The Twins accomplished a lot of things during the year of 2008. They locked up Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan with long-term deals, acquired a couple potential young lineup fixtures in Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez, worked Francisco Liriano back from elbow surgery, moved several players to the majors for the first time, and generally set themselves up well to compete over the next few years.
The year of 2009 presents new challenges and goals to be met. Here are three things that I feel should stand as top priorities for the Twins before the ball drops in Times Square once again:
3) See what they've got in their minor-league relievers.
It's no secret that the organization's handling of Anthony Slama in 2008 was a huge source of frustration for me. The Twins are short on quality bullpen arms and any potential help should be welcome, so there is no excuse for failing to move promising relief arms through the minors at a reasonable rate.
Well the Twins' bullpen is likely to improve on its own in 2009, Bill Smith's "do nothing" approach isn't going to get bring the team's relief corps back to its glory days. Recruiting some live arms from the minors could provide a big boost to this bullpen -- be it in 2009 or beyond -- and figuring out whether guys like Slama, Rob Delaney and Blair Erickson are going to be able to fulfill that role should be a key priority for the Twins this year.
2) Work to figure out a long-term solution at third base.
I'm not going to say they should have their problems at the hot corner completely solved by the end of the year -- that seems unrealistic -- but they need to make some real progress. Third base has been a perpetual headache for this franchise ever since Corey Koskie's departure. They've tried numerous different players at the position, from Michael Cuddyer to Tony Batista to Nick Punto to Mike Lamb to a handful of part-timers, and all these options have provided substandard-to-disastrous results. Meanwhile, minor-leaguers like Matt Moses and David Winfree have raised hope for an in-house solution before fizzling out.
This year-to-year stopgap approach needs to end. The Twins need to pinpoint a long-term answer at third base so they can stop dealing with the same problems every offseason. It seems all but assured that they'll roll with Brendan Harris and Brian Buscher at the position this year; that's OK, but such a platoon must be viewed as nothing more than a short-term answer. It's unlikely that the Twins will pull off a trade for someone like Adrian Beltre, but even if they do he will serve as a one-year solution.
The key for the Twins will be figuring out what they have in Danny Valencia. This is a big year for Valencia; he's 24 and he'll likely start the year in Double-A. At his advanced age, if he sputters the Twins should probably stop considering him as a legitimate option. If he dominates Double-A and finishes the year strong in Triple-A, the Twins could conceivably look at him as a potential big-league starter in 2010 and beyond. The worst (but unfortunately most likely) thing that could happen is that Valencia's performance falls somewhere between those two extremes, leaving the organization in limbo as to whether or not he can eventually be a palatable answer at third. Luke Hughes is another guy who the Twins can keep an eye on this year, though reports I've heard indicate that he's not likely to stick in the big leagues as a regular third baseman.
Hopefully, the Twins will have a better idea at the end of this upcoming season whether or not Valencia has a future as a regular in the majors. If not, Smith and his staff need to put their full efforts behind finding a long-term answer at third base. The annual failed experiments at the hot corner have got to end.
1) Extend Joe Mauer's contract.
Mauer still has two years left on his contract. It's too early to be worrying about him, right? Well, that's the same thing people were passively saying about Johan Santana prior to the 2007 season. Sometimes, locking up a superstar two years before he is due to hit free agency is the wisest choice, so as to avoid the swirling trade rumors and media circus that inevitably ensue when a player has only one year remaining on his contract. Plus, regardless of the source, it's a bit scary to read a report that the Red Sox "already are salivating over Mauer."
Mauer is among the very top echelon of players in baseball, and would be only 27 when he entered free agency, making him perhaps the most attractive position player to hit the open market since Alex Rodriguez left the Mariners. The Twins would be best to avoid having to even think about the bidding war that would ensue if the big-market clubs started making offers to Mauer. They should lock Mauer up to a long-term deal sometime this year, be it in the spring or during the season. It's going to be expensive, but it's about time this franchise ponied up a bit. Considering that they are well under budget for 2009, it would make sense for the Twins to include a large signing bonus up front as they did with Morneau and Michael Cuddyer last year.