Monday, December 20, 2010

Tsuyoshi Nishioka: Hope vs. Expectations

When the Twins held a press conference on Saturday afternoon to officially announce the signing of Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, space was scarce. Patrick Reusse put the frenzy into perspective: "The formal interview room, which was built with the idea of hosting the media crowds for postseason games, was jammed to the point CEO Jim Pohlad took in the event while standing against the far wall."

Yes, the Nishioka era has begun in Minnesota, now that he and the Twins have officially reached agreement on a three-year, $9 million deal (with a $4 million option for 2014). Accounting for the $5.3 million posting fee and $250,000 option buyout, the Twins' commitment to Nishioka essentially amounts to $15 million. That's no chump change, but the team will likely find it a sound investment from a financial standpoint. The addition of a star Japanese player -- the first in franchise history -- will help build excitement among the fan base while greatly increasing the Twins' international appeal.

The more important question for hardcore fans is whether the team will find Nishioka's three-year contract a sound investment from a competitive standpoint.

I hope they do. I hope Nishioka can present an exciting new dynamic for the Twins' lineup, adding himself to a select list of successful transitions from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) to the major leagues. I hope he becomes an asset at the plate and in the field, and a fan favorite. I hope that by the time he's eligible for free agency in three years, he's a hot commodity.

But hopes are different from expectations. And I'd be lying if I said I expected any of that. There's just too much evidence leading me in the other direction.

Nishioka catapulted himself to a new level of stardom by winning the Pacific League batting title last year, hitting .346/.423/.482 with 11 home runs, 59 RBI and 22 stolen bases as a 25-year-old. He is also a five-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glover. These numbers have been widely touted by folks trying to stir up excitement over his acquisition, but they overlook an important fact: the level of play in NPB is roughly equivalent to Triple-A, and it's possible that even that's being generous.

As an example, consider the case of Matt Murton.  You might remember his name; he was a rather unexceptional big-league outfielder who scraped together a .286/.352/.436 career line while spending time with the Cubs, Athletics and Rockies -- mostly as a backup. Prior to the 2010 season, he signed a contract with the Hanshin Tigers of NPB and in his first year there he hit .349/.395/.499 with 17 home runs and 91 RBI over 144 games. As a major-leaguer, Murton had managed just 29 home runs and 112 RBI in 346 games.

If Nishioka can approximate Murton's big-league production while adding strong defense, he'd be a great get. But Nishioka's 2010 season stands as an outlier in an otherwise unspectacular NPB career. In the three years prior, he'd amassed a .287/.361/.427 line; while those numbers aren't bad, no one would get excited about seeing them from a Triple-A player. It is possible that Nishioka, who's just entering his prime years, turned a corner this past summer, but his production was largely fueled by his high batting average, which itself was propped up by an unsustainable .389 batting average on balls in play. Before 2010, he was a .284 career hitter.

Unless Nishioka carries over his great luck from this past year or makes meaningful improvements at the plate, his realistic upside is probably league-average offensive production (last year, for second basemen, that equated to .265/.330/.389). That kind of performance would be worth the price tag if it's coupled with above-average defense. But what to expect from Nishioka defensively is anyone's guess.

The fact that he's won three Japanese Gold Gloves, two of them at shortstop, should be taken with a grain of salt. Kaz Matsui won four NPB Gold Gloves, all at shortstop, but his defense at the position was considered so dreadful in the States that he was moved to second after one season. As another example, Akinori Iwamura won six Gold Gloves in Japan and was considered an ordinary fielder here.

Of course, the fact that neither of those players excelled defensively in the majors doesn't mean Nishioka can't. The Twins have always placed considerable value on infield defense, and likely wouldn't have made this bold move if their scouts didn't think he was capable. It's just important to keep in mind that, historically, great defensive reputations have not often carried over from NPB to MLB.

It's easy to get caught up in the Nishioka hype. He adds a unique new aspect to the franchise, he fills up press conferences and he's starred in an Adidas "Impossible is Nothing" ad. But among all that glitz and glamor, there's also the viewpoint of former MLB and NPB pitcher C.J. Nitkowski, who reacted to the lucrative signing by remarking that "AAA & AAAA middle infielders are wishing they were Japanese imports." (In other words, stating that Nishioka's talent level is really no different from an American player who stands out at Triple-A but isn't quite fit to be a regular in the major leagues.)

I want Nitkowski to be wrong. My hopes for Nishioka are set high. But my expectations are set considerably lower, to the point that he'd exceed them by turning into a league-average MLB middle-infielder.

Those expectations aren't very exciting, I suppose. But hey, that's what hope is for.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

No Relief

Jesse Crain signed a three-year, $13 million contract with the White Sox yesterday, officially ending a seven-year tenure with the Twins that was filled with ups and downs.

"Kenny Williams said I had been a pain in their butt the last couple of years and wanted to get me on their side," Crain told Charley Walters of the Pioneer Press. 

I bet I can pinpoint the exact moment that the White Sox decided they wanted to add the right-handed reliever. It was mid-September, and they were facing the Twins in Chicago while clinging to very slim postseason hopes. Trailing by one in the seventh, the Sox had loaded the bases with one out for their No. 4 and 5 hitters. Crain, amidst the best four-month stretch of pitching in his career, unleashed a barrage of nasty sliders and 95 mph fastballs on Paul Konerko and Manny Ramirez, striking them both out to end Chicago's threat and essentially their season. 

Two days later, I penned an article about Crain labeling him the team's "bullpen ace." It's what he was for the Twins from mid-May to the end of the year -- a guy you could rely on to come in and get outs in the most sticky of situations. On the surface, that's a very tough piece to lose. 

This isn't necessarily a traumatic development, though. In fact, it might ultimately benefit the Twins. They'll get a supplemental pick in the 2011 draft since Crain was a Type B free agent, and meanwhile one of their top divisional rivals is committing $13 million in guaranteed money to a guy who was rightfully being called "Crainwreck" by fans as recently as May of this year.  

When Crain's going good, he's a powerful weapon in the bullpen. But he's been prone to stretches of abysmal performance and 2010 was the first time he's posted a WHIP below 1.37 since 2006. He was a non-tender candidate last offseason, had a 7.31 ERA in mid-May of this year and now he's getting a three-year deal in a deep relief market? I'd have liked to bring Crain back, but with the Sox offering a contract like that the Twins were wise not to even consider matching it. 

Matt Guerrier also came off the market yesterday, signing a three-year deal with the Dodgers. He's been mostly effective over the past four years but his arm has seen more wear than any other reliever in baseball during that span. While his durability will be missed, it's tough to justify the kind of contract Guerrier got from Los Angeles. 

Right now, the Twins' bullpen situation looks bleak, yet I'm probably less concerned about the depth of this unit than the rotation or lineup. The market for relievers is flush this winter, unlike starting pitchers and middle infielders, so the Twins can afford to show patience and wait until January or even February when solid arms will still be available and likely without the need to make dangerous three-year commitments.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Shallow Waters

In 2010, the nine members of the Twins' Opening Day lineup missed a total of 319 games. The reasons differed -- injury, performance, routine days off -- but that's an awfully large number of games missed by players that the Twins expected to be regular contributors at the outset of the season.

We can point to a variety of reasons for the Twins' success in a 94-win season, but one that stands out above all others is excellent depth across the board.

You could see it in the lineup. When Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy were nicked up, Alexi Casilla was there to step in with solid interim performance. When Nick Punto and Brendan Harris couldn't hack it at third, Danny Valencia took over with a tremendous rookie campaign. When Justin Morneau went down, Jim Thome became a lineup staple and picked up the slack.

You could see it in the pitching staff, too. When Nick Blackburn earned himself a demotion to Triple-A, Brian Duensing helped keep the rotation afloat with strong outing after strong outing. When Joe Nathan went down in spring training, Jon Rauch (and subsequently Matt Capps) filled his shoes, and the bullpen's overall depth enabled the team to sustain the loss of its closer with virtually no ill effect.

If there's one thing that troubles me in taking a preliminary glance at the 2011 roster, it's a disturbing lack of depth.

Should Casilla or Tsuyoshi Nishioka struggle or get hurt, the top backups right now are Matt Tolbert and Trevor Plouffe. Should Mauer miss extended time, the Twins will be regularly trotting out one of the worst hitters in the major leagues in Drew Butera. Should Morneau be unable to go, we're looking at another summer of Michael Cuddyer at first and Jason Kubel in right. Should a starting pitcher struggle or go down, the Twins would almost have to look to 23-year-old prospect Kyle Gibson, ready or not. Don't even get me started on the bullpen, where there isn't one player you can confidently call a major-league pitcher past Capps, Jose Mijares and a recovering Nathan.

I believe that the starting nine currently slated to take the field in 2011 can absolutely be playoff-caliber -- yes, even without Hardy. What I worry about is what happens if those projected starters miss another 300 games. Or even 200. While not impossible, it's a stretch to believe that someone like Tolbert or Plouffe or Jason Repko is going to be able to step in as a competent regular over a lengthy period of time should a starting player go down or slump badly. Similar things can be said about the rotation and bullpen.

Of course, the good news is that we're in mid-December and there's still plenty of time to address these depth concerns. What's not clear is how much funding is available to do so. Trading Hardy and Harris cleared about $7.5 million from the payroll, but that money will only go so far. For instance, it would only cover a portion of Carl Pavano's salary, and while that signing would shore up rotation depth it would leave a host of issues remaining to be addressed in the bullpen and around the field.

As of now, the Twins have right around $100 million committed to the 2010 payroll. That's about where they were this year, so it will be interesting to see how much higher they're willing to go in the quest to build depth.

At first base, will the Twins invest in a righty-swinging backup who can provide legitimate Morneau insurance while also protecting Kubel from southpaws at DH? (Paging Derrek Lee...)

What about the rest of the infield? With question marks all around the diamond, the Twins will likely yearn for a strong defensive backup who can cover any position. In other words, there's a high probability that Punto is re-signed. (Sorry gang.)

What about the bullpen? Bill Smith can play coy and act like he's comfortable with what he's got, but let's think about that for a minute. Last year he was so uncomfortable with a bullpen that included Rauch, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier (now all free agents) that he felt the need to trade away a top prospect and spend millions in adding both Capps and Brian Fuentes. Now he's pretending to be comfortable with Pat Neshek as a potential setup man? Right. My guess is that the Twins re-sign one of Crain and Guerrier and then wait until January or February to see what kind of bargains they can get on leftovers from a deep relief market. Not a bad strategy, all things considered.

In the rotation, it sounds as though the Twins have their sights set on Pavano, but one has to wonder whether they can afford to spend close to $10 million on him alone with so many other needs to address. Maybe they can backload his contract, or maybe they'll have to look elsewhere. It's hard to imagine they'd be comfortable going forward with only five proven starters, particularly with the performance issues of Blackburn and the injury issues of Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey.

Finally, what of Thome? Everyone would love to have him back, but if he wants $3-4 million, can the Twins afford to spend it on a guy who can't field a position and is somewhat redundant with players they already have? He's the definition of a luxury, which is a lot more palatable at $1.5 million than twice that much.

These are questions to keep in mind as the offseason progresses.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Three-Bagger: Greinke, Hardy & Speed

"Three-Bagger" is a new feature I'll be running here from time to time. It refers to posts, like the one below, where I briefly cover three different topics rather than dedicating an entire lengthy entry to one subject.

* Joel Sherman of the New York Post and Jerry Crasnick of both suggested today that the Yankees aren't interested in trading for Zack Greinke because they don't believe he'd deal well with the pressure of pitching in New York. That's amusing because so many Twins fans have been clamoring for the team to pursue Greinke, reasoning that he'd be the true bulldog "ace" that Liriano isn't. Incidentally, the Yankees have apparently inquired about the availability of Liriano.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'd take Liriano over Greinke as my No. 1 starter on a contending team. That's not to say I wouldn't love to add Greinke to the Twins' rotation, but people who think he'd automatically solve the supposed "ace" dilemma aren't seeing things very clearly.

* Today's bitter J.J. Hardy fact: His .714 OPS last year ranks as the highest for a Minnesota shortstop who played 100-plus games since Cristian Guzman in 2001. For being such a replaceable commodity in the eyes of many, Hardy's production was awfully rare around these parts.

* The Twins supposedly are focused on increasing team speed this offseason. They claim that it's the main reason they've elected to part with both of their starting middle infielders from 2010. Yet, both Hardy and Orlando Hudson rated extremely well defensively, helping contribute to the Twins' No. 6 ranking among MLB teams in UZR. Among those clubs that finished among the top 10 in UZR, five made the playoffs. The Giants, who ranked second, won the World Series. Meanwhile, only one team ranking in the bottom 10 reached the postseason -- the Braves, who were ousted in the first round with ease.

On the flip side, three of the five lowest-ranked teams in stolen bases made the playoffs last year. That includes the Giants, who ranked dead last. Only one playoff team -- the Rays -- ranked among the top five in stolen bases.

If you believe their claims, the Twins' front office seems to think they can improve their 94-win team by subtracting defensive proficiency and adding foot speed. That's a shaky proposition based on the way things played out last year. Whether or not you put much stock into UZR as a statistic, it was clearly more closely correlated with success this past year than stolen bases. 

Of course, I don't really buy the rhetoric from the front office, and believe (and hope) their decisions this offseason have been guided almost entirely by a desire to cut costs.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Hardy Trade Cripples Infield Depth

Over the past two years, we've seen the Twins do nothing but spend, spend, spend. During the 2009 season, they added Orlando Cabrera, Jon Rauch and Carl Pavano, taking on salary in each deal. In the ensuing offseason, they traded for J.J. Hardy, retained Pavano at a relatively high price, signed Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome, and handed Joe Mauer one of the largest contracts in baseball history. Last season, they traded for Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes during the summer, again taking on millions in additional salary. Then, at the outset of this offseason, we saw them outbid all other clubs for the negotiation rights to a premier Japanese player, who they intend to sign.

At some point, this ride had to come to a stop. The Twins are obviously enjoying much more financial freedom with the backing of Target Field, but payroll wasn't going to keep escalating forever. Today, we saw it come to a thundering halt with the trade of J.J. Hardy and Brendan Harris to the Orioles for a pair of minor-league pitchers. The move was clearly a flat-out salary dump, and be assured, shaving a few million dollars from the payroll is the only positive thing it accomplishes.

After finding himself demoted not only from the major-league roster but also the 40-man roster during the 2010 season, Brendan Harris was owed $1.75 million next year as a result of a misguided contract handed to him last winter. The team's motives in moving him (while eating only $500,000 of his salary) aren't hard to figure out.

As for Hardy, Bill Smith's claim that "the driving force in trading the shortstop was the desire for a faster lineup" is either intended to mislead or demonstrative of some really poor logic. The Twins ranked fifth in the American League last year in runs scored despite down years from several key players (Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Jason Kubel) and costly injuries to two starters (Hardy and Justin Morneau). What the Twins needed to improve their already solid offensive production was better health; there's little evidence that a lack of speed was all that detrimental. 

I've come to have a lot of respect for Smith's judgment as a general manager, so I'm going to go ahead and assume his statements were only meant to mask a fact that would not be well received by the public: the Twins have hit a financial wall. 

The two pitchers received in the trade, Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey, should not be viewed as locks to make the big-league roster next year by any means. They're preferable to the brand of pitching prospect the Twins have often targeted in past trades, in that they throw hard and can miss some bats. But Jacobson is a 24-year-old who hasn't pitched above Single-A and Hoey, while capable of racking up tons of strikeouts, has issued a staggering 66 walks in 100 innings over the past two years at Double-A and Triple-A (think Juan Morillo). 

At best, these pitchers will be a couple additional question marks to throw into a 2011 bullpen mix that's already full of them. And in giving away a player who -- when healthy -- is a legitimate MLB starting shortstop (anyone who thinks Hardy isn't above average simply hasn't looked at the numbers of his peers), the Twins are apparently committing to a pair of question marks in the middle infield. There's no telling how the numbers of Tsuyoshi Nishioka, slated to start at second, will translate to the States. And we have little reason to believe that Casilla is suited to start at shortstop in the major leagues. He rates terribly at the position defensively, has never played 100 games in a big-league season and holds a .249/.306/.327 career hitting line in the majors. 

If the Twins couldn't afford to pay Hardy around $6 million next year, then they couldn't afford it. But it didn't have to be that way. Due to past mistakes, they're locked into paying Cuddyer $10.5 million and Capps $7 million or more. While I like the sentiment behind signing Nishioka, I don't like the idea of replacing an established commodity in Hardy with an unknown for the sake of saving a few million bucks. And if they go out and spend a bunch of money on re-signing Pavano, which they are reportedly making a "strong push" to do, this move looks dramatically worse. It means that the Twins had the money to retain Hardy, and that they're comfortable bringing back a pitch-to-contact, ground ball pitcher while removing two Gold Glove caliber defenders from their infield.

You pay for reliability. It's why the Yankees are in the playoffs every single year. Now, while their payroll is far from embarrassing, the Twins find themselves up against some financial limitations, due to escalating salaries and misallocation of funds. As a result, they're going to head into the 2011 season with several serious question marks that could potentially contribute to the team's demise.

In my opinion, the chances of either Casilla or Nishioka (or both) becoming liabilities as everyday players are much greater than the chances of either pitcher received in this trade making the team's bullpen significantly better next year. Perhaps down the line this deal will look better than it does right now, but as things stand this is probably the most disappointed I've been with any move during Smith's tenure as GM.

The Twins may be a large-market team in name at this point, but their inability to retain Hardy and carry some quality infield depth into the 2011 season is what differentiates them from the true big spenders out east, and it's the exact type of thing that will keep them from ever being able to surpass the Yankees in team talent.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Bullpen Dreams

One of the most annoying parts of the offseason is that we, as fans, are often given so little to work with that we are forced to dissect and interpret quotes that -- in their original context -- might bear very little meaning.

When asked about the state of the Twins' bullpen yesterday, Bill Smith gave a rather unsettling answer:
"Sometimes your best bet, rather than go out and get a third baseman, your best bet is to bring up Valencia and give him a chance," Smith said. "And we always like to do that. We love to bring players out of our system if they can help us win."

He added, "Perkins and Neshek and Nathan are three guys that would be great wild cards for us, because Perkins and Neshek pitched all season in Triple-A, or most of the season in Triple-A, and Nathan not at all."

"So if we can get Nathan back, competitive, to anywhere close to where he was, if we can get Neshek back to where he was several years ago -- and this would be the second year after Tommy John surgery. And Perkins threw the ball well in September, and had some stints of throwing the ball very well in Rochester."
My hope is that this is one of those offhand remarks that doesn't accurately reflect the mindset of the front office. Because if Smith and Co. are remotely comfortable with the bullpen pieces they currently have in place, they're out of their minds.

I don't mean to draw any unflattering Tim Brewster comparisons, but in the above quote Smith sounds like a used car salesman. Who does he think he's fooling? Pat Neshek and Glen Perkins spent most of 2010 in Triple-A because they were both completely ineffective and neither has proven to be fully recovered from their latest injuries. A "competitive" Joe Nathan is not exactly the jolt needed for a bullpen containing nothing but question marks past Matt Capps and Jose Mijares. The unit, as it currently stands, is exceedingly thin even if Nathan returns at full strength. And as Neshek's 2010 campaign proved, that first year back from Tommy John surgery can bring its share of tribulations.

There's no Danny Valencia caliber player ready to step into the Twins' bullpen and make us all forget about Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier. It's possible that Anthony Slama -- a strikeout machine with questionable control -- could make a positive impact, but the organization has never seemed all that high on him and it's telling that Smith would rather mention Perkins, who has compiled a 5.71 ERA between the majors and minors over the past two seasons. Beyond Slama, the Twins have zero relief prospects in the organization with the kind of numbers that would indicate they're ready to step in and handle late-inning duties for the big-league club.

I'm sure Smith must realize the gravity of the team's bullpen situation, so most likely I'm just over-analyzing a harmless early December quote. Still, for the sake of my blood pressure Bill, please refrain from making similar comments in the future.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Myth of Injury-Prone

A tweet on Friday afternoon from Kirsten Brown, administrator of K-Bro's Baseball Blog, posed the following question:
Hey baseball fans, what's your definition of "injury-prone"?
Kirsten was wondering about the amount of time a player would have to miss on average to bear that description in people's minds, but lately I've been thinking more about the term itself. What does "injury-prone" really mean, and how often is it assigned unfairly?

It's a buzzword that's been used a lot recently in connection with J.J. Hardy, who looms as one of this offseason's biggest question marks. Beat writer La Velle E. Neal III wrote over the weekend that the team plans on starting Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla up the middle next year and that the Twins have already discussed a Hardy trade with "about six teams."

Many fans have expressed that they won't be sorry to see Hardy go, citing his inability to stay healthy as a fatal annoyance. Among them is my typically level-headed friend Twins Geek, who doesn't "trust" Hardy to stay healthy, and lists the following separate ailments as evidence that the shortstop is a ticking time-bomb: "Back issue in 2009, played 115 games. 2010, 101 games. 2006, just 35 games, for ankle. 2004, shoulder, missed almost all."

I'm wondering if the intimation here is that Hardy's bones are somehow more brittle than the average player, or that his tendons and muscles are abnormally weak. Is there any other way to explain this innate proneness to differing injuries? I don't think anyone who's watched him can claim that Hardy plays the game in an especially reckless manner; heck, the wrist injury that plagued him last year was a fluke suffered on a routine feet-first slide.

While posting stellar numbers in 2007 and 2008, Hardy missed very little time (11 and 16 games, respectively). Over the past two seasons, he has missed a total of 87 games (accounting for time spent in the minors). If missing significant time in two consecutive seasons because of separate injuries qualifies a player as fragile, then I guess you can tag any player on the Twins' roster, save for a few.

Joe Mauer missed the entire month of April in 2009 due to a lower back injury. This year, he missed even more games due to a variety of different ailments. 

Justin Morneau was lost for all of September in 2009 because of a fractured vertebrae. This year a concussion knocked him out for the entire second half.

Back and thumb issues caused Michael Cuddyer to miss 18 games and sapped his power in 2007; he missed more than half the next season due to a cocktail of new injuries. (Cuddyer, by the way, has missed only 14 games total in two years since).

The list goes on, but there's your three top paid position players and they've all had lengthy stretches where they've had a hard time staying on the field. As a result, they've battled accusations of being "injury-prone," as if they're doing something wrong by getting hurt. Fans are painting some of the world's most pristine athletes out to be Samuel L. Jackson's character from "Unbreakable."

The reality is that these guys are playing a fast-moving sport at the highest level, where it's pretty easy to get hurt. Obviously they would like to avoid spending time on the disabled list but not everyone can be so lucky. In fact, very few players are lucky enough to evade major injury for several years in a row. 

There are certain cases in which the injury-prone label makes sense. For example, when a player is perpetually bothered by the same ailment (Joe Crede comes to mind quickly). In addition, it has been proven -- and makes sense -- that players are more susceptible to injury as they age.

But am I supposed to believe that Hardy's bad luck with past injuries somehow makes him more likely than another player to miss significant time in the upcoming season? Assuming that his major wrist injury and minor knee injury from 2010 are in the rear-view mirror -- as Hardy has stated -- then the shortstop carries no lingering injury concerns going forward. 

Sure, he might suffer another mishap and miss 40+ games for a third straight year at the age of 28. But when he was able to get on the field last year, Hardy was undoubtedly one of the best in the league at his position, in spite of playing through debilitating wrist pain at times. Bill Smith would be taking a pretty big risk by dumping that potential production for fear of another injury, especially if the plan is to entrust Casilla -- a perennial underachiever who has never played 100 games in an MLB season -- and Nishioka -- a relative unknown whose Wikipedia page points out that he has "established a reputation as somewhat of an injury-prone player" -- without any compelling insurance plan in place.

Without seeing what sort of follow-up moves might come along with it, I can't claim that dealing Hardy is the worst idea in the world. Maybe it's all part of a bigger plan. But considering how thin the market for middle infielders is at present, I have a really hard time seeing it. Shipping Hardy off with his value down over an irrational fear of injury or an obsession with increasing team speed would be tragically misguided.

Is Hardy an injury risk in 2011? Sure. So is everyone.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A Cursory Glance at Pavano's Potential Suitors

Last night marked the deadline for Carl Pavano, Orlando Hudson and Jesse Crain to accept the Twins' arbitration offers. As expected, all three declined, meaning they will test the open market as free agents. Should they sign elsewhere, the Twins will be compensated with draft picks.

Any of the three can be brought back, but the Twins are unlikely to come out on top of a bidding war for Pavano or Crain -- both of whom are reportedly drawing a great deal of early interest -- and the team hasn't even pretended to have any real interest in bringing Hudson back.

By signing elsewhere, each of the three players would supply the Twins with an additional sandwich pick between the first and second rounds of the 2011 draft. As a Type A, Pavano would also yield an additional pick. The placement of that draft pick is dependent on where Pavano ends up, so his eventual destination is well worth tracking.

The compensation system calls for the team signing Pavano to surrender their top pick. However, a number of first-round selections are protected (the first non-protected pick this year is the Tigers at No. 19, as this handy graphic illustrates); if a team with a protected first-rounder signs Pavano, the Twins would gain that team's second-round pick.

With this in mind, let's sort through a few of the clubs that have been rumored to have interest in employing Pavano and his illustrious mustache.

1. Nationals

Adam Kilgore, who covers the Nats for the Washington Post, tweeted yesterday that the team is in discussions with Pavano. After another dismal year, Washington is slotted to pick sixth in next year's draft so they're protected. The fact that they'd surrender only a second-rounder (which grow less and less valuable with each added supplemental pick) could make them a more likely destination than those teams with non-protected first-round picks. Teams like...

2. Rangers

The Rangers have become extremely aggressive in addressing their needs over the past year. They seem determined to try and bring back Cliff Lee, but if they're unable to do so Texas could turn to the best remaining option: Pavano. The Rangers' No. 26 pick in the 2011 draft is unprotected, but the departure of Lee -- a Type A -- would garner them two additional top picks and perhaps make that loss palatable.

3. Astros

Pavano's name was one of a handful that Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle tossed out as potential targets for the Astros, suggesting that the team may seek to bolster its appeal to potential buyers by adding some big names. The Astros pick 11th in the first round, so the Twins would receive their second-rounder.

The Marlins (14th pick, protected) were also rumored to be interested in Pavano, but they're likely out of the mix now that they've added Javier Vazquez. Same goes for the Rockies (20th pick, non-protected), who were in on Pavano before re-signing Jorge De La Rosa. That No. 20 pick would have been a great value for the Twins; it also would have been a very costly loss for Colorado, which may have played into their decision to bring back De La Rosa instead of pursuing Pavano.

With the Winter Meetings fast approaching, I'm sure we'll hear more and more rumors emerge regarding Pavano suitors. Twins fans can follow this storyline with great interest, and not just out of curiosity over whether the righty's stache will blend in with his uniform colors in 2011.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Monday Notes

Catching up on a few different items...

* First, with Thanksgiving fresh in the rearview mirror, I wanted to send out a big THANK YOU to everyone who has purchased a copy of the TwinsCentric 2010-11 Offseason GM Handbook. Sales for this year's version were absolutely excellent, shattering our expectations.

Of all the different types of products we've created under the TwinsCentric label, the Handbook is my personal favorite so I'm glad to see it has essentially become our flagship publication. I hope each person who picked up a copy this year has been enjoying it while continuing to use it as a reference as action ramps up this offseason and the Winter Meetings approach. If you don't have one, you can still order yours at the TwinsCentric home page.

* One of the few shortstops listed as a free agent option in the Handbook, Juan Uribe, came off the market today as the Dodgers signed him to a three-year, $21 million deal.

That's an astonishingly large contract, given that Uribe hit .248 in 2010 and two years ago was basically a replacement-level player. However, with Derek Jeter reportedly seeking $20 million a year and ultimately likely to stick with the Yankees, Uribe stood out as the top shortstop available through free agency and the Dodgers pounced with an aggressive offer.

The numbers posted last year by Uribe and Jeter may not seem particularly impressive, but both play a position without strong depth around the league, which inflates their value tremendously. This brings us to J.J. Hardy, who is looking like more and more of a bargain on a one-year contract at the $7 million or so he'd make through arbitration. It sounds like the Twins will tender him a contract, which is an absolute no-brainer, but still may seek to trade him. If so, hopefully they will recognize the very apparent league-wide demand for quality shortstops and command a fitting return. Incidentally, the Giants now have an opening at shortstop and could be a logical trading partner for the Twins.

* Tuesday night marks the deadline for free agents Carl Pavano, Orlando Hudson and Jesse Crain to accept or decline the Twins' arbitration offers. I guessed last week "that all three will opt for free agency, with Crain being the only one I could see going the other way." It seems clear that both and Pavano and Hudson will indeed decline, and with Crain already reportedly drawing interest from nine different teams, there's little doubt that he'll test the open market as well. If all three players sign elsewhere, the Twins would be rewarded with four additional high picks in next June's draft.   

* All in all, it's been a pretty quiet offseason up to this point for Twins fans and while I'm sure things will heat up in the coming weeks, I'm always looking for new ways to keep things lively here at the blog over the winter. If there are any topics you'd like to see covered, please be sure to mention them in the comments section or via email. I've also considered setting up occasional live chats that would take place here on the site, in which we can discuss Twins-related topics of all sorts. Yes? No? If so, what time of day works best for people?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Nishioka Time

The Twins yesterday secured exclusive negotiation rights to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka with a winning bid of $5.3 million. This allows them 30 days to reach a contract with Nishioka, and Joe Christensen states that "the Twins should have little trouble closing the deal." Suddenly, it seems certain that Target Field will be welcoming a very new dynamic in the 2011 season.

Nishioka was a breakout star in Japan's Pacific League this past year, capturing the batting title with a .346 average while posting a .423 on-base percentage and 51 extra-base hits for the Chiba Lotte Marines. He's only 26 -- younger than most players who transfer over from Japan -- so the Twins are hoping the strides taken this past season will stick, with Nishioka's prime years still ahead of him.

The switch-hitting Nishioka has developed into a well recognized star in Japan. He was featured in an Adidas "Impossible is Nothing" commercial, in which he states that his goal is for everyone in the world to recognize him as the best shortstop. (Though it's been said he could shift over to second for the Twins, who may not trust his ability to field the position at the highest level.)

From where I stand, this could possibly be a very good move or a very questionable move in terms of how much it helps the team. It's just impossible to make any judgments without more information -- specifically, what Nishioka's contract will look like and whether it will mean the end of J.J. Hardy.

The Twins seem determined to give Alexi Casilla a chance next year, and the notion of a Casilla/Nishioka middle infield carries more question marks than I'm comfortable with. Even in an injury-marred 2010 season, Hardy was always a very competent starter when available. It's important to note that -- despite his stardom in Japan -- there's no guarantee Nishioka will stand out here in the States. (See: Matsui, Kazuo.)

We'll learn more about how this move fits into a bigger plan over the next few weeks, and in due time we can give it the in-depth analysis it deserves. But, in isolation, you've got to love the message that is being sent. The Twins are flexing their financial muscle, outbidding a number of clubs including the Red Sox, who reportedly had a bid "in the mid-$2 million range." This comes just one year after the Twins stole away coveted Latin prospect Miguel Sano with a $3.15 million bonus.

These are, literally, the exact types of aggressive moves I'd hoped to see in the new stadium era. Twins fans once would never have dreamed of seeing their club outbid all others in the expensive pursuit of premium international talent, but now it's happening. This coincides with increased spending in the draft and drastic payroll expansion (there's some talk that the Twins' payroll could balloon to $125 million next year, which would be an increase of about $60 million from Opening Day 2009).

We'll grade out the apparently imminent Nishioka signing when it becomes clear how he fits into the team's plans for 2011. For now, we know that the Twins are probably committing at least $10-15 million to bringing over one of the Pacific League's premier young stars, a move that will instantly make them one of the most popular teams in Japan while bringing a new international flavor to baseball in Minneapolis.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Twins Offer Arbitration to Pavano, Hudson, Crain

Yesterday marked the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to pending free agents in order to ensure draft pick compensation should those players sign elsewhere. Six departing Twins qualified as Type A or Type B free agents, and the team elected to offer arbitration to three of them: Carl Pavano, Orlando Hudson and Jesse Crain. That means that Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch will officially be shopping their services in free agency.

It's tough to assess these moves without knowing which players will accept and how much the Twins plan on expanding payroll next year, but these are probably the very three candidates I would have extended arbitration offers to. Pavano is a Type A, Hudson and Crain Type B's, so the Twins stand to pick up a number of draft picks should all decline and sign elsewhere.

Of course, there's risk involved here. Should all three accept, the Twins would be committed to spending close to $20 million on them next year and would be left with almost no financial flexibility for the remainder of the offseason, barring another huge spike in payroll. That could mean the same team as last year, except with Alexi Casilla starting at short and cheaper options replacing Guerrier, Rauch, Fuentes and Thome.

Personally, I think it's a given that Pavano will decline. He's about to turn 35 and this represents his last chance to cash in with a multi-year deal. He probably won't make as much annually in such a contract as he would through arbitration, especially since he'll cost the team signing him a draft pick, but he knows his age and injury history as well as anyone so I have to think he'd like to avoid a one-year deal if he can. The right-hander has already reportedly drawn interest from several teams.

The other two are trickier calls.

Crain could look at the unusually deep free agent market and accept a one-year contract, hoping to put together another strong season and stand out as one of the top options next winter. That would result in a significant bump from his $2 million salary from 2010, but even at twice that price he's not a terrible investment. He was their best reliever this past season.

However, Crain has mentioned that he'd like to pursue a closing role next year, so there's also a good chance he declines and tries his luck in free agency. His age (29), combined with his 3.04 ERA and career-high strikeout rate, would make him an attractive option for clubs looking to strengthen their bullpens, and the contract former Rays setup man Joaquin Benoit got from the Tigers (three years, $16.5 million) could have Crain licking his chops.

Hudson would indisputably be the top free agent second baseman on the market, so it seems certain he'd be able to fetch a multi-year deal. Then again, it seemed certain he'd be able to get a multi-year deal last offseason, and the one before. For whatever reason, the league seems to have some aversion to him. He could accept the Twins' offer, jaded with free agency.

That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Even though he battled a number of injuries and his numbers dropped off late in the year, Hudson was a valuable piece for the Twins, providing competent offense in the two-hole while playing excellent defense. However, if the Twins can only afford one of Hudson and J.J. Hardy -- and that seems to be the case, since they've suggested that Casilla will be starting somewhere in 2011 -- it should be Hardy returning. Both have had a hard time staying healthy, but Hardy is four years younger and stands out more among peers at his position. He's a more valuable player.

But I don't think Hudson is going to accept arbitration, and I don't think the Twins would have extended the offer if they felt he would. Joe Christensen blogged recently on the second baseman, noting that "the writing is on the wall ... It looks like he'll be playing for his fourth team in four years in 2011."

The last day for Pavano, Crain and Hudson to accept arbitration offers is next Tuesday, November 30. My guess is that all three will opt for free agency, with Crain being the only one I could see going the other way. That would result in a nice flurry of extra draft picks for the Twins next June while leaving them with some cash to tinker with this offseason.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Feeble Beginnings

The Twins have been all over the news early this offseason. There's no missing them.

First, there was the aggressive signing of pitcher Eric Hacker. While other teams were still drawing up offseason plans, the Twins made an aggressive move to bring in a player they'd been coveting. Hacker won 16 games last year, which is three more than AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez! Granted, Hacker did it as a 27-year-old in Triple-A and coupled it with a 4.51 ERA, but that's neither here nor there.

Things only heated up when the Twins inked Chase Lambin, a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer. Despite having spent the previous season playing in Japan (and hitting .192) Lambin was a mid-season International League All-Star last year with the Syracuse Chiefs. Watch out Yankees!

Adding household names like Jeff Bailey, Phil Dumatrait and Yorman Bazardo, it's clear the Twins mean business this winter.

And did you hear yesterday was Ron Gardenhire Day

All joking aside, things have been quiet for the Twins thus far, which is a switch from last year when Bill Smith dealt for J.J. Hardy just days after the World Series concluded. It's not unexpected, and it likely portends a much quieter offseason.

But we can be assured that the Hacker signing won't end up being the team's most significant move this offseason. Things are going to start happening, and today -- marking the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to free agent eligible players -- sets those things into motion. By next Thursday, those players will have to decide on whether they'll accept arbitration. By then, we will know whether Carl Pavano, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch and Matt Guerrier are going to test the free agent market. The following Monday, the Winter Meetings get underway in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. They're a breeding round for hot stove rumors, many of which will certainly be connected to the Twins -- some with merit.

The hot stove has been awfully chilly for the Twins over these first few weeks of the offseason, but things are about to start heating up. As that happens, my posting frequency should increase here and hopefully we'll have some other things to discuss in the comments section than Ron Gardenhire/Brad Childress comparisons.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ready to Get Tangled in Webb?

In Wednesday's post, I suggested that the Twins might be wise to pursue a "low-cost reclamation project" to add depth to the rotation if they let Carl Pavano walk, specifically calling out Brandon Webb and Chris Young. Later that morning,'s Jerry Crasnick made the following tweet:
Webb, Jeff Francis & Chris Young attracting interest as comeback bets on 1-yr deals. Webb a potential fallback for Twins if Pavano leaves
If Crasnick has his sources straight, then this appears to be one of those decreasingly rare instances in which I find myself on the same wavelength as the Twins brass. Webb is shaping up to be a guy worth taking a flier on, but only under the right circumstances. 

Back in January of 2009, the Indians signed free agent Carl Pavano, who had pitched only 45 innings over the prior three seasons combined, to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million plus incentives. I loved the move from afar, opining that it was "what a low-risk veteran signing should look like." Pavano, once considered an elite starter, had been an epic free agent bust with the Yankees and needed to rectify his image. The Indians had a million and a half bucks to gamble on him.

As it turned out, the deal worked out well for both sides. Pavano scooted past his incentive milestones, tacking onto his salary significantly while setting himself up to earn far more in the ensuing years. The Indians and Twins, meanwhile, got 200 innings of solid veteran performance.

Webb is not so far removed from his prime years, and during them he was a better pitcher than Pavano ever has been. In 2006, Webb captured the NL Cy Young by going 16-8 with a 3.10 ERA over 235 innings for the Diamondbacks. He finished second in the Cy Young voting in both 2007 and 2008.

On Opening Day of the 2009 season, Webb left after four innings due to soreness in his right shoulder. A few months later, he'd go under the knife, costing him the rest of his '09 season and all of 2010. Now, Webb is set to become a free agent and he's a major wild card. The right-hander reported that his fastball was only touching 81-83 mph in early October, but that's a long way from spring training and Webb was never a fireballer (during his best years, his heater only averaged 88 mph).

On a Pavano-type deal, Webb would almost certainly be a worthwhile investment. However, it's possible that the former Diamondback will have higher demands. He and his agent could seek a deal more similar to the one Ben Sheets inked with the A's last offseason. Sheets, who'd not pitched since 2008 due to his own shoulder issues, signed a one-year contract that guaranteed $10 million and contained $2 million in incentives.

That deal busted, as Sheets was thoroughly mediocre over 20 starts before suffering another major shoulder injury that will probably signify the end of his career. With this example fresh in mind, it's unlikely that any general manager will throw eight figures at Webb, but he could seek a one-year deal similar to the ones fellow injury concerns Rich Harden ($6.5 million plus incentives) and Brad Penny ($7.5 million plus incentives) signed prior to this season.

The nice thing for the Twins is that they have enough depth to take a gamble on Webb. They already have five potentially capable starters in Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing. Beyond that stable, they've got top pitching prospect Kyle Gibson waiting in the wings at Triple-A.

If Webb fizzles, the Twins can probably sustain it from a competitive standpoint. The question is how much it would hurt them financially. He is still only 31 years old and prior to his injury he was one of baseball's premier workhorses, but no one can know what to expect in his first season back. I don't know exactly how much the Twins' payroll is going to increase this year and maybe they can afford to gamble at high stakes on Webb, but if he's demanding an amount that would severely restrict their other offseason moves, they'd have to be very confident his shoulder is good to go.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

No Longer a Bridesmaid

I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the impacts managers have on the outcomes of baseball games. I can't profess to know the intricacies of these impacts, but I am fairly certain that they are vastly overrated by the majority of people.

Managers make several decisions throughout the course of the a ball game. Of those decisions, only a small percentage reflect a unique philosophy held be that particular skipper. There are certain things I don't like about the way Ron Gardenhire tends to manage -- his deployment of "small ball" tactics, his over-reliance on veteran players, his strict adherence to traditional closer usage, to name a few.

These tendencies understandably frustrate fans, but what those fans don't seem to understand is that basically all managers across the league make the same types of decisions. Most people in Minnesota don't get the opportunity to watch opposing managers under the same type of microscope, so there's a "grass is always greener" mentality that can take hold. At least until you watch Ron Washington, leader of the AL Champs and second-place finisher in this year's Manager of the Year voting, allow his bullpen to implode repeatedly in the playoffs while his best reliever sat on the bench.

Usually it's been Gardenhire finding himself as the runner-up in baseball's annual award for the league's best manager. He finished second in the voting five times in his first eight years at Minnesota's helm. Yesterday, finally, Gardenhire was named American League Manager of the Year for the 2010 season.

I sometimes get painted as a Gardy devotee because I've written pieces defending him against criticism and highlighting his positives more frequently than just about any other person covering the team.

I wouldn't say that's an accurate depiction of my stance. I've criticized Gardenhire for plenty of his decisions in the past. He typifies the "old-school" approach to baseball that can often drive me nuts; wasting outs on sacrifice bunts, batting a middle infielder second in the lineup regardless of his competence, emphasizing hustle and the mystical trait known as scrappiness over pure talent (i.e. Nick Punto).

But, to me, it seems flat-out ignorant to sit here and say that those traits -- however annoying -- have been significant detractors from the team's overall success. Gardenhire is the first manager in league history to capture division titles in six of his first nine seasons. He's often done so while overseeing teams with huge payroll handicaps and lesser talent.

This year, for the first time, he could claim neither of those disadvantages. The Twins entered the 2010 season with monumentally high expectations thanks to an aggressive offseason and unprecedented fan interest. Those expectations were met in the regular season, undeniably. The Twins won 94 games, dominated their division and became the first team in all of baseball to clinch a playoff spot.

They did this despite a great deal of adversity. Joe Nathan, one of the league's best relievers, suffered a season-ending injury in spring training. Justin Morneau, one of the league's best hitters, had his season end in early July. Many other players battled through injuries that caused them to miss time and affected their on-field performance.

Through all of that, 94 wins.

This isn't a sport like basketball or football where the head coach and his staff develop a game plan, draw up plays and manage timeouts. Ultimately, games are won by hitters coming up with big hits, pitchers making good pitches and fielders catching the ball. I do believe that Gardenhire's tactical decisions sometimes hurt the team. But far more, I think he does things that help breed success.

Given his results, that's awfully hard to argue.

Yes, there's the brutal postseason track record. Scapegoating the manager for those struggles seems like an easy way out, though. If Gardenhire's management is so deeply flawed, why has he been so successful in the regular season? If he is responsible for his team "playing scared" when things get tough, how has he led them back from seemingly insurmountable odds to win division titles in 2006 and 2009? The Twins haven't been able to move past the ALDS since 2002 because the players just haven't delivered very good performances, and I can't find it in me to blame anyone but those players themselves for the consistently disappointing outcomes.

The team's lack of postseason success during Gardenhire's tenure should make us feel sorry for the man, not castigate him. I suspect that he wishes more than anyone that this team could find a way to win in the playoffs and bring home a World Series title. The individual honor he received yesterday is certainly not an adequate substitute, but it has been a long time coming.

Congrats Gardy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Arbitration Gamble

Major-league baseball teams operate on an uneven playing field. Some have a great deal of money to work with, while others have relatively little. With their new stadium, the Twins have moved into the upper echelon of team payrolls, but they still operate on a somewhat restricted budget that keeps them from being able to retain all of the free agents they'd like to.

Fortunately, baseball has a system in place to soften the blow for clubs losing valuable contributors to free agency. If a player amasses statistics sufficient to qualify him for Type A or Type B status, he can be offered arbitration that -- if declined -- puts his erstwhile employer in line for draft pick compensation once he signs with a new team.

The Twins have a slew of players with expiring contracts this year, and a number of those players qualify as Type A or Type B free agents. Here's the breakdown:

TYPE A: Matt Guerrier, Carl Pavano

TYPE B: Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Orlando Hudson, Jon Rauch

Acquiring additional high draft picks is key for the Twins, who have done an excellent job of maximizing the value of their top selections in recent years. Their first-rounders from 2007 through 2009 -- Ben Revere, Aaron Hicks and Kyle Gibson, respectively -- arguably rank as the organization's top three prospects. Revere and Gibson could make an impact as soon as next year.

But offering arbitration in these situations can be a gamble. When the player is a marquee free agent in the vein of Carl Crawford or Cliff Lee the decision is a no-brainer, but in some cases a player will opt to accept the guaranteed one-year contract rather than testing the open market. With several of the players listed above, offering arbitration is a risk the Twins cannot afford.

Guerrier is one good example. He's a Type A free agent, so if he declined arbitration and signed with another team the Twins would get back two high draft picks, including a possible first-rounder. However, if offered arbitration Guerrier would almost certainly accept it, knowing that in spite of his quality work over the past several years he'd have a hard time finding a suitor, given that the team signing him would have to relinquish a draft pick. If he accepted arbitration, Guerrier would stand to make around $5 million next year -- a price the Twins probably cannot afford with their current commitments.

Fuentes is another player whose status won't likely yield any benefits. He qualifies as a Type B free agent, meaning the Twins would be compensated with a supplemental pick if he declined arbitration and signed elsewhere. The upside is that Fuentes would not cost the team that signed him a draft pick (only Type A's do) but he'd be a lock to accept arbitration anyway; Fuentes earned $9 million last season as part of the contract he signed to become the Angels' closer a few years ago, and through arbitration he'd make at least that much in 2011. It's not reasonable to pay that kind of money for a guy who would figure to serve mostly as a lefty specialist, accumulating only 50 or 60 innings.

It's less clear what path the Twins will take with their other Type B's. Hudson will surely decline arbitration to test the weak second base market and should net the Twins a pick. Conversely, with the deep free agent market for relievers this year, both Crain and Rauch would likely accept arbitration offers, realizing that they'll earn more in 2011 through that avenue than in free agency. Those earnings are probably more than the Twins are willing to pay with significant bullpen money tied up in Joe Nathan and Matt Capps. (Yes, it sounds like Capps is a lock to return. Ugh.) It's quite possible that the Twins could lose all four of their qualifying relievers without any compensation.

The final arbitration decision might be the most intriguing to discuss, and that's Pavano. He's a Type A, meaning that if he declined an arbitration offer he'd cost the team signing him a draft pick, but he carries more leverage in free agency than his relief counterparts. The market for starting pitching is not very strong this winter, as Pavano would stand out as perhaps the best option behind Lee. Having largely buried the injury concerns that once haunted him, Pavano's outstanding command and workmanlike approach make him a very attractive option for clubs looking to infuse some veteran leadership into their pitching staff.

Pavano is 34 and coming off a very good season. This likely represents his last chance to cash in with a lucrative multi-year deal. Ted Lilly, also 34, set the market for inning-eating vets when he inked a three-year, $33 million pact with the Dodgers earlier this offseason. Pavano's Type A status would be an added burden in free agency, but there are still many teams who would be interested in his services and several of those teams could deal with the loss of a draft pick (like, for instance, the Rangers, who would be getting extra picks back if they lose Lee).

There's always the chance that Pavano accepts an arbitration offer and comes back to play for the Twins next year for around $10 million. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world; the veteran's 221 quality innings this season were invaluable and would be difficult to replace. However, the Twins have the pitching depth to get by without Pavano next year (especially if they took a flier on a low-cost reclamation project like Brandon Webb or Chris Young), and committing that kind of money to him would likely eliminate any payroll flexibility while perhaps preventing them from being able to bring back someone like J.J. Hardy.

The deadline for offering arbitration to free agents is November 23 -- next Tuesday. By then, we might know a lot more about the Twins' true payroll situation moving forward. The amount of money they have on the table could be evident in the gambles they're willing to take.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Flip Side of Morneau's Complaints

In an email exchange with Star Tribune reporters, Justin Morneau recently spoke out against the decision by the Twins organization not to move in the home run fences after the team's first season at Target Field.

Morneau complained that it is extremely difficult for both right-handed and left-handed hitters to homer to the opposite field and suggested that this fact can cause players to develop bad habits that manifest on the road.

Unfortunately, the facts don't seem to back up Morneau's complaints. Before a concussion knocked him out for the season in early July, the first baseman was slugging .618 and on pace for a career-high 35 home runs. Granted, only four of Morneau's 18 bombs at that point had come in Target Field, but the fact that he'd gone deep 14 times while amassing a ridiculous .757 slugging percentage in 38 road games hardly reinforces any notion that "bad habits" were inhibiting his offensive approach in opposing stadiums.

Morneau surely is frustrated after watching many of his (and his teammates') screaming line drives fall short of the wall in the power alleys this summer. Parker lays out the data on the TwinsCentric blog today, backing up Morneau's concerns over the difficulty of hitting the ball out of the park, especially to right-center.

But the key point that Morneau misses in his remarks is how much these deep fences have aided the Twins' pitching staff, which was elemental in the team's outstanding 53-28 home record this season.

A big reason the Twins performed so much better at home this season is because their pitching was markedly superior there than on the road. Twins hurlers posted a 3.53 ERA with 64 home runs allowed in 81 home games while registering a 4.39 ERA with 91 homers allowed in the same number of road contests.

Specific pitchers have benefited greatly from Target Field's expansive confines. Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey were both among the league's most fly ball heavy pitchers this year, so both rely on keeping those fly balls in the yard.

At home, Baker went 8-3 with a 3.86 ERA, thanks largely to his yielding only eight homers in 86 innings. On the road, he went 4-6 with a 5.14 ERA and allowed seven more home runs in two fewer innings.

You'll find similar splits for Kevin Slowey, whose ERA at home, where he allowed a .416 slugging percentage, was 3.63; on the road, where he allowed a .515 slugging percentage: 5.63.

Nick Blackburn doesn't let hitters put the ball in the air quite as much as Slowey or Baker, but he does allow an awful lot of contact and so he too sees major benefits from a pitcher-friendly home stadium. At Target Field, Blackburn's numbers were downright solid: 7-4 with a 3.71 ERA and 10 home runs allowed in 89 innings. On the road, his results were beyond dismal: 3-8 with a 7.57 ERA and 15 home runs allowed in 71 innings.

None of these three starters enjoyed particularly great seasons, but they all could have been disastrous if not for the luxury of pitching in a home park that severely limited the power output of opposing lineups. Baker, Slowey and Blackburn couldn't be blamed for grumbling upon hearing Morneau's comments.

Considering the Twins' outstanding home record, coupled with the fact that their lineup scored more runs at home than on the road in spite of the home run struggles, it's difficult to view the distant home run fences as playing to the Twins' disadvantage. Quite the contrary.

Morneau made clear that his comments were intended for the betterment of the team as a whole rather than his own personal statistics, but he's not seeing clearly on this one. The Twins are making the right choice.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Coming Up Short

One of the most important and immediate decisions that the Twins' front office will face this offseason is whether or not to offer arbitration to J.J. Hardy. There a number of other interesting arbitration cases, but few seem as up in the air as Hardy's. It's not difficult to see why.

Hardy earned $5.1 million in 2010, and is entering his final year of team control. If the Twins offer him arbitration, they will lock up his services for 2011 while also guaranteeing him a raise of at least a million (in the Offseason GM Handbook, we projected his salary at $6.5 million). That seems like a hefty price to pay for a shortstop who characteristically struggled with injuries while posting unspectacular offensive numbers for a second straight year.

This decision represents a gamble of sorts. If Bill Smith decides to offer Hardy arbitration, he's gambling that the shortstop can put together a healthier campaign next year, because it's hard to justify such a large salary for a player that's only going to play 101 games (as he did this year) while putting forth somewhat meager production.

If Smith decides not to offer Hardy arbitration, he's gambling that he can find a better and perhaps less expensive option elsewhere. That could be Alexi Casilla, though I suspect he's currently pegged to start at second base next year with Orlando Hudson set to depart. It could conceivably be Trevor Plouffe, but that's highly doubtful given his pedestrian minor-league track record and lack of big-league success.

Non-tendering Hardy probably seems like a no-brainer to some. He came nowhere close to replicating his 2007/08 production, as many had hoped, and couldn't really stay on the field this year. However, when we compare Hardy's contributions to those of other shortstops across the league, his numbers start to look a whole lot more impressive.

Let's run through the players who led each American League club in games played at shortstop this year. Listed alongside each player are their core offensive numbers, and I'll also include each player's UZR/150 in an effort to get a snapshot of their defensive proficiency, while acknowledging that Ultimate Zone Rating -- like all fielding metrics -- is flawed, especially over a one-year sample. Finally, I'll include their WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, a figure meant to represent the number of wins they contributed over a replacement-level player based on a formula developed by FanGraphs that factors in both offense and defense.

We start with our own guy:

TWINS: J.J. Hardy
101 G, .268/.320/.394, 6 HR, 38 RBI, 12.8 UZR/150, 2.4 WAR

Now, the rest of the AL:

ORIOLES: Cesar Izturis
150 G, .230/.277/.268, 1 HR, 28 RBI, 5.8 UZR/150, -0.3 WAR

RED SOX: Marco Scutaro
150 G, .275/.333/.388, 11 HR, 56 RBI, -3.3 UZR/150, 2.1 WAR

WHITE SOX: Alexei Ramirez
156 G, .282/.313/.431, 18 HR, 70 RBI, 10.1 UZR/150, 3.8 WAR

INDIANS: Asdrubal Cabrera
97 G, .276/.326/.346, 3 HR, 29 RBI, -13.4 UZR/150, 0.5 WAR

TIGERS: Ramon Santiago
112 G, .263/.337/.325, 3 HR, 22 RBI, 16.1 UZR/150, 2.0 WAR

ROYALS: Yuniesky Betancourt
151 G, .259/.288/.405, 16 HR, 78 RBI, -9.2 UZR/150, 0.6 WAR

ANGELS: Erick Aybar
138 G, .253/.306/.330, 5 HR, 29 RBI, -2.6 UZR/150, 0.9 WAR

YANKEES: Derek Jeter
157 G, .270/.340/.370, 10 HR, 67 RBI, -5.4 UZR/150, 2.5 WAR

ATHLETICS: Cliff Pennington
156 G, .250/.319/.368, 6 HR, 46 RBI, 8.8 UZR/150, 3.7 WAR

MARINERS: Josh Wilson
108 G, .227/.278/.294, 2 HR, 25 RBI, -2.9 UZR/150, -0.3 WAR

RAYS: Jason Bartlett
135 G, .254/.324/.350, 4 HR, 47 RBI, -13.8 UZR/150, 0.7 WAR

RANGERS: Elvis Andrus
148 G, .265/.342/.301, 0 HR, 35 RBI, 0.3 UZR/150, 1.5 WAR

BLUE JAYS: Alex Gonzalez (includes second-half numbers w/ Braves)
157 G, .250/.294/.447, 23 HR, 88 RBI, 5.1 UZR/150, 3.4 WAR

So, there you have it. If you were underwhelmed by Hardy's numbers before looking at this list, you're probably not anymore. Despite the fact that injuries limited the Twins' shortstop to 101 games and tainted his overall production when he was able to get on the field, only FOUR shorstops in the Junior Circuit managed a higher WAR.

Now, I'm not going to say that WAR is a perfect stat, but it is cumulative so the fact that Hardy's mark was fifth best in the AL despite his missing close to half the season says something about the state of regular shortstops in this league. There just aren't very many good ones, and very few who can hit for power or play truly outstanding defense. Even though Hardy played in only 101 games and his six home runs were fewer than we'd expect from him based on his history, only four players at his position hit more homers. Just one AL shortstop rated better defensively according to UZR.

Hardy's numbers only look bad when you look at them in isolation and not in the context of his position and league. Darn near every other team in the AL would like to upgrade at shortstop, and the free agent market at that position is exceedingly thin so Hardy would get snatched up very quickly with no real desirable options left over.

It's for that reason that I have always felt, and continue to feel, that bringing back Hardy is a no-brainer, even if the price seems high. I hope Smith and the Twins feel the same way.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Unpopular Answers

A week ago, I posted my offseason blueprint, a suggested course of action for the Twins' general manager based on the information laid out in TwinsCentric's Offseason GM Handbook.

My blueprint was mostly savaged in the comments sections both here on my blog and at Certainly, there were some valid critiques. Some disagreed with the idea of bringing Jim Thome back at a heightened salary, and that's something I myself have struggled with. Some felt non-tendering Matt Capps, with the uncertainly surrounding Joe Nathan, was an illogical decision. Almost everyone hated the proposed Michael Cuddyer-for-Derek Lowe swap, and in fact the commenters convinced me that this wouldn't be a particularly bright move. In truth, I only included it because I was trying to come with a creative and realistic way to move Cuddyer's salary, illustrating the point that if he was going to be traded the team would almost assuredly have to take on another bad contract in return. Alas, it's a moot point since Cuddyer isn't going anywhere.

Mostly I sensed that readers' dissatisfaction with the blueprint came from the fact that it didn't do very much to shake up the roster. Beyond the additions of Lowe and Grant Balfour, little was done to overhaul a club that was unceremoniously ousted from the playoffs by the Yankees for a second straight year. Commenters bemoaned the lack of major moves -- no blockbuster addition in the form of a frontline ace, middle-of-the-lineup bat, or speedster who could cover ground in the outfield and ramp up the team's aggressiveness on the base paths.

While I certainly sympathize with those takes, I suspect that the people hankering for major changes are setting themselves up for grave disappointment. The front office's main directive this offseason will be holding together the current roster as much as possible, not bringing in new marquee pieces. And that's not necessarily such a bad thing.

A year ago, funding was flush. The Twins were realizing the financial windfall made possible by Target Field in anticipation of the ballpark's inaugural season. Payroll increased by about 50 percent over the Opening Day mark in 2009, which allowed Bill Smith to show unprecedented aggressiveness on the free agent and trade markets. He added salary by dealing Carlos Gomez for J.J. Hardy. He was able to retain Carl Pavano for $7 million. He brought in Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson. He handed Joe Mauer the largest contract in franchise history.

I was thoroughly impressed with Smith's efforts last winter and labeled it an offseason for the ages, suggesting that the GM played his cards to "damn near perfection." The result was an excellent product for fans in the first year at Target Field.

This is a fact that gets lost in the uproar surrounding the team's quick playoff exit. Yes, the Twins lost three straight games to the Yankees, and yes, they happened to be the most important games of the year. But the Twins also won 94 games in the regular season. They were the first team in baseball to clinch a playoff spot. They absolutely demolished the second-place finishers in their division, who were certainly no slouches. They went 7-3 against the eventual American League Champions. The Twins were fantastic this year.

And they accomplished all that without the services of Joe Nathan for the entire year and Justin Morneau for half the year. They accomplished it despite getting worse performances than many had come to expect from the likes of Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and others. With better health and some rebound campaigns next year, the Twins could easily be poised to repeat as division champs and make a deeper run in the postseason if they can keep the current group mostly intact. You can bet that this will be the front office's imperative as the hot stove season gets underway.

It won't be easy. As Joe Christensen noted last week, the Twins have about $105 million committed to their roster for next year even if you don't account for the 10 departing free agents. That leaves them with a lot of spots to fill and not a lot of money to do it. We will probably see them trying to find a way to replace the vital production of Carl Pavano and Orlando Hudson at minimal expense. Signing a big-name free agent is a pipe dream unless payroll leaps in a way that no one foresees.

A lack of significant activity would not be a death sentence, by any means. Ownership held up their end of the bargain by jacking up payroll last year and spending will probably increase again this year, though not by nearly the same percentage. The front office did its job by using these increased funds to build a strong, division-winning club, and while I don't doubt that Smith has a few solid moves up his sleeve for the offseason, it's not reasonable to expect the same kind of drastic upgrades.
The decisive factor in the team's success next season will likely be whether those players who return can stay healthy and produce at a higher level.

People complain about the lack of a team ace, but Francisco Liriano is fully capable of assuming that role. For that matter, Baker has the stuff of a front-line starter -- his strikeout rate this year was better than that of CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, C.J. Wilson and Phil Hughes, to name a few.

There's talk about the need to add power from the right side, but J.J. Hardy -- who went deep only six times this year -- hit 50 home runs between 2007 and 2008 and he's still only 28. Cuddyer hit 32 home runs in 2009 and 14 in 2010. Increased production from these two would go a long way toward balancing this lefty-heavy lineup.

Finally, I think people tend to forget what a powerful force Mauer, Morneau and Kubel are when they're all healthy and productive. In 2009, this was arguably the most fearsome trio of hitters in the league. There's no reason they shouldn't be able to return to that level if they can all come back healthy next season.

The 2010 Twins were great despite not playing up to their full potential. It's not glamorous and it's obviously not real popular with the fan base, but a lack of major changes this offseason could be just what the doctor ordered. The talent is already in place.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Looking Back at 2010 Twins Predictions

Just before Opening Day each year, in a feature called "The Nicks' Picks," me and my former blogging partner Nick Mosvick lay out our predictions for the upcoming season. It's always amusing -- and often embarrassing -- to go back and review those predictions at season's end. For instance, I had the Red Sox and Cardinals squaring off in the World Series, and of course neither made the playoffs.

For the first time this year, we introduced a series of Twins-specific predictions, both because it was a logical thing to do on a Twins blog and because fellow blogger Josh Johnson campaigned to make April 2nd the universal "Twins Prediction  Day" for all writers covering the team. Today, I'll take a look back at my Twins predictions and see how they panned out, while reviewing the thought process that led to these prognostications:

Twins MVP: Joe Mauer

Certainly not a tough call after Mauer took home league MVP honors in 2009. While his season certainly didn't live up to the lofty standards set last year, Mauer was an extremely valuable contributor who was named team MVP in Seth Stohs' polling of local bloggers and personalities at season's end.

Twins Top Pitcher: Francisco Liriano

Some would argue that Carl Pavano ended up being the team's best pitcher, and there's certainly a fair case to be made there, but for my money Liriano was the most impressive starter on the team. He ranked among the league leaders in strikeouts and ground ball rate while earning a nod as the Twins' No. 1 starter in the postseason.

Twins Best Rookie: Anthony Slama

Well this was a big whiff. Slama got only a brief taste of the bigs and failed during that brief stint to carry over his dominant minor-league numbers, allowing four hits and five walks over 4 2/3 innings for a 7.71 ERA. Of course, few could have anticipated that Danny Valencia would have as large of an impact as he did. I suspect we'll see more of Slama next year, with several current relievers set to depart via free agency.

Twins Most Improved Player: Liriano

Liriano's transcendent performance in winter ball, coupled with the fact that he truly did not pitch as badly last year as his numbers indicated, made this an easy pick for me. Sure enough, Liriano won AL Comeback Player of the Year with a huge bounce-back campaign. Those who pegged Delmon Young in this category can also be feeling pretty good about their pick.

Bold Predictions: Jesse Crain will lead team in saves; Nick Blackburn will post 5+ ERA; J.J. Hardy will win first Gold Glove

Only the Blackburn prediction came true, but I definitely feel like I was on the right track with both of the others. Crain never got a shot at taking over closer duties, likely because of his lack of experience in that role, but he was undeniably the team's best reliever for most of the season. Meanwhile, Hardy won't be among the Gold Glove winners announced today and tomorrow since injuries limited his playing time this season, but defensive metrics do peg him as one of the American League's finest defensive shortstops in 2010, with an outstanding 8.1 UZR in 100 games at the position.

A.L. Central Prediction (Standings): Twins, White Sox, Tigers, Indians, Royals


Three Keys to Success for the Twins: Slowey and Liriano stepping up, bullpen staying healthy, success at Target Field.

It's obviously debatable how much each of these things factored into the team's success, but certainly Liriano's emergence and a tremendous home record were elemental in their division title. The bullpen had a few injury issues, but most of the key players stayed strong all year and allowed the unit withstand the absence of Joe Nathan. Slowey never really pulled it together

What about you? What were your predictions before the season started? Which events did you foresee and which ones took you by surprise?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Contemplating Thome

In an uncharacteristically forthright and candid response to an interview question about Jim Thome on ESPN 1500 earlier this week, Twins general manager Bill Smith made no secret of his desire to bring back the 40-year-old free agent next season, telling Phil Mackey and Patrick Reusse that "it's safe to say we're going to pursue him."

This comes as no surprise to me, as re-signing Thome was among my offseason predictions for the Twins a couple weeks ago. It doesn't disappoint me, either, since I listed the move as one I'd make in my offseason blueprint. Thome was a crucial contributor for the Twins in the 2010 season, delivering a marvelous offensive performance and enabling the offense to sustain the loss of an MVP-caliber hitter without missing much of a beat.

But the decision to bring Thome back is not cut-and-dry. Even though I'd support such a move, there's plenty of risk involved with dedicating a roster spot (and a sizable chunk of salary) to an aging slugger incapable of playing the field.

Minnesota sports fans are all too familiar with how quickly age can take a toll on even the most elite athletic performers. Look no further than Brett Favre, who last year nearly led the Vikings to a Super Bowl by amazingly putting together one of the best seasons of his career at age 40. He came back for another shot this year and suddenly it seems as though the game has passed him by. His turnovers have perhaps already cost the team as many games as his heroic heaves won them last year, and this past Sunday as he was being carted out off the field with a busted chin he admitted to wondering, "What in the world am I doing?"

No one can doubt that the will and motivation are still there for Favre, but he's learning a tough lesson about the thresholds of the human body. What he did last year was unprecedented, and there's a reason for that. People generally can't keep playing at a high level in a league filled with the world's best athletes while on the wrong side of 40. At some point, Favre's body was just going to give out, and it seems we may be seeing that now, as much as the quarterback refuses to acknowledge it by admirably (or stupidly) continuing to take the field week after week.

The sports they play are obviously very different, but there are plenty of parallels between Favre and Thome. Both are inner-circle Hall of Famers. Both came to Minnesota looking to prove that they had something left in the tank after appearing finished at the conclusion of their previous seasons. Both put together amazing campaigns while turning 40 years old, but were left with a sense of unfinished business. It's what brought Favre back, and it's what very well could bring Thome back.

The Twins' signing of Thome is widely looked at as the best free agency acquisition of last any team last winter, as he came on for a measly $1.5 million base salary and managed to hit .283/.412/.627 with 25 home runs and 59 RBI in 109 games. That performance ensured that Thome will command a higher salary this year, although his age and his inability to play the field ought to keep his price tag relatively modest. For a Twins team with ballooning salaries across the board, the $3-4 million it might take to bring Thome back is significant. Are they willing to gamble that he can keep producing in a season where he'll turn 41 years old?

A glance at some of the players who surround Thome on baseball's all-time home run list reminds us how quickly physical ability can fade around this point in life.

Frank Robinson, whom Thome passed on the home run list late in the year to move up to eighth all-time, hit 22 homers with an .833 OPS at the age of 38 in 1974. The next year, at 39, he hit nine homers while being limited to 49 games by injury. A year later, he hit three home runs and posted a .687 OPS while playing in only 36 games at age 40, and then his career was finished.

Ken Griffey, fifth on the list, managed 19 homers last year but retired this year at the age of 40 with zero home runs and a .454 OPS in 108 plate appearances.

Willie Mays, No. 4 on the list, racked up 18 homers with a .907 OPS as a 40-year-old in 1971, but the next year he hit only eight homers while playing 69 games and in '73 he retired after hitting six homers and posting a .647 OPS in an injury-riddled campaign.

Babe Ruth bashed 22 homers while registering a .985 OPS as a 39-year-old in 1934. The next year he managed to play in only 28 games, hitting .181 with six home runs, and retired.

Hank Aaron hit 20 home runs with an .832 OPS as a 40-year-old in 1974, then hit 12 homers with a .687 OPS in '75 and retired after posting similar numbers the next year.

Looking at the top ten home run hitters of all time, the only player who had a productive season that started after he'd turned 40 is the guy at the top, Barry Bonds, and there's plenty of room to question whether he did so naturally.

This is a lot of examples to digest, obviously, but the point is that while Thome's tremendous performance this past season was unlikely, it's infinitely more unlikely that he'll be able to repeat it next year based on historical comparisons. Now, the Twins don't necessarily need him to repeat that performance -- they'd probably be satisfied with some quality pop off the bench assuming Justin Morneau returns -- but an awful lot of Thome's historical peers ceased to be productive players very suddenly right around this age. And much like with Favre's ankle late last season for the Vikings, the back problems Thome experienced late in the Twins' season (which may or may not have factored into his poor postseason performance) could certainly be a precursor to more debilitating issues next year.

Of course, the Twins won't need to pay Thome $18 million to lure him back and they won't be investing the fate of their season in him like the Vikings did with Favre. But considering their payroll situation and the fact that they're already committed to paying a plodding lefty slugger $5.25 million in Jason Kubel, the Thome decision is an important one.

It sounds like Smith already has his mind made up, and that's fine by me. I love Thome. But history paints a rather grim portrait of what we can expect from the him next year, and if Smith is going to bring the veteran slugger back he'd better be prepared for the worst.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

My Offseason Blueprint

This year's Offseason GM Handbook is now officially available, so if you haven't purchased your copy yet I humbly encourage you to do so. I'm confident that everyone who enjoys this blog will be very satisfied.

At the end of this year's version, like with last last year's, each of the TwinsCentric writers provided our own offseason blueprints, wherein we use the information provided by the Handbook to come up with our own suggested courses of action for the front office this winter. Last year I republished my personal blueprint on this blog, and this year I'm doing the same. Enjoy, and let me know what you'd do differently.


1) Let free agents Orlando Hudson, Nick Punto, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay walk.

2) Non-tender Matt Capps and Glen Perkins.
Capps was a fine addition, but due to a high save total that clearly overstates his value as a reliever, he’d receive way more than he’s worth through arbitration. Paying a premium for two closers is a misuse of limited funds. Perkins hasn’t been healthy or effective enough to merit a contract tender.

3) Reach arbitration agreements with JJ Hardy ($6.5M), Delmon Young ($5.25M), Kevin Slowey ($2.75M), Alexi Casilla ($800K), Pat Neshek ($800K) and Jason Repko ($750K).
All for just over $15 million, you lock up your starting middle infielders, your run-producing right-handed bat, a solid starting pitcher, a reliever and a fourth outfielder.

4) Offer Carl Pavano arbitration.
He’ll decline it, because he should have no trouble finding a multi-year deal on the open market as arguably the top available option past Cliff Lee. Since Pavano is a Type A free agent, you’ll get draft pick compensation when he signs elsewhere.

5) Sign Francisco Liriano to three-year, $21 million extension.
Liriano is entering his second season of arbitration eligibility and our estimates have him getting $4.5M. However, since he’s coming off a season where his numbers didn’t necessarily match his performance, this seems like the right time to lock him down. We’ll say it breaks down as $4 million the first year, $7 million the second year and $10 million the third year.

Liriano is the only player in the organization with real ace potential over the next few years, so keeping him on board is crucial. A three-year deal locks up his final two years of arbitration and his first year of free agency. Given his injury history, Liriano would likely jump at the financial security. (You can find a more detailed explanation for the contract here.)

6) Trade outfielder Michael Cuddyer to Braves for starting pitcher Derek Lowe.
In the comments section of one of my recent blog posts, a Braves fan suggested that his team could be a logical trading partner for the Twins. He’s right. Atlanta has a surplus of starting pitching and the Twins have an outfield logjam, especially if Jim Thome returns.  The Braves need right-handed power in their lineup, and if healthy Cuddyer can provide that.

In essence, this is a swap of bad contracts – Cuddyer is owed $10.5M next season after an underwhelming 2010 campaign while the 37-year-old Lowe has two years remaining on his deal at $15M apiece. You’d be gaining $4.5M in salary in the swap for next year, but in essence you’d also be shaving $7M because the addition of Lowe would enable you to comfortably let Pavano walk. The $15M commitment in 2012 is a bit trickier and you’ll have to maneuver around it then.

The aging Lowe hasn’t performed like a $15M pitcher over the first two years of his current contract, which is why the Braves might be eager to unload him, but he has been solid and he’s a workhorse, with 180+ innings pitched and double-digit wins in nine straight seasons. His ground ball tendencies should play well in Target Field.

7) Re-sign Jesse Crain for two years, $6 million.
Of all the departing free agent relievers, Crain seems like the one most worth bringing back. He was flat-out dominant for most of the 2010 season, to the point where he looked like a closing option, but his bad stretches in each of the past two years should keep his price reasonable. If he can resume his role as bullpen ace, he’ll be well worth a $3 million price tag.

8) Sign free agent reliever Grant Balfour for two years, $7.5 million.
Balfour is a Type A free agent but it seems unlikely that the Rays will offer him arbitration so losing draft picks shouldn’t be a concern here. A former Twin, Balfour has been an outstanding setup man in Tampa and has closer-type stuff. He’d serve as a strong late-inning option and further insurance for Joe Nathan.

9) Re-sign Jim Thome for one year, $4 million.
I’ve gone back and forth on this one. Is Thome worth the bump in salary now that he’s another year older? With the questions surrounding Justin Morneau, I think Thome’s power will provide necessary insurance. Plus, he’s just a joy for the fans.

2011 Opening Day 25-Man Roster:


C: Joe Mauer ($23M)
1B: Justin Morneau ($14M)
2B: Alexi Casilla ($800K)
3B: Danny Valencia ($450K)
SS: JJ Hardy ($6.5M)
LF: Delmon Young ($5.25M)
CF: Denard Span ($1M)
RF: Jason Kubel ($5.25M)
DH: Jim Thome ($4M)

(Approx $60.25M)


C: Drew Butera ($450K)
IF: Matt Tolbert ($450K)
IF: Brendan Harris ($1.75M)
OF: Jason Repko ($750K)

(Approx $2.75M)


SP: Francisco Liriano ($4M)
SP: Derek Lowe ($15M)
SP: Kevin Slowey ($2.75M)
SP: Scott Baker ($5M)
SP: Nick Blackburn ($3M)

(Approx $29.75M)


CL: Joe Nathan ($12.5M)
RP: Jesse Crain ($3M)
RP: Grant Balfour ($3.75M)
RP: Brian Duensing ($450K)
RP: Jose Mijares ($450K)
RP: Pat Neshek ($800K)
RP: Jeff Manship ($450K)

(Approx $21.5M)


The lineup is similar to last year’s, with Justin Morneau hopefully returning. Committing a full-time DH spot to a 40-year-old Thome is my greatest concern with this blueprint, so if there’s any extra money available, try and bring in an extra right-handed bat who could split time with him at DH or – better yet – play the outfield and push Kubel to the DH spot from time to time. Since you’re already paying him, give Brendan Harris another shot but there are plenty of cheap-ish infielders on the market (Felipe Lopez and David Eckstein are good examples) that could fill that bench role and compete with Alexi Casilla for the starting second base job.

In the bullpen, Brian Duensing opens the season as the team’s top lefty reliever, filling a role he excelled in over the first half last year, and is available to take a rotation spot should any of the starters falter or get hurt. If Pat Neshek doesn’t show much improvement over his rough 2010 campaign, look to other cheap young internal relievers such as Anthony Slama and Alex Burnett.