Dan Wade, Bleacher Report.com, is back with the third installment in his series.
At the end of part two, we were left with a Twins team eminently ready to compete, but unable to make the small adjustments that make good teams into champions. Since asking the Twins to change their fundamental strategy is about like asking a tiger to change its stripes, it’s more useful to look at the rest of the Twins’ offseason with an eye toward the unexpected.
By traditional strategies, a solid play for the Twins would be to sign Ben Sheets to a two or three-year deal, somewhere in the $24-28 million range. With the new stadium opening, payroll shouldn’t be an object and the Twins are still under where they were in 2007. With the new surplus in pitching, the Twins could then deal someone like Glen Perkins or Nick Blackburn (plus a lower minor leaguer) for Adrian Beltre.
If those two signings didn’t make the Twins the team to beat in the A.L. Central (which they may be anyway) and almost a mortal lock to reach the playoffs, I don’t know what would.
Problem is, that plan involves giving up a first-round pick (a sure no-no), young pitching, buying a one-year rental, and taking on a ton of new salary. And while it certainly seems like a series of solid moves, Sheets’ injury history means that it isn’t without serious risk.
If the Twins do make more moves before camp opens in February, and I’d be shocked if they didn’t, they won’t be earth-shattering deals, so looking down those roads is fruitless.
The Twins probably will not add more pitching, unless they are looking to get rid of some they already have. Boof Bonser and Phillip Humber are both looking to pick up bullpen spots and rumors are swirling that recent pick-up R.A. Dickey signed with the Twins because he was all but promised a spot in the ‘pen.
Joe Nathan, Jose Mijares, and Jesse Crain are all hard throwers, so having a junk baller available might do the Twins a world of good.
In any case, Humber is out of options and Boof wants to start again, which isn’t likely to happen given the Twins current rotation. Both of these guys could be very valuable pieces in a trade if the Twins can find their replacements. Bobby Korecky hasn’t been terribly impressive in winter ball, but could get a look in spring training if there are spots open.
The Twins also have a surplus of outfielders, including Delmon Young and Denard Span. Carlos Gomez is probably safe, considering the Twins don’t want to give up on the main component of the Sanata deal so quickly. Gomez has also shown himself to be an absolutely top shelf defender while he struggled at the plate, whereas Young’s defense simply accented how disappointing he was as a hitter.
So the Twins have the pieces to make a deal if they so choose but will likely search the remnant racks of free agency as they do every year for some after New Years bargains. This strategy has netted them such gems as Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, the medical bills from Adam Everett, and Mike Lamb.
Of these, only Lamb represents a defensible signing, and this year’s crop of reclamation projects doesn’t inspire confidence.
The Twins have one major thing going for them, which is versatility in their infield. Alexi Casilla can play either second or short and recent resigning Nick Punto can cover everything left of first base, which means that the Twins are really just looking for an infielder.
Third base is the most obvious position of need, but if a good second baseman or shortstop were to emerge as a viable option, the Twins will certainly be able to pursue that option.
That said, this year’s free agents were boom or bust, and most of the booms are gone or out of the Twins radar range. Orlando Hudson will cost a pick, Joe Crede is one groundball in the hole away from the back injury that ends his career, and the trend goes down from there.
There are, however, a few players who just might make a bit of sense. The key thing to remember is that the Twins didn’t throw Nick Punto circa 2007 out there again last year, and that’s where a lot of the desperation amongst Twins fans comes from.
Punto was one of the absolute worst hitters in the recent past in 2007, which was exacerbated by Justin Morneau’s second half disappearing act and Joe Mauer’s worst year as a pro. The Twins got substantially more production out of third base last season from the platoon of Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris than they did out of Punto in 2007.
These two make an adequate pair at third, and, depending on the improvements players like Carlos Gomez, Delmon Young, Alexi Casilla, and Denard Span, they may be a good enough tandem to bring this team into the playoffs.
This really is Bill Smith’s immediate problem: He has no idea how good his team is. The Twins have five stable pieces (as stable as players are) in Mauer, Morneau, Joe Nathan, Scott Baker, and Nick Punto; Punto may even be a stretch since he hasn’t exactly been consistent at the plate. Liriano and Slowey will probably be very good, Blackburn and Perkins behind them, but still solid.
Even so, how effective they will be is a mystery. Should the Twins sell high on Perkins or is he going to continue to effectively utilize his defense?
That leaves the entire outfield, half the infield, and most of the pitching staff as variables. Even veterans like Michael Cuddyer and Matt Guerrier aren’t sure things. Cuddy is coming off an injury filled year and Guerrier struggled so badly toward the end of the season from overwork that Ron Gardenhire was forced into using Bonser, Humber and various other September call-ups.
Chances are good, though, that at least one of the Twins young players will regress, meaning adding another piece to the infield is a good strategy. The question is: With such a weak free agent market, who makes sense for the Twins to sign.
I’ve got no inside info, so these are nothing more than a few moves that would seem to improve the Twins while not compromising on any of the Twins’ fundamental principles outlined in parts one and two of this series.
(There is much more after the jump. Please read on!)
The key to all of these proposed deals is that the acquired player or players perform at or above .290 with good power numbers. Anything less than that can be produced by Harris and Buscher. While good defense would be nice to add, Nick Punto can cover a lot of ground for a weaker player; adding offense is the key.
There are essentially three types of players the Twins should be paying close attention to over the next few weeks and even as camps open and close. The first is the AAAA players.
Players like Carlos Pena and Jack Cust can take fans by surprise. These AAAA sluggers often have a serious flaw in their game, hence why they haven’t stayed with a big league team, but if placed in the right system, they can provide the necessary boost a struggling offense needs.
The trick is finding someone who really deserves to be the majors and hasn’t just barely missed out for a good reason.
Mike Hessman – Hessman is slowly getting out of the prospect category and into the career minor leaguer. He played 12 games for the Tigers this year, but has been getting less and less time up as he ages. Jeff Larish has passed him as the third baseman of the future, and Brandon Inge’s position switch pushed him ever further down the depth chart.
Hessman doesn’t have the power that someone like Cust does, and he strikes out at a very high rate, but he has solid power from the right side, which the Twins need desperately. He could likely be had for very little, comparatively, since the Tigers have almost no depth left in their minor leagues.
The Twins have a lot of young pitching blocked within the organization that is better than most of what is left in the Tigers organization.
The trade for Edwin Jackson makes Detroit’s need for pitching a bit less pressing, but the Tigers would be foolish to turn down a few young arms for the hitter they gave up on.
Hector Luna – Like Hessman, Luna is seeing less time in the majors as he ages, and he is buried deep on the depth chart in Toronto. Scott Rolen, Jose Bautista, and Marco Scutaro are all listed ahead of the AAA hitter. He is younger than Hessman but also lacks the power stroke.
Luna’s advantages are that he would almost certainly come more cheaply than Hessman, and that he has improved steadily over the last few years. If the Twins are going after someone like Hessman and Luna, it would be better to look into Hessman first, since, to borrow the stock market warning, past performance is no guarantee of future success.
Hessman’s power and higher OBP make him a better option than Luna, even though Luna puts the ball in play at a much better rate,
The second type of player is Change of Scenery candidate. Guys who come up with much fanfare, but fail to produce can often be dealt with more harshly than players who come to the organization via other means.
Bill Hall– While Hall isn’t being shopped by the Brewers, if the price was right, Doug Melvin would almost certainly be willing to sell. Hall is 28, and with Mat Gamel chomping at the bit to unseat Hall at third base, he may be running out of rope at Miller Park.
Hall has been on a steady slide from his career high batting average in 2005. Every other career high came the next year, when Hall hit 35 HR and got on base at a .345 clip. Since then, he hasn’t even hit 35 home runs period and is rapidly falling behind the Brewers young stars.
Rickie Weeks – Both Hall and Weeks have spent their entire careers with Milwaukee and came up with the organization, which means they have the weight of years of unfilled expectations on their shoulders. Weeks is younger than Hall and hasn’t be pushed all over the diamond the way Hall has, but he, too, is quickly approaching bust status.
Injuries have cut short Weeks’ last few seasons, which may give him a bit more slack then Hall has, but whatever extra length he has is fast running out. Alcides Escobar was the Brewers third best prospect heading into last season, and had a fantastic year in AA. His talent combined with the loss of Matt LaPorta may well give Escobar this year’s top spot.
Weeks’ days at second base in Milwaukee may well be numbered; it’s just a matter of if he switches positions or franchises.
It is far more likely that the Brewers will choose to move Hall, since he is older and probably less talented then Weeks, but it may well come down to costs. Both players are very talented and probably capable of much better production than either is showing, but the question remains: Can they ever produce enough in Milwaukee to fulfill expectations, or will they only succeed if they leave?
If this is the route the Twins choose to go, and it is probably the surest bet of any of the options I’ve presented, Bill Smith needs to be aware of the situation. These players are losing value within the franchise faster than they are to outsiders and Doug Melvin knows that, and will almost certainly try to oversell either player.
Both players are definitely talented, and would be solid additions. Weeks just needs to get healthy and will rightly cost Perkins and a high prospect or Blackburn and a lower prospect. Hall on the other hand could be done offensively. While the defense is solid in the infield, the Twins need to pay for his offensive production, not his potential.
Perkins is a good starting price, and depending on how much salary the Brewers are willing to take on (or if they are willing to pay Mike Lamb’s instead of the Twins) prospects could be added or their level raised. Blackburn alone is probably too valuable to give up, but Kevin Mulvey or Kyle Waldrop could be another good place to start.
Way Out of the Box Thinking
The Twins do occasionally try to catch lightning in a bottle by signing a vet everyone has given up on in hopes that a fresh start can get them going again. With Rick Reed, it worked, and the Twins got 15 wins out a player most teams figured was done. With Sidney Ponson, it didn’t work, and the Twins became just another in a long line of teams that mistakenly paid the overweight Aruban for his mediocre talent.
This year’s pick isn’t a pitcher, but rather a converted third baseman. Nomar Garciaparra is, once again, a free agent with something to prove. Like Michael Cuddyer, he struggled through several different injuries last year, none incredibly serious, but causing him to play in just 62 total games at any level.
Yet, he is a right-handed hitter, has great plate discipline, and may still have some power left. As recently as 2006, he hit 20 home runs and was an all-star, though one could argue he got in on reputation.
The key is money. Nomar is worth nowhere near the $9.5 million he received last year, and the Twins aren’t that dumb. A one-year deal laden with incentives, however, could entice him and keep the Twins from getting burned if he either stays injured or can’t regain his old form. Nomar also couldn’t play first base, since Justin Morneau isn’t about to be displaced, though that shouldn’t be an issue with Nick Punto covering the areas Nomar can’t.
This is probably the worst plan the Twins could follow, as it could go horribly, Wile E. Coyote wrong. However, if the proper safeguards were in place, a deal like this could bridge the gap between the present and the future, where the Twins are in surer hands, and a worst leave the Twins in roughly the same position they are now.
Recap and Final Conclusions
If you’ve made it all the way through with me, thanks. It’s kind of a Mangum Opus, I know, so I really appreciate your effort in reading it. For those of you who either just joined the party, or couldn’t make it through one or both parts, here’s the argument, sans nuances and examples.
The Twins refusal to participate in the normal player-acquisition modes of megatrades and big free-agent signings has left their fans pining for more. More money for signings, more trades of young players for established talent, more home runs, more offense etc. However, the Twins refusal to do so hasn’t harmed them too badly. (Part I)
Because it is almost impossible to get the production necessary out a player to make a massive free-agent deal or the load of prospects required to make a blockbuster trade, seem like a good investment, the Twins have been able to field a high value team at relatively low cost.
It does, however, leave holes, and unlike the teams who do play the free agent market, the Twins have a lot of trouble filing them. (Part II)
This puts the Twins in a position, like they are in now, where filling a small hole seems to come at the cost of the future. Good young talent costs money and blocks the players who are only a few years away, older players command more money and are less likely to produce the results the Twins need to improve (Remember that any player brought in must hit better than .290 with some power and average defense).
Rather than continue to exist on the periphery of the current market, signing second-hand parts and then cutting them in June, the Twins should be looking at other ways of acquiring the talent they need to. (Part III)
Ultimately, if the Twins are in this mode purely by choice, then they are doing an incredible job making it work. Now is the time to look hard at a player like Orlando Hudson in a declining market and swallow a larger than normal contract to sign a good player who can really help this team win now.
However, my hunch is that the Twins have been forced to cobble together this philosophy by the tight purse strings of Carl Pohlad. It is a testimony to the skills of Terry Ryan and his staff that they were able to put such a good team on the field for so many years despite being forced to rely on youngsters like Scott Baker, Justin Morneau and the many other players who moved from Ft. Myers and Elizabethton all the way to the Metrodome.
This season will be a true litmus test for the Twins’ philosophy. Can they find the pieces they need to win the division once again and will the younger players hold up in the playoffs if they do? With a full one-third of the league, and half the division, now with payrolls going over $100 million, will the Twins’ standard of value be forced upwards, or will the pool of “high value” players simply continue to dwindle?
The questions surrounding this team are myriad, as they often are, but if the Twins’ current players can build on last years’ success and continue to make progress, the Twins will field one of the top teams in the division.
This well could be a season like 2001, when the Twins’ youth really shone. Steven Tolleson and Luke Hughes are both on the cusp of being major league ready, and both could improve on Brian Buscher’s numbers at third.
It was mentioned in part two, but it bears repeating: The Twins’ strategies have left them with a very good team; all that’s left is to patch the gaps. Whether or not they choose to add another infielder, the Twins look to be very good again this year.
Health will be a major issue, but with good health and reasonable progress from the league’s youngest team, the Twins are on track to open Target Field by raising their first banner. The only question is how many banners they’ll need to raise.