Thursday, December 22, 2011

Marquis for Slowey an Unexciting Swap

The Twins rounded out their rotation today, signing free agent right-hander Jason Marquis to a one-year, $3 million deal. Since Marquis essentially replaces Kevin Slowey, who was traded to the Rockies a few weeks ago and would have made about the same amount next season through arbitration, it seems appropriate to compare the two based on what they're likely to provide in 2012.

Slowey was disastrous this past season, but Marquis' 2010 campaign was almost equally catastrophic, as he posted a 6.60 ERA and 1.71 WHIP while being limited to 58 2/3 innings by injuries. He rebounded this year, putting up a mediocre 4.43 ERA and 1.49 WHIP while logging 132 innings over 23 starts between Washington and Arizona. That seems like a fair baseline expectation going forward.

Their career numbers aren't terribly different. Marquis' ERA in the majors sits at 4.55, Slowey 4.66. Both have been extremely hittable. Slowey owns the superior WHIP (1.29 to 1.43), thanks largely to a lower walk rate (1.4 BB/9 to 3.5), and he also boasts the higher strikeout rate (6.7 K/9 to 5.2).

Opting for a guy who misses fewer bats is disappointing in light of the strikeout shortage that I've written about a couple times this week. However, Marquis offsets his lack of whiffs with an elite ground ball rate, which stands in stark contrast to Slowey's extreme fly ball tendencies. Only six pitchers in the majors finished with a higher grounder rate than Marquis' 55.1 percent in 2011.

If he continues to put the ball in play and induce tons of grounders, Marquis will only be as good as the infielders behind him, so the gamble that the Twins took on Jamey Carroll holding up as a full-time shortstop at age 38 will be magnified.

If you asked me which guy I'd rather have on a one-year deal for $3 million next year, I'd probably opt for Slowey, if only because he's six years younger and offers greater upside. The difference isn't huge, though, and if Slowey is really the clubhouse headache he's been made out to be, this can be considered a justifiable swap at the bottom of the rotation.

Unfortunately, it does nothing to augment the top of the rotation, which will leave plenty of pressure on Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano to carry the load. Fans who were hoping for a serious upgrade to the starting corps aren't getting one here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Options for the Rotation

On Monday, I wrote about the Twins' search for pitching help, pointing out that an inability to miss bats was a huge weakness for the staff in 2011 -- one which Terry Ryan should seek to remedy.

It's not realistic to expect the Twins to add a dominant strikeout machine to the mix, because there really aren't any available in free agency and acquiring one through trade would prove too costly.

But that doesn't mean they need to settle for someone like Jeff Francis or Jon Garland, who would qualify as the exact opposite of a "strikeout machine." Between Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak and Terry Doyle, the Twins have plenty of rotation candidates who can take the mound, throw the ball over the plate and let opposing hitters put it in play.

If they want to beef up their rotation rather than simply crowding it with more of the same, they'll need to identify at least one arm that breaks the pitch-to-contact mold. Here are a few available options that intrigue me:

Edwin Jackson

Jackson is a power arm in the sense that he throws hard, with a fastball that averages almost 95 mph and a slider in the upper 80s, but his results have never matched his high-velocity stuff. This past season, Jackson notched 148 strikeouts in 199 2/3 innings -- good for a 6.7 K/9 rate that matches his career mark and is roughly average.

With that being said, an average strikeout rate would stand out among Minnesota's crop of starters, and the 28-year-old has averaged 200 innings over the past four seasons. He's the cream of the remaining FA crop, but may elude the Twins' price range unless they're willing to push closer to $110 million.

Rich Harden

I mentioned Harden in Monday's post as a prime example of a high-risk, high-reward arm that could fit into a ~$100 million budget. He's got an electric arm, and this year with the A's was able to tally 91 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings, but injuries have been a constant issue for the right-hander. He signed with Oakland last winter to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million plus incentives; there would be plenty of wisdom in offering a similar contract this year.

Harden is still only 30 years old, and if he can find a way to stay healthy he's got huge upside, especially in Target Field. If he'd be willing, a switch to the bullpen is an option that might aid his durability, and would solve the club's need for a hard-throwing right-hander in the late innings.

Javier Vazquez

While playing for the Marlins this past season, Vazquez made it sound like he was dead-set on retiring at the end of the year. By November, he appeared to have softened his stance, telling Ken Rosenthal that he was "50-50" on playing again in 2012.

Luring the 35-year-old righty back for another year might be a tall task, especially in Minnesota as Rosenthal noted that Vazquez had a strong preference to remain on the East Coast if he hung around. If the Twins could make it happen, though, there's tons of appeal in a guy who has averaged 8 K/9 over the course of this career and turned in a 3.69 ERA and 1.18 WHIP over 192 2/3 innings with Florida in 2011.

Hiroki Kuroda

It's not clear whether Kuroda intends to play in the majors next year or return to Japan. There's been little buzz surrounding the free agent right-hander, and the Diamondbacks reportedly had an offer to him on the table for over 10 days before moving on and signing Jason Kubel earlier this week.

Kuroda has been consistently effective over his four-year major league career, accumulating a 3.45 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. In 2011, he set career bests with a 3.07 ERA in 202 innings. He also averaged over seven strikeouts per nine frames for a second straight year. He'll turn 37 in February, but if he's willing to sign a one-year deal, Kuroda would be a good addition at almost any price.

Jon Niese

Unlike the four hurlers mentioned above, Niese is not a free agent. There have been rumblings that the Mets could make him available in a trade, though, and if that's the case, the Twins would be wise to make a push.

Niese is 25, and 2012 will be his first year of arbitration eligibility. Although his 4.39 career ERA appears rather mediocre on the surface, Niese is a left-hander who can command the strike zone, miss bats and induce ground balls. Given that the Twins are in a state of flux with their roster, I'm against the notion of trading valuable assets for short-term help, but Niese could be a long-term building block and would justify the cost as long as it's not exorbitant.

Monday, December 19, 2011

More of the Same

Twins pitchers struck out a total of 940 hitters in 2011. That was the fewest of any team in the majors by a margin of 84 (Cleveland finished with 1,024) -- the biggest gap between any other two teams was 33.

Yes, the Twins were the least prolific strikeout team in baseball this year, and it wasn't remotely close. The whiff total was the franchise's lowest since 1999, which meant a whole lot of balls being put into play by opposing hitters. A contact-heavy staff, in conjunction with truly shoddy defense, led to horrible results as the Twins allowed more runs and hits than all but one team.

The club's fielding is bound to improve in 2012, but a sky-high contact rate will continue to be an issue if not addressed. Unfortunately, if reports are to be believed, the Twins don't seem to recognize it as a problem.

With Jason Kubel likely to land elsewhere this week, Joe Christensen reports that the team is focused on adding pitching. However, as Christensen notes, three names that have been connected to the Twins in rumors are Jeff Francis, Joel Pineiro and Jon Garland.

Francis is a control guy coming off a season in which he logged 183 innings, which would have ranked second on the Twins. However, he notched only 91 strikeouts, good for a paltry 4.5 K/9 rate.

Pineiro was very good in 2009 and 2010 before struggling to  a 5.13 ERA in 2011, and at 33 he's a decent bet to rebound. But he's posted a K/9 figure above 5 only once in the past four seasons and this year finished at 3.8. Yuck.

Garland is a veteran with a history as a workhorse (he piled up 190-plus innings every year from 2002 to 2010) but his career K/9 rate is 4.9.

The Twins are working on a limited budget and if they're looking for guys who are good bets to throw a bunch of innings, they're basically limited to these low-upside, fringe-stuff types.

If they're willing to take a risk, though, a guy like Rich Harden could probably be had at a reasonable price, and if he can find a way to stay healthy he would add a very different dynamic to a roster filled with light-throwing hurlers in the pitch-to-contact mold.

It's not that pitchers can't succeed without tons of strikeouts, but a staff devoid of any power arms isn't a good bet to garner effective results, especially against the league's better lineups. Within his limited resources, Terry Ryan should be seeking to fundamentally change a pitching corps that failed miserably this season.

Francis, Pineiro and Garland are just more of the same, and at best lateral steps from the likes of Kevin Slowey and Brian Duensing.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Cuddyer and Priorities

The Twins made their signing of Josh Willingham official yesterday, finalizing a three-year, $21 million deal with the veteran outfielder.

The move rules out a return to Minnesota for long-time franchise staple Michael Cuddyer, who'd been viewed as an alternative option to fill the same need.

Or does it?

While the Twins' interest in Willingham and Cuddyer had largely been framed as an either/or scenario over the first couple months of the offseason, there's been growing speculation that the club may consider bringing Cuddyer back even with Willingham locked in.

This strikes me as bizarre. It's not hard to see the appeal in a lineup that includes both bats, but the Twins are working with limited resources -- Terry Ryan would have to stretch the budget past ownership's desired target of $100 million to bring Cuddyer back -- and they haven't yet begun to address their flimsy pitching corps.

In fact, all the team has really done so far is subtract from a staff that finished second-to-last in the majors in ERA. It's tough to see how signing Cuddyer would leave much flexibility to add anything beyond the types of marginal minor-league arms they've already brought into the mix.

Not only would signing Cuddyer show a lopsided emphasis on offense versus pitching, it would also signal that the front office is focusing far too much on the present versus the future. It's great that Ryan and Co. are intent on righting the ship in short order, but they need to be rebuilding with an eye toward the organization's long-term health as well. Forfeiting a pair of high draft picks while committing $45 million to a pair of 33-year-old corner outfielders seems extremely short-sighted.

There's an inherent risk in making multi-year commitments to players that are aging into their mid-30s. Fortunately, that risk is mitigated in Willingham's case because $7 million annually is very reasonable for a player of his pedigree, which is why this deal has to be looked at as a slam dunk success for the front office.

By signing Cuddyer in addition to Willingham though, the Twins would be doubling their risk. Having both outfielders aboard would certainly strengthen the lineup in the short term, but the long-term ramifications are troubling and if the front office is willing to cough up an additional $24 million for a Cuddyer contract, it sure seems like that money could be put to better use on pitching.

[UPDATE: Such fears can be put to rest. Cuddyer signed a three-year, $31.5 million contract with the Rockies today.]

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Three-Bagger: Outfield, Hoey & Mijares

* With their holes at shortstop and catcher addressed early on, the Twins' top remaining priority (outside of the eminent need for more pitching) is signing an outfielder. Presently, they're sort of in limbo with this task and have been for over a week.

It has been widely reported that the Twins have an offer out to Michael Cuddyer -- thought to be around three years and $24 million -- and view Josh Willingham as their top backup option should Cuddyer choose to sign elsewhere. The rumor mill has been fairly quiet with both players, but there are indications from both camps that decisions are coming within the next couple days.

Cuddyer and Willingham have similar profiles and both would fill the club's need for a righty-swinging outfielder with power that can slot between the lefties in the middle of the lineup. Willingham is probably a better hitter, but he's a little less versatile defensively. Assuming they require similar financial commitments, the two are essentially a push, and I think either one is likely to be a solid value at around $8 million per season.

What makes the decision a no-brainer, in my mind, is the fact that the Twins would attain two high draft picks next June by allowing the Type-A Cuddyer to sign elsewhere and bringing Willingham aboard. Those compensatory picks could go a long way toward restocking the farm system, and the Twins would hardly be hurting their competitive chances in the short-term, even though letting Cuddy walk would incense a certain segment of the fan base.

Will Terry Ryan follow his heart or his brain? It appears that we'll find out by the end of the week.

* The Twins waived Jim Hoey, the fire-balling right-hander received in the horribly misguided J.J. Hardy trade a year ago, and on Monday he was claimed by the Blue Jays. Now all the Twins have left to show for Hardy, who emerged as one of the league's better shortstops this season, is Brett Jacobson, a 25-year-old righty reliever that performed poorly in New Britain.

I'm not exactly a big Hoey fan, but I must confess I'm a little surprised and disappointed to see the Twins giving up on him so soon. His performance in the majors this season was clearly hideous, but he was reasonably decent in the minors, where his walk rate dropped for a third straight year, and the organization is short on guys who can hit 96 on the radar gun.

Ultimately, Hoey remains the same player he was when the Twins acquired him: a live arm with serious control issues that he will likely never fully overcome. Still, the front office liked him enough to target him a year ago, and now they're ditching him to open up a spot on the 40-man while preserving no-upside guys like Matt Maloney and Jeff Gray?

I don't get it.

* Another reliever that won't be with the Twins next year is Jose Mijares, whom the club chose to non-tender rather than retaining at a modest fee. At one point, Mijares was a very promising young southpaw, and I figured he'd be brought back considering how little he stands to make in arbitration. However, I certainly can't fault the team for cutting the cord.

Back in 2009, a 24-year-old rookie Mijares was a tremendous asset as a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen, turning in a 2.34 ERA and 55-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 61 2/3 innings while holding lefty hitters to a .480 OPS. His performance has rapidly deteriorated in the two seasons since, though, and the Twins have been vocally frustrated by his work ethic.

This past season, Mijares was flat-out awful. His effectiveness against left-handed hitters was greatly diminished and against righties he was a huge liability with a ghastly 11-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Mijares will find work somewhere and could rebound as he's only 27, but the Twins are already plenty deep on lefty bullpen options between Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing and Phil Dumatrait.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Twins Take Terry Doyle in Rule 5

By virtue of their horrible record this season, the Twins held the No. 2 pick in yesterday's Rule 5 draft. With a pitching staff that is very much in flux, especially after the departure of Kevin Slowey, this represented an opportunity for the club to add another arm to throw against the wall in 2012 and hope for the best.

The Twins did just that, selecting right-hander Terry Doyle from the White Sox. On the surface, Doyle owns an impressive minor-league resume; over four seasons, he's posted a 2.94 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 381-to-97 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 422 2/3 innings. He also excelled in the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League this year, going 4-0 with a 1.98 ERA and 0.66 WHIP over eight starts.

Those are great numbers, but they lose much of their luster when you consider his age. Doyle pitched well enough in Double-A this season, going 7-5 with a 3.24 ERA after being promoted in May, but it was his first time reaching that level and he was 25. He turned 26 in early November and still hasn't sniffed Triple-A.

Doyle's gaudy 8.1 K/9 rate in the minors is misleading, since it is heavily weighted by his dominant efforts in the lower levels. His strikeout rate has dropped precipitously as he's climbed the minor-league ladder thanks to an arsenal that could hardly be described as dominant.

Kevin Goldstein, a prospect guru for Baseball Prospectus, offered the following assessment to White Sox blogger JJ Stankevitz earlier this offseason:
Big, big dude. Classic frame, but not much stuff. Upper 80s fastball that scrapes 90-92 at times, better pitch is a mid-80s cutter with some bite. Average curveball and change. He succeeds by hitting his spots and working low in the zone, but there are plenty of questions, and understandably so, about his ability to miss the bats of more advanced hitters. Perfect world is probably middle relief.
Remind you of anyone? Because, to me, it sounds an awful lot like Nick Blackburn. The two share plenty of commonalities, ranging from their size (both are 6-foot-4 and around 230 lbs) to their middling stuff to their late arrival in the majors.

The best-case scenario is that Doyle develops into a Blackburn type -- a pitch-to-contact righty who peppers the edges of the strike zone with cutters and keeps the ball on the ground. One thing he's consistently done a great job of is limiting home runs, as he's allowed just 27 in 422 career innings.

Sure, it would have been nice for the Twins to take a flier on someone with higher upside, especially since they may very well have the luxury of allowing that player take his lumps in a lost season (a la Johan Santana in 2000), but there aren't many guys with big arms that are remotely close to the majors sitting outside of 40-man rosters.

Doyle has a chance to be useful next year as a long reliever and swing man, and as things currently stand he'd only be nudging a player like Anthony Swarzak or Scott Diamond off the 25-man roster.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

An Ugly Break-Up

On June 1, 2007, Kevin Slowey made his major-league debut for the Twins, pitching six innings of one-run ball in a no-decision against the Athletics. It looked to be the start of a long and fruitful career in Minnesota. As a polished, college-drafted pitcher who made up for his lack of pure stuff with precise control and a willingness to attack the strike zone, the right-hander fit right into the Twins' preferred mold.

Slowey shared many traits with Brad Radke, a local legend who had retired the previous offseason. Unfortunately, Slowey would prove to lack two qualities that endeared Radke to fans and coaches in Minnesota: durability and a willingness to put the organization before himself.

Ultimately, these two factors were likely the greatest contributors in the deterioration of a once promising relationship, which came to an end this week when the Twins traded Slowey to Colorado for a player to be named later.

Without question, 2011 was the most tumultuous season of Slowey's career. He quibbled with coaches over an assignment to the bullpen at the beginning of the year, dictated when he was willing to pitch, shuttled back and forth between the minors, spoke to reporters about a desire to be traded and then performed poorly when plugged into the big-league rotation out of absolute necessity.

In the end, Slowey logged only 59 1/3 innings for the Twins, finishing with an 0-8 record and 6.67 ERA. By the end of the season, his stock had bottomed out, making this yet another instance in which the Twins traded a talented player with his value at its absolute nadir.

Regardless of Slowey's attitude issues, that reflects poorly on the Twins. If he turned into a malcontent -- a label that has been attached to him by numerous reporters -- the club played its own part in pushing him to that point.

They left him off the postseason roster in 2010 after a 13-win season. They made a mockery of the "three-man competition" for the final two spots in the rotation this spring, forcing Slowey to prepare for the season as a starter despite the fact that it was clear they had him pegged for a bullpen job all along.

And while Slowey's attitude might have been unbearable, that doesn't really affect fans, who simply want to see a winning product. While removing an alleged clubhouse cancer might make life easier for teammates and reporters, it doesn't make the Twins a better team from a competitive standpoint.

Slowey is still only 27 years old, and for his major-league career he owns a stellar 4.70 K/BB ratio. That's better than the mark Radke retired with, and in fact it would rank among the best in the majors any given year.

Yes, Slowey's been extremely hittable at times, and homer-prone, and he's no one's idea of an ace-caliber pitcher. But the bottom line is that, if healthy, he's got the talent to be a very solid rotation staple in this league. And he'll be cheap next year. And the Twins are very, very short on depth in their starting rotation right now.

Perhaps the situation between the two sides had become untenable and a parting of ways was all but necessary. But it's a damn shame that it had to come to this point, and Slowey is not the only one deserving of blame, regardless of how he's been portrayed by certain irritated media members that have abandoned any semblance of objectivity in smearing his name on the way out (I'm looking at you, Jim Souhan).

I wish Slowey the best going forward. Smug prick or not, he's a gifted pitcher and could easily end up getting the last laugh in this sad, sad saga.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Capps Outrage is Excessive

When it was officially announced on Monday that the Twins had reached agreement with Matt Capps on a one-year, $4.5M deal, the reaction among fans was about as venomous as I've ever seen. My Twitter timeline lit up with angry, expletive-laden tirades. Even some of the most mild-mannered fans were directing profane vitriol toward Terry Ryan. You'd think the Twins hired Jerry Sandusky to be their ninth-inning man.

To be honest, I'm having a hard time understanding why some fans are soaked with such heavy disdain for Capps. He's a generally effective closer who had a bad run of outings during a lost season. The right-hander was certainly tough to watch at times over the summer, but in the grand scheme, he was a minor contributor to the club's woes.

In my mind, Capps has three things working against him with the Target Field Faithful, two of which are completely out of his control:

1) He's not Wilson Ramos.

Capps' career with the Twins began on a sour note, as he was acquired in a lopsided trade that was widely panned at the time and only looks worse in hindsight.  This past season, while Joe Mauer's future at catcher was being cast in doubt, fans were forced to watch Capps blow nine saves while the player he was traded for, Wilson Ramos, enjoyed a successful rookie campaign in Washington.

There's no doubt that the Twins would be in better shape right now had that trade never happened, but it did. At this point it should have no bearing on our assessment of Capps.

2) He's not Joe Nathan.

Ryan did such a phenomenal job in identifying and acquiring Nathan that it seems he actually set the bar way too high for himself. In six seasons with the Twins before suffering a torn elbow ligament, Nathan was never off. Even at his worst, he was still one of the league's most dominant and reliable relief arms. There's a reason why many regarded him as the best closer in the game outside of Mariano Rivera during that span.

Capps is certainly a far cry from that level of excellence, but this doesn't mean he's bad. Like the vast majority of relievers in the major leagues, he's susceptible to down years, and he had one in 2011. More often than not, though, he's been perfectly adequate as a late-inning bullpen weapon. At 28, he's still in the heart of his prime.

One other thing: In spite of all his struggles this year, Capps had the second-best qualified WHIP on the team behind Scott Baker, allowing fewer base runners on average than Glen Perkins.

3) He pitched through an injury this year.

In radio and print interviews, Twins' coaches and front-office personnel have clearly been going out of their way this offseason to convince people that Capps' struggles were largely the result of a right wrist injury he was pitching through.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, a close look at the numbers indicates that these claims are valid. At no point in Capps' career has he had nearly as much trouble striking people out; if he's healthy again in 2012 I suspect we'll see a return to normalcy in K-rate, which would almost surely result in improved numbers across the board.

I don't necessarily think Capps was doing the Twins any favors by pitching through his wrist tendinitis this year, but isn't it exactly the kind of thing most fans wanted to see more of? Sure, Capps was garbage when he took the mound for a period of time, but at least he was out there pitching.

On top of that, he took accountability for his failures, telling reporters "I'd boo me too" when the hometown fans turned against him.

To me, Capps' bum rap seems almost totally unwarranted. I don't love his new contract -- $4.5 million is on the very upper end of what I'd be willing to pay him and the club forfeited an extra draft pick by re-signing him -- but there's really no such thing as a bad one-year deal and locking him in at a reasonable enough rate shores up the back end of the bullpen while enabling Ryan to turn his attention elsewhere.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The One-Year Fallacy

I think we can all agree that 2011 was a disastrous year for the Minnesota Twins. Their win total decreased by a whopping 31 games from the season before, as nearly everything that could go wrong did.

But it was one season, and it's in the past now. It's time to look forward. That goes for the players that suffered through disappointing campaigns as well as the folks who continue to hold it against them.

Lately, I'm seeing too many fans and bloggers basing their entire perceptions of certain players on this one horrible season, and that just seems completely misguided when the game of baseball, by nature, is so volatile on a year-to-year basis.

From one season to the next, we've seen Francisco Liriano turn from erratic mess to elite frontline starter and then back again. We've seen Delmon Young go from imposing middle-of-the-lineup slugger to utter disappointment. We've seen Glen Perkins go from being unable to get hitters out in Triple-A to blossoming as one of the best late-inning relievers in the American League.

Fortunes turn quickly in this game. Careers are marked by peaks and valleys. And there are two players in particular that I see a lot of people giving up on after dramatic drop-offs in 2011: Matt Capps and Kevin Slowey.

Fans have widely lamented the notion that Capps could return in the closer role for the Twins next year. On this week's edition of the excellent Gleeman and the Geek podcast, John Bonnes went so far as to say that he'd hate a Capps signing regardless of the terms.

There are certainly reasons not to want Capps back, not the least of which being that he'd yield a high draft pick by signing elsewhere. But his merits as a late-inning reliever should not be completely condemned based solely on his struggles over the summer, when he was dealing with a forearm strain.

I'm no huge Capps fan and clearly the Twins have overpaid dearly for his services up to this point. But one ugly, injury-plagued campaign in a season that was filled with them should not cause people to ignore his lengthy track record as an effective reliever. For his career, he owns a 3.51 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, and when he was healthy in 2010 he was a perfectly adequate ninth-inning man. There's little reason to believe he can't return to that level of productivity in 2012 if healthy, and at the right price this would make him a fine closing option for a team that doesn't necessarily expect to contend.

As for Slowey, the Twins have given indications that they plan on either non-tendering or trading the embattled righty. For the most part, the fan base seems to be fully on board with this course of action. It's true that he caused plenty of headaches this year and didn't record a single win even in his eight starts.

It's also true that Slowey won 35 games the previous three seasons (more than any Twins pitcher other than Scott Baker) and is a 27-year-old with a career 4.7 K/BB ratio who will cost only $3 million or so in 2012. With their shoddy rotation depth and limited funds, can the Twins afford to give up on such a player after one tumultuous year?

Those who follow the Twins, and especially those who are involved with the organization, have their own personal conceptions about these players – the inevitable result of prolonged up-close exposure. But when trying to make decisions for the betterment of the team, sometimes it's best to remove ourselves and make an objective assessment of how players like Capps and Slowey are likely to perform next year and beyond.

Contrary to popular belief, their future performances are not necessarily dictated by what happened in 2011. If that were universally the case, the Twins would have an impossibly tall task in front of them as they try to return to contention.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Opportunity Knocks Again

In the summer of 2004, the Twins had won back-to-back division titles and were on their way to a third straight. Despite their success, they were gifted with an opportunity to reload for an extended run that June, when -- thanks to a mass exodus of high-profile free agents the previous winter -- they held five selections in the first round of the draft.

The players taken with those picks were shortstop Trevor Plouffe and pitchers Glen Perkins, Kyle Waldrop, Matt Fox and Jay Rainville. Seven years later, only Perkins has proven himself as an impact player in the majors, and not until he was 28 years old.

It wasn't necessarily a disastrous group; I like Plouffe's chances of developing into a solid regular next year and Waldrop might get some tread. Still, to have received so little in the way of major-league contributions from five first-round picks up to this point has to be viewed as a disappointment. The man who oversaw that draft, Terry Ryan, will hope for better results when the club is placed in a similarly advantageous situation next June.

By virtue of losing more games than all but one team in 2011, the Twins will pick second in next year's draft. For reference, the second pick in that '04 draft was some guy named Justin Verlander.

Signability has tended to be an issue with the top-tier prospects reeled in at the front of the draft, but as Joe Christensen points out, the new CBA rules will do much to negate this issue. Thanks to a newly imposed cap on slot money, a player taken this high has little to gain by going unsigned and waiting a year.

That's not the only way the restructured CBA benefits the Twins. Matt Capps became a modified Type B free agent, meaning that arbitration need not be offered for a compensation pick to be issued should he land elsewhere. Michael Cuddyer remains a Type A free agent, so he would yield two high picks by signing with another team. But under the new rules, that team would not have to forfeit a pick. This increases the Twins' chances of landing an extra first-rounder, since those clubs with non-protected selections will now be more open to pursuing Cuddyer.

Throw in Jason Kubel, who like Capps would yield a supplemental pick as a Type B, and the Twins could potentially receive four additional picks in the first two rounds of next June's draft, on top of their No. 2 selection.

That's an even better situation than the one they fell into back in 2004. But, unlike that year, they're not currently in the middle of a successful run, so the stakes will be higher. With a farm system badly in need of reinforcements, the Twins will really need to hit a couple home runs.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Finding Nathan's Replacement

The biggest question created by the departure of Joe Nathan is, obviously, who is going to fulfill his role as closer for the Twins.

This is an organization that has highly valued the ninth-inning job over the years, as evidenced by their willingness to hand Nathan a $47 million extension back in 2008, and later by their willingness to trade for and subsequently overpay established closer Matt Capps to be Nathan's fallback plan.

I would guess that the front office considers the closer position less of a priority at this point, given the likelihood that the team will not contend next year, but this is still not a decision I expect to be taken lightly. As I see it, there are four options for proceeding:

1) Promote Glen Perkins.

Perkins has certainly done plenty to earn consideration. He was one of the most dominant relievers in the American League this year, posting a 2.48 ERA with an excellent 65-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 2/3 innings as a setup man.

What the Twins have to ask themselves is whether they're comfortable removing the southpaw from a role in which he was so wildly effective. As the Twins' de facto bullpen ace for much of the season, Perkins was frequently called upon to get more than three outs, to dispatch lefty hitters (whom he held to a .589 OPS) and to work out of sticky situations.

Perkins would not be utilized as optimally in the closer role, where he'd generally be facing whatever batters happened to be due up in the ninth, with a clean slate and with a lead ranging anywhere from one to three runs. All of those tricky spots he worked out of last year would go to someone else.

If the Twins believe Perkins is capable of repeating what he did in 2011, I think they're better off leaving him where he's at.

2) Re-sign Matt Capps.

I know, I know. This is an unthinkable option. But really, it's not.

In an interview with KFAN's Paul Allen yesterday, pitching coach Rick Anderson called out Capps as a potential replacement, saying "I wouldn't give up on a guy like him so quick." Anderson pointed out that the right-hander's struggles this season were largely attributable to a forearm injury that he pitched through, and it's a fair point.

When he's been healthy, Capps has generally been a good enough reliever to adequately handle closing duties, and he has the kind of makeup and accountability that Twins coaches like to see. He showed signs of returning to normal late in the season season, and if he could be signed for significantly less than he earned in 2011, he wouldn't be the worst option as a late-inning counterpart to Perkins.

There's no question that the Twins would have a tough time selling this one to the fans, though.

3) Sign another free agent.

There are a number of closers out on the market, which is one reason the loss of Nathan is easier to bear. On the high end, you've got guys like Ryan Madson, Heath Bell and Francisco Cordero, all of whom the Twins are likely to pass on due to cost.

But then you've got a number of intriguing buy-low candidates. One example is Jonathan Broxton, the formerly dominant Dodgers closer who was limited to 12 innings this year by injury but is still only 27. Another example is Brad Lidge, the slider-flinging right-hander from Philly who pitched only 19 innings but turned in a 1.40 ERA with lots of strikeouts.

4) Acquire a replacement via trade.

The Twins have already flirted with this option, as they were reportedly close to a deal with the Nationals in July that would have brought Washington's young closer Drew Storen to Minnesota. Joe Christensen said a week ago that he wouldn't rule out the possibility of those talks being rekindled, but Ryan may also turn his attention to another closer that is apparently being made available: Andrew Bailey of the Athletics.

ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted this week that the odds of Bailey being traded "appear to be about 100 percent." Like Storen, he's a young right-handed reliever with dominant numbers and several years of team control remaining. Bailey is four years older than Storen and he experienced some elbow problems this spring, but those factors should make him easier to acquire.

Of course, another option is that the Twins follow the route they did with Nathan, identifying a quality setup man in another organization who hasn't yet been established as a full-time closer. The Rays pulled this off quite successfully with Rafael Soriano in 2010.

Whichever direction they choose to take, the Twins will be wise not to invest a huge amount of money into the closer position considering the various uncertainties that surround this club in the short term. With Terry Ryan at the helm, I feel a lot more confident about their ability to do so successfully than I did before.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nathan Shuts the Door on Minnesota

During his entire career with the Twins, Joe Nathan was a testament to Terry Ryan's genius. Francisco Liriano, and to a lesser extent Boof Bonser, have had their moments, but Nathan was the prize gem acquired in what is widely viewed as Ryan's greatest move as a general manager.

Over a span of six years, Nathan was one of the two or three best closers in the league. He was a lights-out force at the back end of the Twins' bullpen, never succumbing to the sporadic down years that plague most relief pitchers in the majors. And Ryan managed to net this elite arm in return for one year of A.J. Pierzynski.

Now, one of the players that defined Ryan's previous tenure as GM is the first to exit under his latest. Last night, Nathan signed a two-year deal, $14.5 million with the Rangers.

The parting of ways makes sense from both perspectives. At age 37, Nathan's top priority is understandably winning. The Twins' chances of being legitimate a World Series contender within the next two years are suspect at best, whereas the Rangers will be a favorite out of the gates after falling a game short of glory this season.

Meanwhile, while team president Dave St. Peter tweeted last night that the Twins were never given a chance to match the offer, it doesn't really make a difference. Two years and $14 million was around the maximum that they could have afforded to offer, and Nathan probably would have required more -- perhaps significantly more -- to re-up, given the realities being faced here.

With so many needs left to address, it wasn't in the the Twins' best interests to make that kind of substantial investment in an aging reliever with a surgically repaired arm, even if he is the franchise's all-time saves leader.

Brace yourself, because Nathan won't be the last Terry Ryan success story to walk away this offseason. Michael Cuddyer is almost surely gone -- another victim of financial constraints -- and Jason Kubel could easily follow.

Then, Ryan will face the tall task of rebuilding the solid foundation he constructed in the early-to-mid 2000s, with limited funds and little in the way of tradable assets. This figures to a multi-year project.

As such, can you blame Nathan for heading south?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Doumit is an Ideal Fit for Twins

As I looked over the list of catchers that would be available this offseason, one name stood out to me as a great fit for the Twins, given their situation. Apparently the front office felt similarly, as they agreed to terms on a contract with that very player on Friday.

Ryan Doumit is a switch-hitter who can hold his own from both sides of the plate, having posted an OPS of .711 or higher every year he's been in the majors. He's still in his physical prime -- turning 31 in April. And, most importantly, he offers defensive flexibility that could prove invaluable for a Twins roster packed with question marks.

To be sure, Doumit carries his own question marks, which is why he was available on a one-year deal at a $3 million base. He's not considered a strong defensive catcher, leading me to wonder if he'll be viewed as the true backup to Joe Mauer or more of an emergency option.

The larger concerns relate to health. Doumit has been injured a lot over the course of his career and this season was limited to just 77 games. Obviously, the last thing the Twins need right now is another guy who's going to be perpetually nicked up, but it's important to note that he doesn't seem to have any ongoing ailments that will carry into 2012.

Doumit has been tagged with the dreaded "injury-prone" label, but I'll point out that Carl Pavano had that same label when the Twins acquired him and he hasn't missed a start in Minnesota. As another example, J.J. Hardy was jettisoned a year ago largely because he had such a hard time staying healthy, and this year he logged more plate appearances than all but two Twins players.

In other words, you're only injury-prone until you're not.

For their part, the Twins can work to protect Doumit's health by limiting his exposure behind the plate. As mentioned above, I wouldn't be surprised if he's really more of a third catcher, drawing only occasional starts while also spending time at first base, right field and DH. If Mauer goes down or has to switch positions, Doumit would likely step in as the regular, but short of that I suspect Ron Gardenhire will try and take advantage of Doumit's versatility.

And as long as he continues to hit like he has, he'll be a solid asset wherever he's playing. His career .271/.334/.442 hitting line is very similar to Michael Cuddyer's (.272/.343/.451), and Doumit swings well from both sides of the plate -- though he's shown considerably more pop from the left side. Overall, he has hit 67 home runs in 611 career games -- which would average to about 18 per 162-game season -- and while Target Field might sap some of that power he's still a good bet to out-slug most of his Twins teammates.

As long as he can stay healthy, Doumit figures to be a very useful piece. He's a respectable insurance plan at catcher and -- if Mauer is able to hold up -- a quality bat to plug in elsewhere. For the price, you could hardly ask for a better acquisition.

Between the Jamey Caroll and Doumit signings, Terry Ryan has now already addressed the two areas I called out as the club's top offseason priorities while putting only around $6 million toward the 2012 payroll, leaving him in good position as he turns his gaze to pitching and outfield help.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pitching Through Pain

That sound you heard on Monday? That was the collective groan from Twins fans everywhere around the time Joe Christensen posted a blog entry stating that the club has expressed interest in retaining embattled reliever Matt Capps.

The information comes from Capps' agent, Paul Kinzer, and his job is to create a market for his client so it wouldn't be surprising if he is overstating Terry Ryan's interest. Nevertheless, as Seth pointed out yesterday, the Twins wouldn't be crazy to bring Capps back -- in a reduced role and at a palatable price.

Kinzer told Christensen that he expects Capps to get a job closing somewhere, but given the number of established closers in free agency and the number of teams that actually need a ninth-inning guy, this seems like wishful thinking. More likely, Capps will have to settle for a setup job at about half the $7.15 million salary he earned this year. Therefore, I'm not irked by the notion that Ryan would consider reaching out.

I am, however, irked by another tidbit I came across. In pointing out the right-hander's struggles, Christensen mentions that "the Twins appreciated the way Capps kept taking the ball, even when he was dealing with some right wrist tendinitis."

Looking at Capps' 2011 season, it's not difficult to pinpoint the time frame where this ailment may have been affecting him. He's never been a huge strikeout artist, but from June 28th to August 18th he managed only three strikeouts while facing 84 batters. That's a 4 percent K-rate, which makes Nick Blackburn look like Nolan Ryan. During that span, opponents hit .320/.381/.480 against Capps, saddling him with a 5.79 ERA and three blown saves.

Outside of that mid-summer window, though, Capps struck out 16 percent of the batters he faced in 2011, which is right in line with his 18 percent career rate. In combination with his always excellent control, that kind of moderate strikeout proficiency can make Capps a successful late-inning reliever, and certainly has before.

Depending on the terms, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if the Twins were to bring back Capps for another season. But they'll be a lot better off in 2012 if he and the rest of his teammates swallow their pride and sit out when they're dealing with inhibiting injuries.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Playing it Slow

When reports arose late last week that the Twins had signed Jamey Carroll, many people were surprised to see a 37-year-old utility man receiving $7 million in guaranteed money. In the Offseason GM Handbook, we estimated a one-year, $1 million deal for the aging infielder.

That's how it tends to go with free agent signings made in November, though. Early in the offseason, teams aggressively pursue the players that are on their radar, and will often pay a premium in order to take them off the market quickly. We saw it again yesterday, with the announcement that the Dodgers signed second baseman Mark Ellis (who posted a meager .634 OPS as a 34-year-old this year) to a two-year contract worth over $8 million.

Fans get ornery when their favorite team takes a passive approach to the offseason, especially in the wake of a 99-loss campaign. However, this is generally a smart tactic. Two of the best free agent signings of the Bill Smith era were Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson, and both those contracts were inked in the final weeks of the 09-10 offseason.

The Twins made their initial splash quickly this year, paying a considerable sum to lock up Carroll in spite of the fact that several seemingly similar infield options will probably end up signing for about half that price. I'm sure they have their reasons. But I expect things to slow down now as the Twins let the market play out, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Twins Sign Jamey Carroll to Man Short

The Twins took their first step toward addressing a decimated infield today, signing free agent Jamey Carroll. According to Ken Rosenthal's sources, the plan is for Carroll to become the team's everyday shortstop.

My stance has been that the Twins' approach this offseason ought to involve finding competent stopgaps that could potentially aid a return to contention in 2012 if things break right, but won't break the bank or require significant long-term commitments. Carroll fits that bill about as well as Ramon Santiago or Nick Punto, who were the players I suggested in my blueprint last month.

Although he'll turn 38 in February, the righty-swinging Carroll has been a consistent producer, finishing with an on-base percentage of .355 or higher in each of the past four seasons, with steady if unspectacular defense in the middle infield. Twins shortstops turned in a .292 OBP while frequently batting in the two-hole this year, so the upgrade potential here is massive. Though he has no power to speak of (he hasn't hit a home run since August of 2009), Carroll is a disciplined hitter, a good base runner and last year he turned in the second-lowest swinging strike percentage in the majors. He's the quintessential piranha.

It's unclear how the veteran's range will play at shortstop as he inches toward his fourth decade of life, but he's committed only nine errors in 1,000 innings at the position for the Dodgers over the past two years, making it easy to recognize his appeal to Terry Ryan and the Twins after a gaffe-filled 2011.

I will say that I've got some quibbles with the contract. The Twins reportedly are guaranteeing Carroll between $6-7 million on a two-year deal; that seems quite excessive for a middling 37-year-old who has earned less than $12 million in his big-league career up to this point. He's bound to start declining sometime, perhaps as soon as 2012, and if that's the case his contract will prove considerably more burdensome than a cheap one-year pact with a similar option (such as Punto).

Here's another thing that should be noted about Carroll: While his .368 on-base percentage over the past two years is impressive, nearly half of his at-bats came in front of the pitcher. If you want an idea of how hitting eighth in an NL lineup can inflate an OBP, consider that Punto posted a career-high .388 mark this year while getting a big chunk of his at-bats there for the Cardinals.

Still, at the end of the day, $3.5 million is a reasonable price for a starting shortstop, and if the Twins felt compelled to spend a little extra in order to ensure they got their guy so they can move on to addressing other needs -- such as pitcher and catcher -- I can live with that.

I do hope that the club isn't done adding veteran depth to the infield. I also hope that the money saved by acquiring a low-cost starter at shortstop is put to good use elsewhere.

Venezuelan Horror Story

One of the most interesting tidbits to come out of La Velle's live chat on Wednesday over at was the revelation that the Twins asked Trevor Plouffe to play winter ball this year and Plouffe declined.

My initial reaction was one of puzzlement. On Twitter, I said that Plouffe's decision was "hard to understand." After all, 2012 is shaping up to be a make-or-break season for the young infielder, at least with this organization. He's 25, he's spent four years in Triple-A and he'll be out of options next season.

If Plouffe can't take advantage of the ample opportunity that will be laid in front of him, with multiple starting spots figuring to be up for grabs, the Twins could hardly be blamed for moving on. Why wouldn't the former first-round pick head south and sharpen his skills over the offseason, perhaps accruing valuable experience at some different positions?

Later on Wednesday night, things came into focus for me upon learning that former Twins catcher Wilson Ramos was abducted from his home in Venezuela, which is where the winter league takes place. Armed gunmen entered Ramos' home, snatched him away from his family and took him away in an SUV. Now, authorities are scrambling to track down the 24-year-old, who just completed a solid rookie campaign with the Nationals.

This is pretty horrifying stuff. It's not the first time a professional athlete has been targeted for ransom in what has become an increasingly dangerous climate in Venezuela. Given this grave situation, I feel silly for even questioning someone's decision to stay out of that region.

At this point, all we can do is hope and pray for Ramos' safe return, while feeling glad that Plouffe opted to stay home for the winter. I would imagine that many players will make the same choice going forward.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A Change in Direction

If there's one aspect of Bill Smith's forgettable tenure as Twins general manager that will stick with me, it's the veil of secrecy that came attached to all of the organization's operations. Front office personnel are not typically the most candid folks -- understandably so -- but Smith would protect every little detail regarding the team's decision-making as if it were a matter of national security. His interviews were about as dull as his name.

As such, it is fitting that the oddly-timed announcement of Smith's dismissal from the GM position on Monday came with little explanation. In a hastily scheduled press conference, Jim Pohlad would cite only "philosophical differences" while refusing to delve into any particulars.

At this point all we know is that, about a month ago, Pohlad indicated that Smith's job was not in danger, bristling at the notion that the Twins would resort to such a "knee-jerk" reaction after one bad season. Yet, here in November, with free agency already underway, Smith has been suddenly fired and replaced by his predecessor, Terry Ryan.

Given the dearth of available information, any conclusions we draw are going to be largely speculative. However, considering that the Twins' brass met very recently to discuss offseason planning, it seems safe to say that Smith's ideas about how to proceed did not align with those of the ownership. The final portion of this statement from Pohlad leaves little doubt about that:
No one in the Twins' organization wants to win any more than Bill ... The Twins' goal is to get better in 2012 and beyond. Bill was equally motivated to achieve that goal, but we differed in the scope and approach that was required.
One could venture to guess that Smith adamantly pushed for a more long-term rebuilding process, which would entail punting the the 2012 season for all intents and purposes. Ownership, feeling the pressure of a disgruntled fan base hungry for meaningful steps aimed at short-term improvement, simply could not accept this approach and handed the reigns back to a man whose moves fueled a decade of success.

On the flip side, one could also surmise that Smith was unhappy with the team's proposed spending reduction (Ryan pegged $100 million as an estimate) and felt inhibited from taking the actions he needed to right the ship. Drastically improving a 99-loss club with only $18 million or so is a tall task, and another ugly season in 2012 would only further tarnish Smith's reputation. The Twins, noting Ryan's past proclivity for succeeding under financial restrictions, may have opted simply to go back to what's worked before.

Either scenario seems plausible, but -- as I said -- it's really all just speculation for now. What we know is that Smith's blunder-filled reign at the helm has come to a close, and Ryan is back in charge after a four-year hiatus. Those who have grown exasperated with the club's direction in recent years should think twice before exploding into a jubilant celebration, however.

I wrote a post back in late September yearning for an injection of fresh thinking into the Twins' front office power structure. While swapping Ryan for Smith qualifies as a major shake-up, it hardly guarantees a complete change in philosophy; in fact, it falls right in line with the good-ol-boy, promote-from-within strategy for filling vacancies that we've come to expect.

By all accounts, Ryan remained heavily involved in the team's decision-making during Smith's shaky tenure, and the only new figure who's been added to the front office mix through all this is Wayne Krivsky, who was a long-time fixture here before. Ryan is now the man in charge, but it's not clear that this will drastically alter the traditional and heavily scouting-based approach that has increasingly hurt the club in recent years.

That's not to say I disapprove. Far from it. It's become clear to most who follow this team that Ryan -- a trained scout -- has a better understanding of the game than Smith, and the Twins are clearly doing right by the fans, as evidenced by a Star Tribune poll that has a whopping 97 percent of readers approving of the decision.

Personally, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Terry Ryan and at the very least I'll enjoy reading his reliably insightful quotes rather than Smith's obnoxious administrative cliches. My dissatisfaction with Smith over the past year has been well documented and I'm all for a change in direction at the top, even if I wasn't necessarily clamoring for it. I'm not convinced that shuffling front office personnel will completely cure all of the misguided philosophies that have plagued this organization at times, but I can say this much:

The unexpected switch adds yet another level of intrigue to what was already shaping up as a pretty interesting offseason.

Monday, October 31, 2011

My Offseason Blueprint

When the World Series came to an end on Friday night, the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook officially became available. If you haven't already ordered a copy, you can purchase and download one immediately from the TwinsCentric website.

One section of the bulky 136-page e-book is called "Offseason Blueprints," wherein all four TwinsCentric writers utilize the information in the Handbook to map out our own suggestions for the Twins' front office.

We're interested in seeing your ideas, too, so we're holding a contest. Using your Handbook, or whatever tools you like, we want you to craft a blueprint of your own -- one that fills the team's needs as you see them and stays within a reasonable budget. Submit it to us at, and in a few weeks we'll toss the names of all participants into a hat and draw a random winner. If you're selected, we'll set you up with a free copy of our Twins Annual in the spring, and we'll also dissect your blueprint on the TwinsCentric blog.

To get you started and generate some discussion, here's my offseason blueprint from the Handbook:

Hedging Your Bets

The Twins face an extremely challenging paradox this offseason. On the one hand, they are coming off a 99-loss season and their roster is filled with holes, with the majority of their best prospects still several years off. On the other hand, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are in their physical prime and are owed a combined $37 million next year. If both those players return to form, you won’t want to waste the opportunity by fielding a poor roster that can’t support them. At the same time, you don’t want to put all your eggs in the 2012 basket because, realistically, it’s just not that likely that this injury-hampered group can make a 30-game swing in the standings. The best bet is to add cheap, low-risk short-term help while maintaining flexibility down the line. Here’s my attempt:

1) Let Michael Cuddyer walk.
Losing Cuddyer will be tough. Not only is his powerful right-handed bat sorely needed in the Twins’ lineup, he’s also a major asset in the clubhouse and community. Unfortunately, while he’d help a lot in 2012, his contract would likely become a burden in the later years as he ages into his mid-30s. It may be unpopular, but unless he’s willing to take a discount, letting Cuddyer walk and taking the draft picks is the smart call.

2) Re-sign free agent reliever Joe Nathan for two years, $14 million.
Nathan struggled out of the gates and finished with an unimpressive 4.84 ERA in 2011, but by the end of the year he looked very much like the dominant reliever we remember prior to Tommy John surgery. After coming off the disabled list in June, Nathan posted a 3.38 ERA and 28-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 29 1/3 innings. He’s a reliable and familiar closer.

3) Re-sign free agent outfielder Jason Kubel for three years, $21 million.
Kubel’s value is down after an injury-plagued campaign. Once a premier designated hitter, he’s been underwhelming in each of the past two years, so the opportunity is ripe to lock him up with an affordable multi-year deal if you believe the 2010/11 numbers don’t reflect his true offensive ability.

4) Offer arbitration to Alexi Casilla ($2.5M), Jose Mijares ($700K), Kevin Slowey ($3.3M), Glen Perkins ($1.8M) and Francisco Liriano ($6M).
Perkins and Casilla are essentially no-brainers, as they offer relatively inexpensive depth at positions of need. Bringing back Liriano and Slowey might be a somewhat difficult call following frustrating 2011 campaigns, but the Twins need all the rotation help they can get and both are candidates for bounce-back years.

5) Sign free agent catcher Ryan Doumit for two years, $9 million.
With Mauer’s status hanging in the balance, the Twins need to add depth at catcher, preferably in the form of a player who could play somewhat regularly and add offensive punch to the lineup. Doumit has spent his career as a part-time guy with the Pirates, never playing in more than 124 games, but his .271/.334/.442 career hitting line is very solid for a catcher and he’s only 30. He’s not considered a strong defensive backstop, but Drew Butera can be kept around to fill that role and Doumit can also fill in at first base and in right field.

6) Sign free agent starting pitcher Rich Harden for one year, $3 million plus incentives.
Bringing aboard one of the game’s most notoriously injury-prone starters may not sound appealing to Twins fans who watched almost the entire team spend chunks of 2011 on the disabled list, but this club needs high-upside arms and only the risky types like Harden will be affordable. The 29-year-old righty was limited to 82 2/3 innings and posted an ugly 5.12 ERA, but did manage to notch 91 strikeouts. He’s struggled mightily with the long ball over the past two seasons, but Target Field should help alleviate that. To help with his durability and maximize his stuff, it might be worth trying Harden in the bullpen if he’s willing.

7) Sign free agent infielders Nick Punto (one year, $750K) and Ramon Santiago (one year $1.5M).
Neither of these players is generally viewed as a starter, but both are sure-handed, versatile veterans that can at least hold their own at the plate. Let them compete for the starting shortstop job in spring training, with the loser holding down a utility job while Tsuyoshi Nishioka opens the season in the minors.

Summary: Ideally, you’d like to see Mauer and Morneau return to their previous roles and thrive. Given the circumstances, though, you can’t really plan around that best-case scenario. The above structure gives you some flexibility with those two. I went heavy on free agency additions because I felt the Twins had a lot of needs but don’t have much in the way of tradable assets on the big-league roster; dealing away prospects at this point is the wrong idea. The infield signings don’t add much offense but fans and coaches will welcome some steady veteran reinforcements after watching rookies kick grounders all over the place last year.

In the end, this might not be a terribly exciting blueprint but 2012 is shaping up as a transitional year, where the Twins can try out some different things on the big-league roster while letting their talented young prospects develop. It’s also not inconceivable that this group could compete in the AL Central if the rotation rebounds and the switch to less physically demanding roles rejuvenates the bats of Mauer and Morneau.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Can the Twins Contend in 2012?

Twins fans are generally a hopeful bunch. This is, in large part, a byproduct of the team's recent success -- they've missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons only once in the past decade, and have surmounted unthinkable deficits in dramatic fashion on multiple occasions. Beyond that, the people of Minnesota seem predisposed to optimism and positivity, at least when compared to some of the more venomous large markets.

Yet, as we prepare for the offseason to officially get underway, I'm sensing a great deal of despondence from the fan base when it comes to the 2012 team. In fact, many of the same commenters who scolded me for being overly negative in my preseason assessment of the 2011 club are now writing off the Twins' 2012 chances, dismissing the notion that they should rebuild with an eye on contending next season.

That's understandable. After all, the Twins lost 99 games this season, and they're plagued by persisting injuries, and their farm system is mostly barren in the upper levels. Still, we've gone through this whole song and dance too many times before. You can't write this team off.

While I didn't expect the Twins to come out on top of the AL Central this year, I did expect them to be competitive. And halfway through the season, they were. It's easy to forget this since our freshest memories are from those horrid final two months, where the team completely tanked and went 13-41, but in late July -- despite their horrible start and innumerable setbacks -- the Twins were six games out of first place and on the fringe of contention.

The offseason is a long time. It's a four-month span where players can dedicate themselves to resting and/or strengthening. There are no guarantees when it comes to Joe Mauer's knees, Justin Morneau's head, Francisco Liriano's shoulder or Scott Baker's elbow. But these same players that were key contributors for a 94-win team just a year ago are all eligible to return next year, and not one of them is older than 30. With better health, there's no reason they can't be the driving force behind a drastic team-wide improvement.

Granted, the Tigers appear to be in good shape right now, riding high after a very successful season that resulted in a postseason berth. But the same could have been said for the Twins a year ago. Crazy things happen in baseball. Unless Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski gets the green light to go on a shopping spree this winter, the AL Central should remain eminently winnable next year.

The flaws of this Minnesota roster are obvious and in some cases glaring. But, while the core players may be riddled with question marks, it's still a highly talented and relatively young crop. While an "all-in" approach for 2012 would be silly, the idea that Bill Smith and Co. should proceed as if the season is already lost is almost equally silly.

So, what's the best way to build for the long-term while remaining viable in the short term? We can discuss that on Monday when I share my offseason blueprint. Until then, you can brush up over the weekend by ordering a copy of the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook, which releases today tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Easy Option

This offseason will carry plenty of difficult decisions for the Twins' front office, but they got one of the easier ones out of the way yesterday when they declined Joe Nathan's $12.5 million option for 2012.

The move officially consummates a contract that the closer originally inked prior to the 2008 campaign. Over the life of his four-year pact, Nathan pitched 181 innings with a 2.49 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 206-to-54 strikeout-to-walk ratio. When healthy, he remained one of the league's best relievers, but he also missed the entire 2010 season due to injury and went through some rough patches while working his way back in 2011.

It's a cautionary tale for handing expensive multi-year contracts to aging relievers -- one the Twins will have to bear in mind as they contemplate their next step with Nathan. After collecting his $2 million buyout, he'll hit the free agent market and he should have no trouble finding suitors. Despite a 4.84 ERA this past season, Nathan finished strong and posted encouraging peripherals (8.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1.16 WHIP).

Losing their longtime closer would be a tough blow for the Twins, who desperately need effective arms at the back end of their bullpen. Yet, there are two major factors working in their favor. One is Nathan's age; he'll turn 37 next month, which, in combination with his surgically repaired arm, could be seen as a red flag. Another is that the free agent market for relievers is considerably deep.

Joining Nathan in the free agent pool are names like Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Ryan Madson, Francisco Cordero, and Frank Francisco. All are hard-throwing righties with a history of closing, and all are younger than Nathan.

With this depth of competition, the Twins' all-time saves leader will probably have to settle for a two-year deal where the total money is close to the $12.5 million he would have made with his option.

So it's easy to see why the Twins bought out Nathan's 2012 season, even though it cost them a couple million. It's also easy to see why they should make a hard push to bring him back anyway.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Is Denard Span Trade Bait?

Earlier this month, when pondering whether the Twins would be wise to pursue trades as a means of improving the roster this winter, I concluded that they lacked movable assets on the big-league roster. One player that I didn't mention, however, was Denard Span. Certainly, that seems to be a name worth discussing, considering that by some accounts the Twins were very close to dealing away the center fielder just three months ago.

In late July, when trade deadline speculation was at a frenzied high point, La Velle wrote a story for the Star Tribune carrying the headline, "Span not fazed by trade rumors." Yet, I've gotten the sense from some corners that the team's well publicized discussions involving Span created something of a rift between outfielder and organization. And while the aforementioned article relayed the outfielder's stated desire to remain in Minnesota, Span's follow-up quote seemed to carry a sour note:
"This is where I have been my whole career," he said. "But, at the same time, I'm the type of person who has a chip on the shoulder. If they want to trade me and think they can be a better team without me, then do what you have to do.

"I just want to play baseball. I'll go somewhere else and play baseball."
The Twins apparently feel that they have a viable replacement for Span in Ben Revere. And the deadline rumors may or may not have caused some friction. So, could Bill Smith revisit the idea of a Span trade during the hot stove season?

On the surface, there appears to be little reason for the front office to seriously consider such a move. Span had the second half of his season wrecked by a concussion, which remains an ongoing concern, and he has finished with a sub-.700 OPS in each of the last two campaigns.

At the same time, he's still only 27 and he's got a very team-friendly contract. Span is due only $3 million next year and remains under team control at a reasonable cost through 2014. He's a disciplined hitter, a speedy base-runner and a prolific defensive outfielder. There's a reason many Twins fans (including myself) were rankled by the Span-for-Storen rumors this past summer. He's a valuable player. If there are teams out there feeling confident that he'll be able to overcome the concussion symptoms and migraines, it's not unthinkable that Span could fetch some decent offers.

In that scenario, it'd be something worth thinking about. The outfield is one area where the Twins look to be flush with talent in the coming years, and there are a lot of needs elsewhere. In addition, one could argue that the Twins should embrace any opportunity to unload one of their various health question marks.

But doing so would mean letting Span, a fan favorite and long-term anchor at a crucial position, go somewhere else and play baseball. Should they be willing?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Experience Still Matters

Before the 2011 season got underway, I expressed some shock that the Twins hadn't sought out veteran depth to back up their young starting infielders. The roster looked especially thin in the middle infield, where I noted that, since 2006, the two Opening Day starters had missed at least 97 games between them every year. The following paragraph summarized the problem:
Whether because of injury, poor performance or trade, the Twins have annually gotten far fewer games than expected from their season-opening keystone combos. Unless Casilla and Nishioka can miraculously shatter that trend, we should expect to see other players getting significant time in the middle infield this year.
As it turned out, Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka did not shatter that trend. Quite the contrary. Between injuries and sheer ineffectiveness, they missed more time than any other duo over the past six years, playing in only 165 games combined. This left a lot of middle-infield work in the hands of players like Matt Tolbert, Trevor Plouffe, Brian Dinkelman and Luke Hughes; as you saw, the results were not pretty.

The Twins clearly underrated the importance of experienced depth in the infield last year, a mistake they are unlikely to repeat. After sitting through a season marred by booted grounders, errant throws, missed relays and plain old lousy fundamentals, Ron Gardenhire has undoubtedly stated his desire for the front office to shore up this unit.

So, what's out there? Among the free agent crop, some names that pop out at me are Ramon Santiago, Cesar Izturis, John McDonald, Edgar Renteria, Nick Punto and Jamey Carroll.

I realize that none of these options are all that enthralling. They're not high-impact, premium names and in some cases they shouldn't be viewed as starting candidates. But these are veterans who have been around the block, and since the Twins seem unlikely to break the bank for a player like Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins, they are the types of infielders I expect to see targeted in the coming months.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Three-Bagger: Rosario, Kubeddyer & The Handbook

* La Velle posted an update on his blog yesterday that is definitely worth reading. It includes notes on various players and prospects. The most interesting tidbit, from my perspective, was that the Twins are trying minor-league outfielder Eddie Rosario at second base in instructional league, and plan to carry the experiment over to spring training.

Rosario, who turned 20 last month, has played the outfield exclusively in his minor-league career, which thus far has spanned only 118 games. He had a breakout season in the Appalachian Rookie League this year, batting .337/.397/.670 with 21 home runs and 60 RBI in only 67 games.

Between Ben Revere, Joe Benson, Aaron Hicks, Angel Morales, Oswaldo Arcia and perhaps Miguel Sano, the Twins are overloaded with talented young outfielders that have a chance to help them in the coming years. Rosario's bat is certainly looking legit after he led the Appy League in homers. If the Twins can successfully shift him from an area of organizational strength to an area of extreme weakness (middle infield), it'd be a huge win.

Rosario has played only one full professional season, so a transition to the infield could be easier than it would be for, say, Ben Revere. La Velle noted that the Puerto Rican prospect was "all for" trying second base, and that front office execs Deron Johnson and Mike Radcliff both said Rosario "looked pretty good there during instructional league."

* The same article wonders whether the Twins can afford to bring back both of their long-tenured free agent outfielders this offseason. Jason Kubel has been with the organization for 11 years and Michael Cuddyer for 14 years, so these are decisions that will be taken very seriously.

There are a lot of good arguments for bringing Cuddyer back, and I'd guess that if it comes down to a choice between the two, the Twins are leaning heavily in that direction. However, from a pure baseball standpoint, Kubel sure looks like the better bet to provide good value for the money over the life of a new contract.

After posting an .805 OPS in 2008 and a .907 OPS in 2009, Kubel is coming off a pair of down years where injuries have been an issue. This, combined with his defensive deficiencies and platoon split (which softened this year), will keep him from commanding a king's ransom on the open market. However, even with his reduced productivity over the last two years, his core numbers (.756 OPS, 33 HR, 150 RBI) are very similar to Cuddyer's (.777 OPS, 34 HR, 151 RBI).

Yes, Kubel is another lefty bat and he doesn't offer the same flexibility or leadership that Cuddyer does. But he's also three years younger and he's going to be a whole lot cheaper. It will be interesting to see how those factors weigh on the Twins.

* I'm pleased to finally announce that this year's edition of the TwinsCentric GM Handbook is now available for pre-order. If you lock up your copy now, you'll get a nice discount at 5.99 -- down from the official price of 9.99 -- and you won't have to wait long for your copy, as we'll be dropping the e-book PDF file in your virtual mailbox as soon as the World Series is finished. You can click on the image below to secure yours:

Add to Cart

As always, the Handbook puts you in the shoes of the Twins GM and provides all the information you'll need to navigate the offseason and renovate the roster. We've got full run-downs of the free agent market, trade targets, arbitration eligibles, 40-man roster decisions and more, all packed with insight and advice from your TwinsCentric guides.

The GM Handbook has become our flagship product, and I hope that everyone who's interested in a comprehensive preview of this hugely important offseason will pick up a copy. Thanks, as always, for the support.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Incremental Upgrades

The Twins got their offseason roster renovations underway last week by outrighting Jason Repko, Matt Tolbert, Rene Rivera and Anthony Slama. This created four openings on the 40-man roster, though two of those spots are now filled by Nick Blackburn and Alexi Casilla, who were reinstated from the 60-day disabled list.

Repko and Tolbert were both set to be arbitration eligible this offseason, so this decision confirms what many already believed: that the Twins had no interest in employing those players next year at more than the league minimum.

Repko was a fifth outfielder and Tolbert was a utility infielder. Neither held a particularly significant role for the club. Still, both were exceptionally awful hitters in 2011, even by the low standards that accompanied their titles. Among all MLB players who made 200 or more plate appearances, Tolbert's .518 OPS was sixth-worst. Meanwhile, Repko's .555 mark fell nearly 100 points below his already poor career mark.

Replacing these two with more competent options would qualify as "incremental upgrades." It's a term I first used a couple weeks ago when talking about bringing back Nick Punto as a bench player, and you're likely to hear it often from me over the course of the offseason. Given their circumstances, the Twins shouldn't be looking to land one or two superstars; rather, they should be seeking to trim fat from the roster and build better depth across the board.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

To Trade or Not to Trade?

In November of 2009, Bill Smith set the tone for an extremely active offseason when he traded Carlos Gomez to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy. It was a relatively major deal, and one that turned out well for the Twins, who got a quality -- though injury-shortened -- season from Hardy at shortstop while Denard Span took over in center field.

Of course, Smith's trades haven't always gone so smoothly. With his pattern of buying high and selling low, I can only hope he doesn't invest much money in the stock market. He's dealt away players like Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Wilson Ramos and Hardy only to watch them thrive elsewhere; meanwhile, acquisitions such as Delmon Young, Matt Capps, Jim Hoey and the entire Johan Santana package have largely fizzled in Minnesota.

But it's not just Smith's history of getting fleeced that has me believing the Twins would be wise to stay away from the trade market this offseason. Based on the current roster composition and state of the franchise, I don't see any players that the team both can and should be dealing away.

Among those with movable contracts, there are few on the major-league roster with meaningful trade value. It's not hard to see the Twins shopping Francisco Liriano this offseason, but they'd be getting rid of him with his value at a low point; as mentioned earlier, this is a habit Smith must get away from. The same goes for potential trade candidates like Kevin Slowey (who's probably as likely to get non-tendered as traded), Danny Valencia and Denard Span.

One could point to Carl Pavano and his $8 million salary as an expendable asset, but the veteran righty led the team in innings pitched by 60 frames this year. With so much ongoing health uncertainty in the rotation, it's tough to argue that Pavano is dispensable unless the return is very appealing.

Of course, the Twins could look to the minors for prospects to package in a trade, but should they really be doing that? While it's not unthinkable that the team could return to contention next year with a lot of good breaks, the front office should really be building with an eye toward 2013 and 2014, when their next wave of organizational talent will be nearing the majors. Trading away from that group for more immediate help simply wouldn't fit with the direction this organization should be going.

The Twins have a lot of needs to fill, but they lack areas of strength from which it would be prudent to trade. Unless Smith can get uncharacteristically creative and pull a rabbit from a hat, I'd prefer to see the club upgrade its roster almost exclusively through free agency.

That can prove a challenging and expensive proposition, but fortunately they'll have some funds to work with this winter.

Friday, October 07, 2011

What's Cuddyer Worth?

The Twins have three long-time staples hitting the free agent market this offseason, making it the biggest organizational crossroad since 2007, when the contracts of Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva expired.

The team had to let both those players go, while also trading Johan Santana, because in all three cases the contract demands were exorbitant. That's how it tends to go when 29 other teams are in the negotiating mix. With Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan all set to shop themselves this winter, some tough decisions lie ahead for the brain trust at Target Field.

Unlike 2007, the Twins are equipped financially to bring back all three players, although doing so might consume the bulk of their spending money. With a daunting variety of areas to address, as I outlined on Wednesday, it seems unlikely that all three players will be retained. I suspect that one or even two of these familiar faces will land elsewhere.

Of the three, Kubel is probably most expendable. Losing his reliable righty-mashing ability would sting, but the Twins -- ideally -- already have two middle-of-the-lineup left-handed bats on the roster and he's coming off a pair of underwhelming seasons. On the flip side, his injury hampered season might keep him affordable.

Nathan would be tougher to lose. The Twins are bereft of quality right-handed relief arms, and Matt Capps almost certainly won't be back. The team will clearly decline Nathan's $12.5 million option for next year but might be able to get him back on a two-year deal at the same price. If not, there will be quite a few alternatives on the market.

Cuddyer is the guy that the Twins really don't want to let get away. He's generally considered the clubhouse leader and is cherished by coaches, teammates and fans alike. He's the team's best outfield power bat, and his ability to play first has been invaluable with Justin Morneau's ongoing injury issues. If you remove Cuddyer from the roster, the best remaining right-handed bat might be… Danny Valencia? Trevor Plouffe? Not good.

Unfortunately, of the three players discussed here Cuddyer has the most leverage entering this offseason. He's coming off a very solid campaign in which he posted an .805 OPS with 20 home runs while making his first All-Star team. He might just be the second-best right-handed bat on the market behind Albert Pujols.

The Twins reportedly offered Cuddyer a two-year, $16 million extension during the season, but they had to know that wouldn't come close to getting it done. Given his high rank within the free agent class and his sterling reputation, Cuddyer should be able to get three or even four years at an average of $10 million or more.

At that point, the Twins need to look past their affinity for him and honestly assess how they think his game will age. Locking into a contract that assures a potentially declining 36-year-old big money down the line is not a situation the Twins need to get themselves into.

My guess? The Twins' best offer will be a three-year deal, at maybe a little over $30 million, with a team option for 2015. If Cuddyer won't budge on a guaranteed fourth year, I'd guess he'll be playing for another team next season.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Prioritizing Offseason Needs

Yesterday I wrote that the depleted Twins could stand to upgrade their roster across the board during the offseason. It's probably not realistic to expect impact players to be added at every position, though, so today we'll prioritize the team's needs. Where are external additions mandatory, as opposed to optional luxuries? Let's assess the roster from top to bottom, starting with the most urgent area of need, and you can draw the line:

1. Shortstop

It could be argued that the shortstop is the most important player on the diamond. He is the captain of your infield, and the recipient of a very high volume of fielding chances -- often carrying a considerable degree of difficulty. The Twins were extremely weak at shortstop this season, with a .238/.292/.320 hitting line that came attached to very poor defense. It is simply unacceptable to enter the 2012 campaign with Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Trevor Plouffe as the sole options there.

2. Catcher

When healthy, Joe Mauer is obviously one of the league's elite catchers, but he wasn't healthy this year and as result the Twins got a .185 batting average from the position. Mauer's health is in flux and it's not at all clear he'll be able to crouch behind the plate for the majority of the team's games next season. To plan for that outcome, they absolutely must carry better backups than Drew Butera and Rene Rivera, who don't belong in the major leagues.

3. Relief Pitcher

The bullpen wasn't a crippling flaw in the team's 2011 roster composition only because the Twins so rarely had leads to protect. Make no mistake, this group was painfully bad. Minnesota relievers ranked dead last in the majors in ERA, opponents' batting average and K/BB ratio. Worse yet, Joe Nathan and Matt Capps are eligible for free agency, leaving Glen Perkins as the sole trustworthy holdover. The Twins might be able to cull a couple decent performers out of their collection of marginal relief arms, but they'll need to hit the trade market or free agency and add some reliable back-end relievers if they have eyes on contending in 2012.

4. Starting Pitcher

The Twins really need to supplement their rotation during the offseason, but the fact that this position ranks fourth tells you just how dire their needs are at the first three spots. The Twins do have some options on the existing roster, as they still control all the guys that they brought into this 2011 season when the rotation was largely considered a strength. The problem is that nearly every player at the position is afflicted by injury concerns, and the staff's pitch-to-contact tendencies don't play nearly as well with a sub par defense.

5. Outfield

Rather than breaking down the outfield position-by-position, we'll just say that the Twins could use some help out there in general, since it's not clear at this point how things are going to shake out. Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are both eligible for free agency, and if neither returns we would be looking at a Ben Revere/Denard Span/Joe Benson (or possibly Trevor Plouffe?) starting alignment. While that would be a stout defensive group, they'd be dreadfully low on power and very questionable offensively overall. Only if the Twins are in full rebuilding mode could they responsibly move forward with such a plan.

6. First Base

Coaches have already openly talked about moving Justin Morneau to DH in order to preserve his health, a move that would leave some big shoes to fill at first. Chris Parmelee made a strong impression in September, but his pedestrian minor-league track record suggests that he would struggle if pressed into full-time duty. Outside of him, there just isn't anyone in the organization with enough bat to step in as the regular first baseman next year. Unless it's Mauer.

7. Second Base

Alexi Casilla figures to return next year and while his .252/.310/.337 career hitting line isn't particularly exciting, he did enough this year to justify another shot. He has always proven susceptible to prolonged slumps and has never reached the 100-game mark in a season, so adding some depth ought to be a focus unless the Twins feel comfortable with Luke Hughes or Brian Dinkelman as their principle insurance plans.

8. Designated Hitter

It's not clear whether Kubel will be back next year, but with the uncertainty surrounding Morneau and Mauer, it seems likely that at least one of them will put in significant time as the team's DH next year. If they're both able to stick in the field (a good problem to have), the Twins will be tasked with finding a no-glove guy who can hit a little bit, which seems like a relatively minor obstacle given the rest of their headaches.

9. Third Base

Ron Gardenhire might consider this a higher priority, since he wasn't too shy about voicing his frustration with Danny Valencia over the course of the summer. Still, the sophomore led the team in games played and his offensive drop-off was completely attributable to a BABIP plummet, as his peripherals remained largely intact. He's nothing special -- particularly when you account for his iffy glove -- but considering his price tag and health, Valencia should be safe.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Great Challenge Begins

Coming off a truly horrendous season of baseball, Minnesota's front office faces an unbelievably daunting task: retool a devastated roster on the fly and return a 99-loss club to contention.

It will be a steep uphill climb. As Phil Mackey noted earlier this week, no team has ever won their division a year after losing 98-plus games. One could certainly make a valid case that a short-term rebuilding period, with an eye toward competing in 2013 or 2014, would be appropriate. Given the circumstances, though, it's safe to say that's simply not going to happen.

Obviously we don't know what specific moves the Twins will make in the upcoming offseason, but it should be pretty easy to guess their general approach. The consistent message will be that they already have the pieces in place, and that getting players like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span healthy will be the biggest key to a rebound. That's a fair slant.

But the problems with this roster run deeper than non-production at the top level. In some areas they absolutely need to get better and in others they would like to get better; there's not one position on this team with enough health, strength and depth to instill much confidence.

The Twins finished the 2011 season ranked 28th in the majors in OPS, 25th in starting pitchers' ERA and dead last in bullpen ERA. They also need to get significantly better defensively, especially in the infield. In other words, there are a whole lot of cracks in the foundation, and with payroll likely to creep back down toward $100 million, the front office won't have a ton of cash available for renovations despite some salaries coming off the books.

I expect considerable roster turnover this winter but I wouldn't anticipate much in the way of blockbuster moves. It's more likely that the front office will look to fill holes and build depth through numerous relatively minor signings and trades while holding steady to the idea that their returning core players are going to dictate the club's fate in 2012.

All in all, not a bad strategy. But the quality of these moves will determine whether the front office can regain the trust of an embittered fan base in the wake of a poor offseason and an even worse campaign.

I'll be following the action here all winter, and I hope you'll all keep stopping by to provide your thoughts on things as they develop. We'll get started tomorrow by prioritizing the areas of need.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Parmelee's Powerful Debut

The Twins' 2011 season has mercifully come to a close. It's difficult to draw positives from a final month in which the club went 6-20 and averaged only 3.7 runs per game, narrowly avoiding a 100-loss campaign by defeating the Royals in last night's finale. Yet there's one player who stands out as a genuine bright spot. That would be September call-up Chris Parmelee.

In a season filled with disappointing offensive performances and underwhelming rookie debuts, Parmelee's performance down the stretch stands out distinctly. Following a rather ordinary season in Double-A, he came up to hit .355/.443/.592 in 21 games for the Twins here in September.

At 23, Parmelee was the third-youngest player to don a Twins uniform this season, with Ben Revere and Joe Benson edging him by a few months. Given the uncertainty surrounding Justin Morneau's future outlook, Parmelee could have a chance to make an impact next season, and his sterling debut only increases the odds that he'll be viewed as a viable option at first base in 2012.

Let's take a look at the three contributing factors in Parmelee's impressive September triple-slash line:

Hitting for average: Parmelee racked up 27 hits in 76 at-bats for a stellar .355 batting average. Measured against his full professional body of work, this appears to be a major fluke. He's a .266 career hitter in the minors and has never posted a .300 average at any level. With that being said, Parmelee has cut down on his strikeouts over the past couple years and that's resulted in more hits, as you can see below:

Strikeout Rate
Batting Average

Parmelee carried over his improved contact rate to the big leagues in a limited sample, striking out only 13 times in 88 plate appearances (15 percent). He won't carry a .389 BABIP in the long-term, but if he can keep the whiffs in check there's no reason to think he can't hit in the .280-.290 range, which will lead to solid production assuming he remains strong in the next two areas.

Patience: While coming up through the Twins' system, he hasn't really posted the kind of gaudy numbers that you'd hope for from a first-round first baseman, but Parmelee has generally displayed a very sound plate approach. In 2,663 plate appearances in the minors, he's drawn 315 walks -- a 12 percent clip that nearly matches Joe Mauer's career walk rate in the majors.

His ability to utilize the free pass has helped Parmelee consistently put up respectable OBP figures even when his batting average has sagged. The fact that he's already demonstrated this skill in the majors, with 12 walks for a 14-percent rate, is extremely encouraging, especially when you consider how much fellow rooks Benson and Revere have struggled to coax walks against MLB pitching.

Power: This, to me, is the big wild card with Parmelee. Nothing about his performance with the Twins has surprised me more than the pop he's shown, ripping four homers and six doubles in his 76 at-bats for a .592 slugging percentage. This is a guy who went deep only 13 times in 610 plate appearances for New Britain this year, and who's slugged .436 in his minor-league career.

As a slow-footed first baseman, Parmelee will need to develop a strong power tool in order to establish himself as an asset. The early signs are extremely promising in this regard, but I'm skeptical as to whether he can sustain it in the long-term given his track record.

That will be the question with Parmelee. Can he shake an unspectacular minor-league history and prove that this quick adaptation to the bigs is legit? I don't think the Twins can responsibly move forward with him as their sole insurance policy behind Morneau at first base, but the sweet-swinging young lefty has definitely given the club something to think about by making a tremendous first impression.