With the month of January nearing it's end and the Twins still quiet on the free agent front, many fans have been getting itchy. The team seems well poised to make a run this season, but there are a few holes remaining that many would like to see addressed through external avenues. The team's reported $5 million offer to Jarrod Washburn earlier in the offseason seemed to signal that there is some wiggle room left on the 2010 budget, so fans have been hankering for a big splash in free agency. The splash came yesterday, but it wasn't exactly a cannon ball.
The two remaining free agents who have garnered the most discussion as potential solutions to the Twins' infield opening are Orlando Hudson and Felipe Lopez. Both are quality hitters who play second base and seem like logical fits given the team's needs. Yet, both of these players seem to be seeking multi-year deals and given that they are both relatively young and coming off strong seasons, it seems reasonable to believe that both might eventually get their wish. But it almost certainly won't be with the Twins.
Right or wrong, the Twins have made clear over the years that they don't view free agency as a viable way to build a team. Their dabbling in free agency has been almost exclusively restricted to low-cost one-year deals with little upside, and the results have been predictably pitiful. Looking back through the team's free agent signings over the past several years, from Adam Everett to Livan Hernandez to Sidney Ponson to Ramon Ortiz to Rondell White and so forth, we repeatedly find players who performed so poorly that they didn't last through the entire year with the club -- at least not in the capacity they were signed to fill. Only once over this span have the Twins extended a multi-year deal to an external free agent. It was Mike Lamb, and considering the disastrous results of that experiment (Lamb was so bad the Twins had to cut him in the first year of his deal and eat nearly his entire salary the second year), it's not likely to have warmed the organization up on the idea.
Now, granted, the Twins are in a better position financially than they have been in the past. But I still can't envision them offering multi-year contracts to any free agents, particularly considering how murky the payroll situation becomes in 2011. If either Hudson or Lopez eventually becomes more open to a one-year deal, it's possible that the Twins would pursue one of them, but plenty of teams will be bidding for those guys if all it takes is a single-year commitment.
That's why Jim Thome, who signed with the Twins yesterday on a one-year deal worth $1.5 million plus incentives, was a far more realistic target. Is he as appealing as an everyday second baseman like Hudson or Lopez? Of course not, which I suspect explains a lot of fans' lukewarm reactions to the signing. But Thome will help the Twins. He'll provide a quality veteran bat off the bench that the roster had been lacking, and if used optimally he can frequently start at DH against right-handed pitchers, with Jason Kubel sliding to left field. Thome, 39, might be long in the tooth and incapable of playing defense anywhere on the field, but he was still a productive hitter last year and he has a 1043 career OPS against right-handed pitchers. Plus, he'll be a threat to come off the bench and hit the ball out of the park; the Twins currently have no one that fits that mold. In a division that features some of the American League's best right-handed pitchers (Justin Verlander, Jake Peavy, Zack Greinke, Rick Porcello, Gavin Floyd and Max Scherzer, just to name a few) and also features all right-handed closers, Thome will have plenty of chances to make a serious impact.
At the price the Twins got him, this signing was a no-brainer. It's a great addition and while he might not be the everyday player a lot of people were hoping to add, he's a Hall of Fame player who still seems to have something left in the tank.
As for Hudson and Lopez, I don't expect the Twins to make a serious play for either one of them unless we get to mid-February and one of them essentially falls in Smith's lap, much like what happened with Joe Crede a year ago.
More likely is that Smith simply waits for Crede himself to fall into his lap again.