal monetary commitment, even I couldn't take major issue with the signing. Still, I warned fans to keep their expectations for Crede in check, noting that when healthy enough to be on the field, "Crede should be able to provide strong defense from the hot corner while popping a few big home runs, but he is also likely to make a lot of outs."

When I did a preseason position analysis for third base, I projected that Crede would post a .255/.300/.425 hitting line with 12 homers and 50 RBI, anticipating that he'd hit around his career line while missing a sizable portion of the season due to injury. As it turned out, the prediction was accurate and the earlier Batista comparison was apt, as Crede hit .225/.289/.414 (Batista hit .236/.303/.388 with the Twins in 2006) with 15 homers and 48 RBI before having his season ended after 90 games due to yet another back injury. Of course, Crede was much better defensively than Batista, making this a much less disastrous experiment, but I nevertheless felt vindicated to see my warnings about Crede come to fruition almost precisely.

And so, when it came to light last week that the Twins may have interest in bringing Crede back on another incentive-laden one-year deal next season, I was somewhat appalled to see that the reaction from Twins bloggers and fans was overwhelmingly supportive. Are you kidding me?!

It seems to me as though the perception that Crede was a quality player for the Twins this season and would be a palatable option going forward into 2010 is predicated on a number of myths. Let's take a shot at dissolving these right now.

Myth No. 1: When accounting for defense, Crede was an overall positive contributor to the 2009 Twins.

This is a favorite argument amongst my fellow bloggers and stat-heads, and the go-to statistic when trying to support this one is WAR (or Wins Above Replacement), a metric featured on FanGraphs that attempts to quantify a player's contributions to a team while accounting for both offense and defense. According to this stat, Crede was worth 1.9 wins to the Twins in the '09 season.

Now, it's not in my nature to try and dismantle progressive baseball statistics, and I certainly don't think WAR is without it's value, but in the case of Crede I don't think it provides an accurate assessment of what can be expected going forward.

FanGraphs acknowledges that Crede was a liability at the plate, but according to UZR he was worth 12.5 runs over a replacement-level player in the field. Since UZR makes up the defensive side of the WAR equation, that big defensive boost completely accounts for his positive rating. Now, I like UZR as a defensive metric, but even its most avid supporters acknowledge that one year's data in isolation cannot provide a particularly accurate picture of a player's fielding acumen. Extrapolated over 150 games (UZR/150), the stat suggests that Crede's defensive performance would have been worth 23.4 runs this past year. He's a good fielder, but he's not that good. Crede's career UZR/150 is 10.2, so unless you believe that he magically took an enormous step defensively last year at the age of 31, it seems clear that the numbers over that 84-game sample are exaggerated and that expectations going forward should be adjusted accordingly.

My other problem with WAR's calculation is that it gives the same positional adjustment to a third baseman as it does to a center fielder. I don't really buy that the two positions carry the same defensive importance under normal circumstances, and I certainly don't believe that's the case on a Twins team that allows a higher percentage of fly balls than any other big-league club.

Regardless of what WAR and Crede's overstated UZR tell us, his quality defense at third simply doesn't outweigh his poor performance at the plate.

Myth No. 2: While not great, Crede's offensive output was significantly better than the rest of the players who filled in at third base in 2009.

On the surface, this statement seems obviously true, but it's really not. Crede hit .225/.289/.414 (703 OPS) this year, while all other Twins' third basemen hit .273/.339/.349 (688 OPS). That gives Crede a very modest offensive edge over the rest of the misfits who were trotted out to third in his absence this year and, depending on how you weigh AVG/OBP vs. SLG, perhaps not much of an edge at all.

There's a perception that hitting some home runs can completely make up for a dreadful on-base percentage, but that just isn't true. Which brings us to our next myth.

Myth No. 3: Crede did his job, which was delivering big hits and driving in the core hitters from the middle of the Twins' lineup.

There's no denying that Crede had some big, memorable hits this year. That fact probably feeds the perception that he wasn't a major offensive liability. But, by making outs more than 70 percent of the time behind the team's best hitters, Crede killed A LOT of rallies. He batted .198 with runners in scoring position.

Overall, Crede hit .225 with a .289 on-base percentage. Despite his ability to hit the ball out of the park on occasion, his slugging percentage fell below the league average for a third baseman. He was a bad hitter in 2009, and next year he'll be another year older and coming off another back surgery, while the Twins will be moving into a new park that doesn't figure to be a whole lot kinder to right-handed power hitters than the Metrodome was. I don't think the smart money is on his improving significantly.

Myth No. 4: Signing Crede again is a low-risk move and doesn't really carry any downside.

This is the biggest misperception, for me. Nick Punto is set to make $4 million next year and it has been made fairly clear by the Twins brass that he'll be starting somewhere in the infield in 2010. If Crede is re-signed, then Punto will be your starter at second base and it's unlikely that another infielder will be added to the club. So, if Danny Valencia isn't ready when Crede goes down (you'll excuse me for not using the word "if" at this point), we're looking at Tolbert or Harris at third base with Punto at second. Isn't that precisely the situation we'd like to avoid?

If the Twins are willing to sign Crede to a deal that can reach $5-7 million or so in attainable incentives, that means they must be prepared to spend that money. It has to be accounted for in the budget. If they're willing to spend that money, why not just go ahead and guarantee it to one of the many second basemen on the market who are better than Crede and far more likely to remain healthy? This would potentially provide the team with the legitimate No. 2 hitter it has been looking for while sticking Punto at third until Valencia hopefully overtakes him at some point.

There's something about Crede that enamors fans. But once you look past the myths and dig deeper into the numbers, you'll find that he's far from an ideal solution and that there are much better options available if the Twins want to field a quality infield group.

If several months pass without Bill Smith taking action on the infield situation and things stand the same in late January as they do now, then fine, sign Crede to another one-year incentive-laden deal. But I would consider that scenario a failure on the part of Smith and the Twins front office. There are too many opportunities on the market right now to settle for Joe Crede.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Missed the Mark

In analyzing possible targets for the Twins this offseason, I'm starting to realize that I've been perhaps overly positive. J.J. Hardy? Great acquisition! Carl Pavano? Bring him back! Adrian Beltre? Great fit! And don't forget about my sleeper free agent second baseman, Jamey Carroll!

Lest I start to look like anything other than a nay-saying curmudgeon, let's spend today's post talking about a player that I think the Twins should most definitely avoid. Ironically, it's a guy that I advocated very strongly for them to bring in just last offseason.

That's because last offseason presented the perfect opportunity to make a play for Mark DeRosa. A right-handed batter, he was coming off three consecutive strong seasons, had only one relatively cheap year left on his contract, was capable of playing multiple positions where the Twins were thin, and was being made available by the Cubs for -- as it would turn out -- a pretty darn low price.

The Indians ended up swooping in and acquiring DeRosa in return for three marginal pitching prospects. He hit quite well for the Indians over the first half of the season before being sent to St. Louis to finish up his campaign with the playoff-bound Cardinals. Now, DeRosa becomes a free agent and the Twins will once again have the chance to move on him.

Things are different, though. He'll turn 35 in February and he's starting to show marked signs of decline. DeRosa skidded after being traded to the Cards last year and finished the season with a 757 OPS -- his lowest figure since 2004. Perhaps more alarming is that DeRosa's defense seemed to drop off the charts; he'd posted excellent UZR numbers at third base in 2007 and 2008 but this year finished at -8.7 there, and he's never rated well at second base.

Another fact to keep in mind when contemplating DeRosa is that he needed wrist surgery at the end of the season. The injury was likely a significant factor in his late-season decline, but there's no guarantee that he'll bounce back even after surgery, considering his age.

DeRosa's right-handed stick and ability to play second, third and left field make him a desirable fit for the Twins at a quick glance, but a deeper look tells us that this is the wrong time to be signing him to a multi-year deal -- which he'll certainly be seeking this winter. Getting DeRosa a year ago would have been a wise move that would have made the Twins a better team in '09. But the Twins missed their window, and at this point the best idea is to simply pass.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is Beltre the Final Infield Piece?

In his last contract year, Adrian Beltre hit .334/.388/.629 with 48 home runs and 121 RBI for the Dodgers, finishing second in the National League MVP voting. He ventured into free agency for the first time that following winter as a 25-year-old third baseman with elite defense and a 794 career OPS coming off a breakout year. After flirting with numerous clubs, he ultimately signed a five-year deal with the Mariners worth $64 million.

Beltre's five years in Seattle were a let-down. He never came close to approaching that amazing final season in Los Angeles, topping out at 26 homers while failing to bat better than .276 or slug better than .482 during his tenure with the M's. This past season was his last before again becoming eligible for free agency, and it was a far cry from his walk year with the Dodgers. Beltre posted a 683 OPS -- his lowest figure since he played in 77 games for the Dodgers as a 19-year-old back in 1998 -- in a season that was marred by injuries, including one of the most cringe-inducing I've ever heard of.

And so, Beltre enters free agency for the second time this winter under vastly different circumstances than his first forray into the open market. He's got much to prove after seeing his production decline dramatically this past year, but he remained a quality player during his first four seasons in Seattle and some team will likely pay a relatively high price to see if he can regain that form -- or perhaps show some semblance of the ability that he flashed during that final season in LA. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors recently predicted that that team would be the Twins.

The thought is fairly tantalizing. In Beltre and J.J. Hardy, the Twins would boast a tremendous defensive left side of the infield capable of combining for 50 home runs. Beltre's 14.3 UZR in '09 suggests that his defense did not slide along with his offense. Like Hardy, Belte's right-handed stick would play well in the Twins' lefty-heavy lineup and there's plenty of reason to believe that his offensive production will increase once he escapes the pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco (he consistently hit better on the road than at home during his time with the Mariners).

If he's back to full health and effectiveness, Beltre would be a perfect fit for the Twins. But finding out whether he'll be able to return to that level is a risk -- even beyond the aforementioned gruesome injury, he has undergone surgery on both his shoulder (twice) and thumb within the past year -- and it won't be a cheap one at that. Beltre is still only 30 years old and with his pedigree of hitting for power while playing outstanding defense at the hot corner, he's bound to draw numerous suitors on the free agent market, especially considering that his tough '09 campaign knocked his free agent status down to Type B. Bill Smith has already taken a rather significant gamble by investing on a player coming off a down year in Hardy; is he willing to do so again by trying to outbid other clubs for Beltre?

My guess is no. I doubt the Twins really even have the money available to make a legitimate offer on Beltre, especially considering their professed need for help in the rotation. But I think he'd be an excellent final piece to the infield equation, adding another dynamic right-handed bat to the lineup while rounding out an exquisite defensive infield by allowing Nick Punto to slide over to second and to the ninth spot in the lineup. Sure, the signing would carry some risk, but Smith has shown no aversion to taking gambles thus far and the upside of a Hardy/Beltre pairing on the left side would easily outweigh the potential downside of such a move.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bringing Back Pavano

The Twins are currently amidst a two-week window of exclusive negotiating rights with internal free agents before the market opens on November 20. During that span, the team will have the opportunity to lock up Orlando Cabrera, Carl Pavano, Mike Redmond, Joe Crede and Ron Mahay before other teams can begin to make offers. From that group, we can already basically write a few names off. The trade for J.J. Hardy essentially closes the door on Cabrera, who will find offers to play shortstop elsewhere. Mahay is unlikely to return, with the bullpen picture for next season looking somewhat crowded as is. Redmond apparently wants to keep playing somewhere next year, but the smart money is against that team being the Twins. Crede could conceivably be brought back, but Bill Smith is almost certain to spend the winter months searching for better options before making a decision like that.

Which leaves us with Pavano. Smith has done nothing to hide his interest in retaining the veteran starter, who posted a 4.64 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 12 starts for the Twins after being acquired from the Indians on August 7. The notion of re-signing Pavano doesn't seem to raise a lot of excitement amongst fans, but re-upping his contract might prove be the team's most reasonable method of ensuring that a reliable veteran arm is present in the 2010 rotation.

Pavano's overall numbers this season understandably don't get people into a lather. In 33 starts split between Cleveland and Minnesota, he went 14-12 with a 5.10 ERA and 1.38 WHIP -- thoroughly mediocre numbers. However, there are a few things that make Pavano an intriguing bet for next season.

For one thing, underlying statistics suggest that Pavano pitched better than those base numbers would indicate. His xFIP for the season was 4.17. Compare that to Scott Baker (4.46), Kevin Slowey (4.46), Nick Blackburn (4.78), Francisco Liriano (4.78) and Brian Duensing (4.97). Pavano gave up a lot of hits this year, but his BABIP of .330 was 22 points higher than his career average and 31 points higher than the major league average. Should that figure drop next season, he figures to do a great job of limiting baserunners given his outstanding control.

That outstanding control is something that cannot be ignored when analyzing Pavano. He ranked second among all American League starters in walks per nine innings with a rate of 1.76. His K/BB ratio of 3.76 ranked fourth in the AL, with Cy Young contenders Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander the only starters to sport better marks.

Of course, Pavano doesn't fall into that Cy conversation because he's just more hittable than those other elite hurlers. That's always been the case with Pavano; he's not dominant. Like Baker and Slowey, he falls into the mold of quality starting pitchers who limit walks and post respectable strikeout rates but give up a fair number of hits and a fair number of home runs. Keeping Pavano does not solve the Twins' need for a dominating power pitcher at the top of the rotation. But solving that particular issue will be a lot more difficult than some seem to realize.

Given the Twins' budget constraints, signing a John Lackey in free agency is out of the question. So here are the three viable methods of attaining a power arm that can serve as the team's ace next season:

1) Trade for an established top-of-the-rotation starter, like Roy Halladay and Josh Johnson. These two names were mentioned by Joe Christensen in his Star Tribune article yesterday. Such a move would not be characteristic for this franchise, and I'm very skeptical as to whether they have the pieces to pull of a blockbuster trade of this magnitude anyway. Not likely.

2) Sign a high-risk/high-reward free agent starter with injury concerns, such as Rich Harden or Erik Bedard. Harden's name has been very popular among Twins fans, but what people need to realize is that plenty of clubs around the league need pitching help and the Twins aren't the only ones who are going to think to themselves, "Hey, Harden's value is probably down due to his injury concerns, maybe we can get a good deal on him!" I'm all for signing a high-upside pitcher one a make-good short-term deal, but many of these starters are going to end up signing for more than people think. And once you get beyond a certain point of guaranteed money, these types of signings just stop being a good risk for a team with the Twins' budget constraints.

3) Hope that Francisco Liriano regains his second-half 2008 form. Liriano is the only pitcher in the organization right now with a history of pitching up to the level of a bona fide big-league ace. Even as one of his biggest supporters, I have a hard time trusting him to return to top form any time soon after his disastrous 2009 campaign.

Relying on any of those three options is a major gamble. Pavano is a pretty safe bet, though. He seemed to put any injury concerns behind him this season by racking up nearly 200 innings of work without issue. He fits right into the Twins' strike-throwing mold and seemed to have a positive impact on the hometown club after coming over via trade. While I wouldn't put much stock into it, team officials may take note of the fact that the Twins' team ERA was 4.67 prior to Pavano's arrival and 4.15 after he joined the rotation. It also certainly doesn't hurt that he was absolutely dazzling in his ALDS start against the Yankees.

So, the only remaining question is one of price. Prior to this season, Pavano hadn't put together a full season at the major-league level since 2004, so last winter he was forced to settle for a make-good one-year deal (the kind described in Option No. 2 above) that guaranteed only $1.5 million. He ended up earning close to $5 million with incentives, and he'll surely be looking for a raise next year. In my offseason blueprint, I suggested that the Twins bring Pavano back on a two-year, $12 million deal, hoping that his desire to return to Minnesota and the comfort of a multi-year deal might convince him to settle for a relatively modest raise in salary. He could try venturing into free agency in search of a larger gurantee, but one healthy year doesn't erase all his past injury concerns, and the fact that his actual numbers weren't all that great should play against him.

In the aforementioned Star Tribune article, Christensen quoted Smith as saying "if there's a veteran starter or two that's a good fit for us, then we'll proceed accordingly," and concluded that the Twins' GM might be tipping his hand regarding his offseason priorities. Even though Pavano is merely a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter, bringing him back should be a priority. Engaging in the difficult task of uncovering an ace with limited resources can come afterward.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Wasting No Time

Any concerns I had that Bill Smith and the Twins would become complacent in addressing lineup holes this offseason after enjoying a successful overall season offensively in 2009 were quickly assuaged on Friday morning when the club announced that they'd traded Carlos Gomez to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy. As a relatively young shortstop who remains controllable for two more years and who has historically hit for power while playing great defense, Hardy seemed destined to be a hot commodity this winter after Milwaukee had made clear that he'd be available. Smith wasted no time in taking the 27-year-old infielder off the market, completing a swap just as the Yankees were parading through New York City to celebrate their World Series victory -- still only two days old.

That the Twins were interested in Hardy comes as no huge surprise. He's a very logical fit for this team and was in fact the very top player listed among our potential trade targets in the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook. Here's what I wrote about Hardy there:

Age: 27 (DOB: 8/19/82) | Contract Status: Arb Elig
2009 Stats: .229/.302/.357, 11 HR, 47 RBI
With the free agent market for shortstops looking exceedingly thin and the Twins lacking any legitimate prospects at that position, it appears that the only way to make a meaningful upgrade might be through a trade. Teams generally aren’t willing to part with capable young shortstops that are competent at the dish and in the field, but Hardy may be an exception. He is coming off a dismal offensive year, but he had averaged 25 homers and 77 RBI in the two seasons prior and he’s only 27 years old. Plus, he rates quite well defensively. The Brewers have a major-league ready SS prospect in Alcides Escobar, so they may be willing to deal Hardy even though his value is down. They’d likely seek big-league ready pitching in return.
Here's a more in-depth scouting report on Hardy, courtesy of Kyle Lobner from the Brewers blog Brew Crew Ball (you can also read a take on the trade from that blog here):

The Twins are getting a solid defensive shortstop in Hardy, but his potential contribution as an offensive player is unknown at best. After having two above average seasons in 2007 and 2008, including an All Star appearance in 2007, Hardy's stat line at the plate declined dramatically in 2009, when he posted a .659 OPS, the lowest of his major league career, with a .229/.302/.357 line.

A fair portion of Hardy's struggles last season can probably be attributed to luck: Hardy hit .264 on balls in play last season, down from .280 over the course of his career, and only connected for home runs on 8.3% of his fly balls, down from his 11.2% career total. However, it's hard to blame all of Hardy's struggles on luck: His line drive percentage has dropped in each of the last four seasons, from 19% in 2006 all the way down to 13.9% last season. Hardy had some tough luck early, hitting a lot of line drives at defenders, but never seemed to recover or make the adjustments necessary to regain his stride. He also doesn't take many pitches; his career walk rate is just 8.3% and his career OBP is .323.

Even if Hardy doesn't bounce back offensively, he's a very good defensive shortstop. FanGraphs has him listed as saving 29.7 runs in the field over the last three seasons, good for roughly three wins. There's another interesting note in those numbers, though: Hardy saved 14.8 runs in 2007, 8.2 in 2008 and 6.7 in 2009. While Hardy's 30 runs saved over the last three seasons ranked sixth among major league shortstops during that span, his 6.7 last season was outside the top ten. His UZR/150 over the last three seasons have been 16.7, 8.5 and 8.8.

You might think a guy as defensively gifted as Hardy would have to have some pretty notable athletic ability but you'd be wrong, at least when it comes to running speed. Hardy might be one of major league baseball's slowest shortstops. He frequently looks like he's dragging an anchor behind him on the basepaths, and struggles to take the extra base in situations where a runner with average speed would get in easily. He also only turned 7 ground balls into infield hits in 2009 - that 4.5% was the sixth lowest among shortstops with at least 460 PAs.

Hardy will likely get a raise in arbitration, even if it is a
small one, and made $4.65 million in 2009. With that said, the Brewers' decision to demote Hardy to AAA for 20 days in August pushed his arbitration clock back a year, and he'll be under the Twins' control for two more seasons, should they decide to hang onto him.

Many were surprised that the pitching-starved Brewers didn't move Hardy in return for a young starter (I had suggested Glen Perkins, whose name may or may not have come up in these discussions depending on who you listen to), but Gomez fills a need as well. With Mike Cameron departing, the Brewers were looking for another strong defensive center fielder, and they'll hope that with regular playing time in 2010 he can start to realize his offensive potential while tracking down everything between left and right.

Reaction to this trade from Twins fans has been overwhelmingly positive, and with good reason. As mentioned in my writeup from the Handbook and in Lobner's report, Hardy had been an excellent hitter during the two seasons prior to 2009. It is, however, difficult to ignore the struggles that the shortstop experienced during this past season. There was no major injury to explain away his dismal hitting, and with a strikeout rate that has jumped for three straight seasons, there are some who believe his drop-off last year was no fluke. If he is unable to improve somewhat significantly on his disappointing production in '09, Hardy will hardly be the dramatic upgrade this team is looking for at the bottom of the lineup. But the Twins certainly seem confident that he can rebound, and his power potential is very intriguing for a club that hasn't gotten a .400 slugging percentage from the shortstop position since 2001 and hasn't had a 20-HR hitter there since 1979.

The loss of Gomez is being downplayed by many who have grown tired of his mental mistakes and offensive ineptitude, but his departure is not insignificant. Twins' pitchers allowed the highest fly ball percentage of any team in the majors this year, and that doesn't figure to change significantly next season. In trading Gomez, the Twins seem to be committing to an outfield alignment of Delmon Young, Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer, which represents an incredibly vast downgrade from the Span/Gomez/Cuddyer alignment. Hardy is a better defensive player than anyone the Twins trotted out at shortstop this season, but given the nature of this pitching staff, swapping out Gomez for Hardy will likely lead to an overall drop in defensive proficiency.

Of course, Gomez's slick glove doesn't do much good when he's stuck on the bench, and Gardenhire seemed to have made up his mind on which young outfielder he was going to commit to by the end of the year. In September and October, as the Twins made a furious dash for the playoffs, Young started in the outfield 26 times; Gomez only eight. For better or for worse, Gomez had become the fourth outfielder on this club, and any time you can trade a reserve player for a starting shortstop you've done pretty well for yourself.

Hardy is a nice addition with the potential to provide serious power from the bottom of the lineup (or perhaps the No. 2 spot, if Gardenhire feels so misguidedly inclined) while likely upgrading the team's defense at one of the most important spots on the field. Gomez's departure also seemingly finalizes the club's outfield situation, effectively putting an end to the tired Gomez vs. Young debates. Second base and third base remain uncertain, along with at least one spot in the pitching rotation, so Smith's work is hardly done. But, less than a week into the offseason, he has already gotten a running start on his work for this pivotal offseason. Meanwhile, he has very quickly put to rest any worries that he'd be sitting on his hands as the team prepares to defend its AL Central title in the first year at Target Field.

Smith deserves credit for this bold, aggressive move. Even if it does mean that one of my very favorite Twins players will be suiting up across the border next season.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Twins Trade Gomez for Hardy

Bill Smith made his first big offseason splash today, sending Carlos Gomez to the Brewers in return for shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was a suggested trade acquisition in my offseason blueprint. The deal swaps two players who both saw their value drop with rough seasons in 2009, though surely Hardy has proven more at the major-league level.

My initial reaction is that I'm very sorry to see Gomez go, as he was a personal favorite, and I'm very concerned about the team's outfield defense over the next few seasons. But perhaps the writing was on the wall during a month of September in which the Twins were making a fierce charge and Gomez was seeing virtually no playing time.

I'll have plenty more analysis of the move, and a more thorough breakdown of Hardy, on Monday.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Importance of Foresight

The Twins have enjoyed an impressive run of sustained success over the past nine years. Only once during that span (2007) have they posted a losing record. And if there's one lesson to be taken from the '07 team, it relates to the pitfalls of complacency.

In 2006, the Twins boasted a rather impressive offense. Joe Mauer won his first batting title, Justin Morneau captured the AL MVP award, Michael Cuddyer enjoyed a career year, Luis Castillo excelled at the top of the lineup in his first season as a Twin, and Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto delivered strong offensive contributions after taking over the left side of the infield midway through the season. All told, the Twins led the American League in batting average and surpassed the 800-run threshold that team officials seem to consider the bar for a successful offensive season.

Content in his lineup's quality production, Terry Ryan remained relatively inactive on the offensive side during the following offseason. This proved highly detrimental, as the Twins' offense suffered a massive slide the next year. The team's OPS+ dropped from 103 to 93, pushing them from above average to solidly below, and their average run output dropped from 4.94 to 4.43.

One could hardly have expected Ryan to predict that the production of Morneau would drop so significantly, or that both Mauer and Cuddyer would battle injuries for much of the year, or even that Punto and Bartlett would regress so dramatically after seemingly putting together breakout campaigns in '06. Yet, with a little foresight, Ryan could have better prepared the team for these types of circumstances. Entering the season with a useless Rondell White as a starter and with the offensively challenged Lew Ford and Jason Tyner as the team's top backup options in the outfield was pretty clearly a recipe disaster, leaving little margin for error amongst the offense's core. Ryan certainly had the right idea in signing Jeff Cirillo as a backup option for Punto at third base, but the aging Cirillo proved incapable of filling in at third on a regular basis and Ron Gardenhire seemed unwilling to pull the struggling Punto out of the lineup for prolonged periods of time anyway.

The 2009 season bears some similarity to that '06 campaign. Several members of the lineup's core -- Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Denard Span and Jason Kubel -- enjoyed absolutely phenomenal offensive campaigns, and the team's impressive late run at a playoff spot was once again boosted by unexpected late contributions from infielders who took over new spots and rose to the occasion. Smith must now learn from the past and avoid the complacency that led to the 2007 club's demise, because if just one or two of the lineup's core players battle significant regression or injury problems next year, the holes that surround them in the lineup could be magnified significantly.

Fortunately, Smith doesn't have to deal with deciphering the illusions present on that 2006 team. Despite his strong finish, Punto's overall numbers were terrible, and one would have to be out of their mind to think that Tolbert looks like a legitimate full-time major-league third baseman. There's also a clear hole in the outfield and no obvious candidate to start at shortstop unless Orlando Cabrera is re-signed (which in itself is an unsafe bet considering his age and declining production).

Given that the Twins ranked fourth in the league in offense this past season while averaging over five runs per game and ranked fourth-to-last in team ERA, one could logically conclude that improving the pitching staff should be Smith's chief focus during this offseason. I'm not sure that's the case. With guys like Kevin Slowey, Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser returning from injury next year, and with the defense hopefully taking some steps forward, I think the team's run prevention is bound to improve even without significant outside reinforcements (particularly if Carl Pavano is brought back). Meanwhile, I see lots of room for regression on the offensive side of the ball, because it's tough to expect all five of the aforementioned "core" offensive players to repeat what they did during the 2009 season -- especially considering that three of those players have somewhat troubling injury histories.

Adding solid depth and filling lineup holes with adequate supporting players could go a long way toward protecting the Twins against the type of drop-off that struck that 2007 team. If the 2009 unit enters the season with a starting infield that consists of Tolbert, Cabrera and Punto, this lineup could be in serious trouble should Mauer's back act up or Kubel's knee give out.

***

Oh, and congrats (I guess) to the Yankees, who won the World Series in six games. Who could have seen that coming? :-)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Not Always Such Sweet Sorrow

When Bill Smith took over as Twins' GM back in 2007, he wasted no time in completing his first roster purge, removing Josh Rabe, Luis Rodriguez, Lew Ford and Tommy Watkins from the 40-man roster just weeks after the regular season came to an end. I lauded the move at the time, noting that Smith was immediately "trimming the fat" and creating space on the roster for more useful players. Terry Ryan had a tendency during his years as GM to allow marginal players to occupy valuable roster spots for entirely too long, so this initial move by Smith seemed to bode well.

Indeed, Smith has subsequently shown a willingness to part with players, even if doing so reflects poorly on his earlier judgment. This was displayed perhaps most prominently when the Twins cut the disappointing Mike Lamb midway through the 2008 season despite having him signed through '09, forcing the club to eat millions in remaining salary. This offseason, we've already seen the organization part ways with Philip Humber and R.A. Dickey, and yesterday the team outrighted Brian Buscher from the 40-man roster.

It's no secret that I've always had a soft spot for Buscher; I certainly think he can serve a purpose if used correctly and I wouldn't have minded him as the left-handed side of a third-base platoon this past year. He's a patient hitter who makes good contact and often provides quality at-bats off the bench. Yet, he's not a strong defender at third base, doesn't have the speed to pinch-run and can't hit left-handed pitching. There's no denying that there are much better uses for a roster spot than a player with a skill-set as limited as Buscher's. There's a chance he could remain with the organization, but I suspect he'll look to get a fresh start elsewhere and I wish him the best if that's the path he chooses.

The goal now, as always, is finding a superior player to fill Buscher's spot on the 40-man roster. There was some thought yesterday that the Buscher move would serve as the prelude to an acquisition of Akinori Iwamura, who sources in Tampa Bay had reported was on the verge of being traded. Midway through the afternoon, though, it was revealed that Iwamura was headed to the Pirates. That scratches one high-ranking option off our list of potential upgrades at second base for the coming season.

In any case, Buscher's departure leaves an open spot on the 40-man roster, and a few more could open up in the near future depending one what happens with impending free agents Orlando Cabrera, Joe Crede, Mike Redmond, Ron Mahay and Carl Pavano, not to mention others like Buscher who are candidates to be outrighted.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Defense Rests

In diagnosing the issues with the 2009 Twins, many people often point to the pitching staff. That's reasonable; the Twins ranked fourth-to-last in the American League with a 4.50 team ERA -- that includes an ugly 4.84 ERA for the starters. Given how promising the team's young rotation looked a year ago, this nearly across-the-board regression is obviously a rather large disappointment that shrouds this group's future in doubt. But, it is important to note that Twins' pitchers are not totally to blame for the drop-off in run prevention. These guys were not generally getting a lot of help from their defense.

The Twins ranked third-to-last in the majors in team UZR during the 2009 season -- only the abysmal Royals and Mets rated worse. The defensive metric -- widely considered to be one of the most accurate -- suggests that the Twins' defense cost them more than 36 runs over the course of the season. The Twins had been below-average defensively in 2008 as well, but that negative figure is more than double the mark from the previous season. The reasons for the plummet? There are plenty of culprits. Carlos Gomez played in center field less; Denard Span played there more. Jason Kubel started playing the outfield more often. Orlando Cabrera was a regular at shortstop for two months. Joe Crede couldn't stay in the lineup consistently. Alexi Casilla had a terrible year defensively.

The Twins have a long-standing reputation as being a strong defensive club, mainly because they don't commit many errors. But they haven't always lived up to that reputation, and they certainly didn't this year. If he wants to get better results from his pitching staff next year, Bill Smith would be wise to keep team defense in mind as he reconfigures his roster. Fortunately, strong defenders tend to be undervalued assets in free agency as well as in trades.

When the Mariners traded away J.J. Putz and a pair of other players in a blockbuster three-way deal last winter, few people viewed Franklin Gutierrez as the gaudy centerpiece of a hefty return package that also included Aaron Heilman, Mike Carp, Endy Chavez, Jason Vargas, Maikel Cleto and Ezequiel Carrera. However, Gutierrez was quietly one of the league's most valuable overall players this season, playing absolutely stellar defense in center field (20.9 UZR) while posting a solid 764 OPS with 18 homers, 75 RBI and 16 stolen bases. Gutierrez was no small part of the reason the Mariners led the majors in UZR, which itself was no small part of the reason they led the AL in team ERA.

It's tough to find players like Gutierrez who can be quality contributors on both sides, but certainly those are the guys Smith should be focused on getting into his lineup. At the very least, though, he should make sure the defense that lines up on Opening Day next season is one that the Twins' starters can count on to make plays behind them.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Foul Ball!

No new post for today, but I thought I'd share a picture of my Halloween costume. I'm sure Twins fans will need no explanation.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Birthday Wishes and a New Contest!

Since I know Bill Smith reads this blog and is wondering what I'd like for my birthday (today is the big 2-4), a contract extension for Joe Mauer and a new second baseman would suffice. Oh, and if he wants to throw me a few tickets to the Target Field opener next year, that'd be dandy, too.

Speaking of Smith and the Twins' offseason, I'd like to direct everyone to TwinsCentric.com, which is hosting a new contest that allows you to predict just how exactly the Twins' brass will handle the upcoming offseason. The rules are simple: head to TwinsCentric.com, click on the contest link beneath the main image on the front page, fill in your predicted 2010 roster and payroll estimate in the appropriate fields (of course, figuring out the salary figures and available free agents/trade targets will be extraordinarily simple if you have a copy of the TwinsCentric GM Handbook handy), then click submit. You can track your projected roster throughout the offseason, along with those of other participants, and the team/payroll that most closely resemble the actual results on Opening Day 2010 will receive a fabulous prize! Submissions are due by the final out of the World Series, so hop to it!

Also, I appeared as a guest on the Fanatic Jack podcast last night. You can check that out here.

That's all I've got for today. Probably no blog update for tomorrow, so I wish everyone a happy and safe Halloween weekend.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ron Gardenhire: AL Manager of the Year?

There are two general points of view when it comes to Ron Gardenhire.

Most people outside of Minnesota seem to feel that he's one of the game's best managers, a man who consistently gets the very most out of his players and puts the Twins in a position to contend year in and year out. When a Twins game is nationally broadcast, you almost always hear the announcers fawning over Gardenhire. Fellow managers and baseball people across the league consistently speak very highly of him. Joe Posnanski -- who I think is one of the very sharpest baseball minds in the country -- has repeatedly opined that the Twins' manager is the best in the game. Gardenhire had placed among the top three finishers in the Manager of the Year voting five times in his seven years as a manager entering this season.

Many people within Minnesota who follow the Twins closely, on the other hand, seem to feel that Gardenhire is a terrible manager who holds the team back year in and year out. Fans rail on him for his bullpen management. Bloggers rip him for his stubborn loyalty to bad players. It seems that every week during the baseball season there are multiple columns in the local newspapers in which scribes question Gardy's tactical decision-making.

Logically, it would seem that the group that follows the team closely and gets an intimate perspective of how the manager operates would provide the most accurate portrayal of that manager's job aptitude. However, I don't think that's the case here. I feel as though many hardcore Twins fans get so worked up over Gardenhire's flaws that they are unable to fully appreciate the man's full body of work -- an eight-year tenure which now includes seven winning records and five division championships.

The most recent of those AL Central titles stands as perhaps the most impressive, all things considered. By mid-September this year, the Twins sat several games out of first place with numerous key players on the shelf. The starting first baseman -- who had been a crucial contributor during a first half in which he'd posted MVP-caliber numbers -- was done for the year with a back injury, as was the team's slick-gloved, power-hitting third baseman. Three-fifths of the season-opening rotation had lost their starting jobs, due to either injury or ineffectiveness (or both). The team was relying largely on mediocre minor-leaguers and relatively underwhelming trade acquisitions to scrape by. Most fans had given up on the club, and it would have been tough to blame the players themselves for packing it in and beginning to concentrate on next year.

But, they didn't. The Twins rallied to win 16 of their final 20 regular-season games to draw even with the first-place Tigers and force a one-game tiebreaker at the Metrodome. There, in a hard-fought extra-innings battle, the Twins emerged victorious, capping off one of the most improbable late-season comebacks in franchise history. Plenty of credit rightfully goes to the players who stepped up and carried the team during this impressive late stretch, but it's tough to overlook the man who piloted the ship.

Without a doubt, Gardenhire has his flaws. As a person who has watched the team regularly during his entire tenure, I'm not ignorant to those flaws. But what people around here don't seem to realize is that every manager has flaws. Yes, Gardenhire is too stringently adherent to traditional closer usage when it comes to utilizing Joe Nathan. Yes, he's too stubbornly fixated on having a middle infielder batting in the second spot in the order, regardless of whether that player's offensive proficiency qualifies them for such an important duty. Yes, he's overly loyal to the players he deems "scrappy." Yes, he lets his obsession with veteran presence put younger and more talented players at an often unfair disadvantage. But these are flaws that plague many of the game's managers. We've seen the skipper of each team in the playoffs this year make questionable decisions. There's no denying that Gardy is largely able to succeed in spite of his downfalls.

For whatever reason, people around here seem quick to criticize Gardenhire but hesitant to credit him for the things he does well. During almost every game I hear people complaining about the way he operates the bullpen, but the Twins finished fourth in the the league in bullpen ERA and sixth in WHIP this year despite sporting a corps of relievers that -- early in the season -- looked like it was going to be a complete disaster. In fact, Gardenhire's bullpens consistently rank among the league's best, and I would argue that managing relievers is actually one of his greatest strengths. It's easy to play the "coulda shoulda woulda" game during the season and point out individual instances where Gardy perhaps could have more effectively utilized his bullpen arms, but again I encourage you to step back and consider the overall results.

Gardenhire is also liked and respected by his players, which is no small thing. He keeps the clubhouse loose and and avoids infighting. It's worth noting that, despite his troubled past, Delmon Young has had essentially zero publicized negative incidents since coming to Minnesota. Orlando Cabrera, who was reportedly run out of Chicago last year after run-ins with his White Sox teammates and manager, was praised as a clubhouse staple here after coming over. Players enjoy playing for Gardy and they seem to stay motivated and focused.

A manager's effect on the outcomes of ballgames tends to be overrated. Gardenhire made some tactical decisions that helped the team this year and some that hurt it. But, in the end, his players came together for him and made a huge push, winning game after game late in the season to capture the division title.

I don't know if Gardenhire excelled more than any other American League manager this year -- Mike Scoscia and Ron Washington both did excellent work -- but he certainly deserves to be one of the front-runners for the Manager of the Year award. Even if local fans are too blinded by his downfalls to admit it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quick Notes

Just some brief jottings on a couple different topics for today...

* Last week I was featured as part of the "Blogger Nine Innings" Q&A series for Jesse Spector's Touching Base blog at New York Daily News Online. I made sure to take advantage of the opportunity to be profiled in a New York publication by preaching the need for a salary cap in baseball and labeling Derek Jeter the game's most overrated player.

* Participating in the Venezuelan Winter League, Twins catching prospect Wilson Ramos is currently hitting .407 with five homers, six doubles, a triple and 21 RBI in 54 at-bats for the Tigres de Aragua. Before you get too excited, it's worth noting that hitters tend to dominate this league, but Ramos does lead all qualifying VWL batters in home runs (tied), RBI and OPS. Quite encouraging, but not quite enough so to make me very comfortable heading into the 2010 season with an unsigned Joe Mauer.

* Speaking of Mauer, Joe Christensen reports that the catcher was named Twins MVP yesterday by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. File that under "Unsurprising." Hopefully this is just a prelude to the real deal, which will be announced in late November.

* Make sure you check out our friend Andrew Bryz-Gornia's new Twins blog, Off the Mark.

* And, for good measure, my World Series pick: Yankees in six.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Very Comfortable

Last week, John Bonnes sat down with Twins general manager Bill Smith for an interview about the upcoming offseason. The interview, which serves as an addendum for the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook (if you've already purchased a copy, you'll be receiving the interview transcript in full, and of course you'll also get the entire interview included if you buy a copy from this point forward), covered a variety of topics, but today I'm going to focus on a particular portion of the conversation that lasted only a few seconds but may have provided one of the most compelling takeaways.

The Twins have a number of issues to tackle this offseason, but one pretty clearly rises above all others, and that's sorting out the Joe Mauer situation. The likely AL MVP and franchise cornerstone has just one year remaining on his current deal, and could become unaffordable to the Twins if he's able to venture into free agency next winter. I wrote a lengthy essay covering this topic for the Handbook, and ultimately concluded -- as I'm sure most fans have -- that working out a contract extension with Mauer during this offseason is absolutely imperative and should rank as Smith's No. 1 priority.

It was a topic that needed to be broached in the TwinsCentric interview, but Smith has been extremely tight-lipped when the matter of Mauer's contract has come up over the past few months. Seemingly realizing this, Bonnes was very cautious in approaching the subject during the interview, opening his line of questioning by saying, "I'm not sure how much I really want to get into this, but I want to ask a little bit about the Mauer extension." Smith quickly interjected, stating that Bonnes "may want to get into it deeply, but I'm not going to."

And so, John rerouted. "Well, let me ask one question that's not really about the contract," he said. "If an extension doesn't get done by spring training, do you feel comfortable going into next year with Mauer as a walk-away free agent?"

"Well, he's a player signed through 2010," Smith retorted.

Bonnes pressed on. "But for instance, Santana was a player signed for the next year as well..."

Finally, Smith relented and answered the question. "If we think Joe Mauer wants to stay here long-term, yes, we feel very comfortable going into next year."

It could be that Smith responded in this manner only to avoid backing himself into any sort of corner. Still, "very comfortable"? I wrote extensively in my essay for the Handbook about the perils of entering next season without a new contract for Mauer. His impending free agency would serve as an extremely unwelcome distraction as the team tries to build positive public sentiment in Target Field's inaugural season. And, of course, if Mauer makes it to the end of the year without an extension, the New Yorks and Bostons of the world will be able to jump into the bidding, which could put the Twins in a highly precarious position.

So, if indeed the Twins feel that Mauer wants to stay here long-term, it's hard to imagine that they'd actually be comfortable entering next season without a new deal in place. Which brings us to the other question raised by Smith's comment: what if the Twins don't get the sense that Mauer wants to stay?

Being a rather timid St. Paul native with countless ties to this area, it seems highly unlikely that Mauer would be opposed to forging a long-term deal with the Twins. But I suppose it is possible that he has his sights set on the huge money and increased national exposure that would come along with a move to a larger market. Or perhaps he doesn't feel that the Twins will ever be willing to take the steps needed to win a championship. It was a combination of those factors that seemingly fueled Johan Santana's desire to move elsewhere.

If the Twins get the sense that Mauer would like to test the free agent market, one has to believe Smith would not be "very comfortable" at all entering the 2010 season saddled with the risk of losing his star catcher at the end of the year for only a pair of draft picks, and the general manager essentially admitted that fact by including that big old "if" in his answer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rational vs. Emotional

At times, the two sides of one's brain conflict when contemplating a certain decision. In marketing, there's a great debate over whether customers are more likely to stick with the company that offers the lowest prices (rational) or the company that forms a deeper long-term connection by offering stronger customer service (emotional). For the record, things seem to be shifting in the latter direction.

Which, oddly enough, brings me to Orlando Cabrera. He's an impending free agent whom the Twins will need to make a decision on in the near future. The rational side of my brain tells me there's no way he should be brought back. He'll turn 35 in less than two weeks. He's shown clear signs of decline defensively (the former Gold Glover posted a horrendous -9.9 UZR this season and earned the nickname "Cabrerror" by committing 11 errors in 57 games with the Twins).. And his .313 on-base percentage was a major liability in the No. 2 hole, where Ron Gardenhire seems fully committed to playing the shortstop whenever he's in the lineup.


These are all major red flags for anyone looking at the game with an analytical mindset. Yet, there's something deep inside me that -- for whatever reason -- likes having Cabrera on this team. While I fully believe that the notions of clubhouse chemistry and clutchness and veteran leadership are overrated to a degree, it's not so easy to downplay the positive impact that Cabrera had on the team after being acquired at the trade deadline. Coaches praised his attitude, teammates credited him with helping them become more comfortable, and fans embraced his gritty play and determination. Even though he encompasses a number of qualities I dislike in a ballplayer -- namely, playing poor defense at an important position and failing to reach base at an adequate rate while batting at the top of the lineup -- I can't deny that I enjoyed watching Cabrera play. It also didn't hurt to finally get some power from a middle-infield spot; Cabrera slugged .430 while with the Twins, which certainly stands out for a club that hasn't received a slugging percentage over .400 from the shortstop position since 2001.

Ultimately, I caved in to the rational side of my brain and opined that the Twins should let Cabrera walk this offseason. But I can't say I'd be all that furious if the Twins let their emotional side win out and bring him back on a one-year deal.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Offseason Blueprint

The following is featured in the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook, and you can check out that document in order to see how I came up with the payroll figures and to read more about some of the names listed. But I thought I'd post this here to rev up the conversation about potential moves for the Twins this offseason. Agree? Disagree? What would you do?

***

1) Let free agents Orlando Cabrera, Ron Mahay, Joe Crede and Mike Redmond walk.

2) Re-sign free agent Carl Pavano for two years, $12M.
This might be a conservative estimate for what Pavano could command after he proved himself healthy and relatively effective during the 2009 season, but he did settle for only $1.5M plus incentives this past season so a two-year deal averaging $6M might be palatable, especially since he seemed to enjoy playing with the Twins. He adds much-needed veteran depth to the rotation and is a strike-thrower in Rick Anderson’s mold.

3) Reach arbitration agreements with Boof Bonser ($900K), Matt Guerrier ($2.8M), Francisco Liriano ($2M), Pat Neshek ($750K), Carlos Gomez ($1.5M) and Brendan Harris ($1.1M).
These are the median salary agreements we’ve estimated. They might be a little conservative or aggressive in some cases, but for the most part this should give an idea of what to expect.

4) Non-tender Jesse Crain.
Crain recovered from some early struggles to come back strong late in the season, but he will be expensive in arbitration and is the odd man out in a suddenly crowded bullpen picture.

5) Trade Delmon Young for prospects.
Young’s big late-season offensive push may have upped his value, making this the perfect time to deal. I’m not convinced the power he flashed over the final weeks of the season is for real,
and the Twins need to settle on three outfielders so they don’t have the same playing time issues next year. See what you can get for Young and cut ties.

6) Trade pitchers Glen Perkins and David Bromberg to Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy.
Perkins had a rough year but maintains value as a young left-handed starter with major-league experience and a strong minor-league track record. Bromberg is one of the Twins’ top pitching prospects who finished the 2009 season in Single-A. It’s a steep price, but Hardy’s young and arbitration eligible so he won’t come cheap even coming off a down year.

7) Sign free agent second baseman Placido Polanco for two years, $9M.
Unlike shortstop, the free agent market for second basemen is deep this year so players won’t have a ridiculous amount of leverage. Polanco is 34 so he’d likely have to settle for a short-term commitment, and he’s a great contact hitter with a sterling defensive reputation who Ron Gardenhire would love to throw at second base and in the two-spot in the order.

8) Sign Mike Sweeney for one year, $1M.
Sweeney signed a minor-league deal with the Mariners last year where he enjoyed a solid season, and says he wants to return for another year. He seems like a good fit with the Twins, where he can take some DH at-bats against lefties, spell Justin Morneau at first on occasion and serve as a pinch-hitter.

9) Give Joe Mauer eight-year, $150M extension.
The same deal mentioned in my essay earlier in this book. The deal wipes away the 2009 season of Mauer’s current contract and starts anew. The annual salary is a shade under $20M, which is less than he’d be able to get in free agency, but the hope is that the security and comfort provided by the length of the deal sway Mauer.

2010 Opening Day 25-Man Roster:

STARTING LINEUP

C: Joe Mauer ($16M)
1B: Justin Morneau ($14M)
2B: Placido Polanco ($4.5M)
3B: Brendan Harris ($1.1M)
SS: J.J. Hardy ($5.5M)
LF: Denard Span ($450K)
CF: Carlos Gomez ($1.5M)
RF: Michael Cuddyer ($8.5M)
DH: Jason Kubel ($4.1M)

(Approx $54M)

BENCH

C: Jose Morales ($450K)
IF: Mike Sweeney ($1M)
IF: Nick Punto ($4M)
OF: Jason Pridie ($450K)

(Approx $6M)

ROTATION

SP: Scott Baker ($3M)
SP: Carl Pavano ($6M)
SP: Kevin Slowey ($450K)
SP: Francisco Liriano ($2M)
SP: Nick Blackburn ($450K)

(Approx $12M)

BULLPEN

CL: Joe Nathan ($11.25M)
RP: Matt Guerrier ($2.8M)
RP: Jon Rauch ($2.9M)
RP: Jose Mijares ($450K)
RP: Pat Neshek ($750K)
RP: Boof Bonser ($900K)
RP: Brian Duensing ($450K)

(Approx $19.5M)

TOTAL 2010 PAYROLL: $91.5M

SUMMARY:
The payroll rises drastically, by about $20 million. Arbitration raises, along with Mauer’s new contract, have taken their toll, and you’ve got to pay to upgrade the paltry production in the infield. While this is a major payroll leap, the Twins seemed headed for a $90 million payroll around this time back in 2007, at which point they boasted a $71M payroll after having increased spending for three straight years. Twelve major-league teams had a payroll over $90 million in 2009, and with their brand-new stadium the Twins should be joining that upper half in spending.

This lineup has the potential to be a significant improvement over the 2009 unit, but much depends on Hardy bouncing back. That’s a better gamble than getting adequate regular production from Punto or Alexi Casilla (who opens the season in the minors). People surely won’t be excited about the prospect of Harris and Punto splitting time at third, but the upgrades in the middle-infield should offset this and hopefully Danny Valencia will be ready to take over at some point during the season. Jason Pridie serves as a defensive replacement and pinch runner while Punto returns to his super sub role. The bullpen features three or four reliable late-inning guys (depending on how Neshek looks); Bonser and Duensing are available for long relief and are potential options to step into the rotation should anyone stumble or get hurt.