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.