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November 15, 2010

GM for a Day

Minnesota Twins

by Ken Funck

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Stepping in as the general manager for the Minnesota Twins, even for a day, is a somewhat daunting task. Ask around the league and you’ll hear franchise after franchise, at least those in the “Accord/Split-Level/Vacations In Orlando” economic strata, talk about how they want to model their organizations after the Twins. While some of the traits attributed to the Twins in the media, such as their commitment to “small ball” and how they “play the game right,” seem more like a projection of how outsiders familiar with the Upper Midwest mostly through Fargo and A Prairie Home Companion would expect a Minnesota franchise to play than how the Twins actually go about their business, there’s no doubting their success or how they’ve achieved it. The Twins have managed to win six division titles in nine years, and have done so with a payroll that has only twice broken the $70 million mark. They’ve achieved this due to a productive player development system and a commitment to avoiding crippling long-term contracts—a responsible, conservative business plan that leads to success, stability, and rather boring Hot Stove seasons in the Gopher state.

Despite all this regular-season success, the Twins have lost five straight American League Division Series, four of them to their socio-economic opposites in New York, and there seems to be some restlessness among the fan base to make some sort of a big splash this offseason. With that in mind, it’s easy to define next year’s franchise goal.

Mission Statement: Win enough games to make the playoffs, then bring along enough talent to beat the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, or whatever other expensive coastal show pony we meet there, and in doing so play deep enough into October to distract the honest, hard-working citizens of Minnesota from their cringe-inducing local football teams.

Straightforward, eh? All we need to do is figure out how to keep a team that won 94 games last year ahead of their troubled AL Central opponents, and ensure we don’t bring a knife to a gunfight come playoff time. The assets, liabilities, and market assessment below should give us some idea of where we stand.

Assets: Superstars at catcher and first base; a high-scoring offense; an inexpensive rotation that throws strikes; a beautiful new ballpark.

Liabilities: Bad outfield defense; much of the bullpen eligible for free agency; not enough of the strikes thrown by the inexpensive rotation generate swings and misses; few minor-league players ready to take on a big role in 2011; cold weather in April and October.

Market Assessment: The Twins have spent the last decade at or near the top of the AL Central, despite being consistently outspent by several rivals. The White Sox are competitive and always aggressive, but have more flaws than the Twins. The Tigers have recently shed themselves of several large contracts and are in line to acquire some top-shelf free-agent talent, making them a major threat. The Royals have an outstanding farm system, but are several years away. The Indians currently aren’t contenders. The Twins will likely be facing stiffer competition for next year’s divisional crown.

The possibility that Detroit can sign a few big bats to protect Miguel Cabrera, combined with the power arms in their rotation, give it the potential to be a tougher opponent. The Twins won the division by six games last year despite Justin Morneau missing the second half of the season with post-concussion symptoms, so it may be that having a healthy Morneau will be enough to keep the Twins ahead of their improving rivals. However, there’s a long list of players either eligible for free agency or arbitration raises and few in-house options ready to replace them, raising concerns that the team may lose talent overall unless the payroll is expanded. The Twins used the revenue generated by the opening of Target Field to shell out $100 million in salaries last year—somewhere, Clark Griffith is smacking his forehead in disbelief—and ownership has agreed to let the payroll increase yet again, so there’s hope of retaining or adding enough talent to keep the Tigers at bay.

Listed below are the moves I’d attempt to improve (or at least sustain) the Twins in the bullpen, in the rotation and on offense, assuming a payroll moving up somewhat from $100 million.

Bullpen: Despite the year-long absence of closer Joe Nathan, the Twins cobbled together a top-notch bullpen last year. Unfortunately, much of it is set to be scattered by the winds of free agency, and Minnesota will need to be judicious in deciding who to keep and who to let go. Jon Rauch started the year closing for Nathan but pitched his way out of the job; for fear that an arbitrator would look at his 21 saves and think he should be paid like a closer, I’d let him walk. Ditto Brian Fuentes, who’s already making closer money. Jesse Crain can be frustrating at times, but I love his slider, so I’d try to work out a two-year deal in the neighborhood of $7 million-$9 million to keep him in the fold. Matt Guerrier is a tougher decision, since he’s usually effective despite indifferent peripherals. He’s worth an arbitration offer to find out if he can keep it up—it’s only money, and it’s only one year—so I’d be happy to either have him back with a raise into the $5 million range or take the draft picks his Type-A status will earn me. Matt Capps makes a nice insurance policy should Nathan prove unhealthy or ineffective next year, so tender him a contract and assume a nice raise from his current $3.5 million.

That gives us a pen of Nathan, Capps, Crain, Guerrier, Pat Neshek, Jose Mijares, rookie Anthony Slama, and perhaps a long man to be named later. If Guerrier and/or Crain can’t be retained, we’ll have to sort through the veteran reliever bin and see if we can pull out a Jason Frasor (if he isn’t offered arbitration) or, even better, a Koji Uehara, so long as we don’t owe draft picks or money north of what we’d have to pay for Guerrier and Crain.

Starting Rotation: Conventional wisdom states that the Twins haven’t been able to progress in the playoffs because they don’t have an ace starter to carry them past teams like the Yankees. This has led to an outcry for Minnesota to beg, borrow, or steal a true ace this offseason. There are at least two problems with this argument: (1) begging, borrowing, and stealing aren’t solid Midwestern values; and (2) the Twins already have a true ace: Francisco Liriano, who at age 26 posted a 3.02 SIERA, third-lowest in baseball and a point better than soon-to-be multi-gajillionaire Cliff Lee. OK, you may ask, what about a second ace like Zack Greinke, who might be available in trade? The problem with that is that Greinke isn’t a true ace, or at least he wasn’t last year. Greinke’s 3.70 SIERA, as well as his walk and strikeout rates, were a dead ringer for another pitcher the Twins already have: Scott Baker. Sure, Greinke is probably a better pitcher than Baker, but given the $6.5 million difference in their salaries I wouldn’t trade Baker for him straight up, let alone put together a package of Delmon Young (of whom I’m no fan), Kevin Slowey, and top prospect Aaron Hicks, the rumored starting point for negotiations regarding Greinke.

That being said, it would be nice to add another quality starter to go along with Liriano, Baker, Slowey, Brian Duensing, and human torch Nick Blackburn, since I wouldn’t expect rookie Kyle Gibson to be ready to step in this spring. Incumbent Carl Pavano (IR-Mankato) is set to leave the party as a Type-A free agent. I’m not optimistic that he’s going to out-pitch his peripherals again—his 4.15 SIERA is a near-perfect match for Slowey’s, after all—but I’d swallow hard and offer him arbitration. If he accepts, we owe him $10 million that he’s unlikely to pitch well enough to earn, but I can rest easy knowing I’ve brought back the exact same rotation that pitched us to the postseason last year without giving up what would probably be more in blood, treasure, prospects, and draft picks to sign or trade for someone comparable. If both Baker, who pitched better than his ERA and record indicate, and Pavano pitch to their true talent level, it’s a wash.

On the other hand, if Pavano sails his ‘stache into the sunset I’ll gladly pocket the draft picks and look for another starter elsewhere. Now that Ted Lilly has signed I don’t like any of the free-agent options the Twins can afford, so I’d look for a trade. If 3M could build me a time machine, I’d go back to last season’s trade deadline and offer Slowey and a prospect for Danny Haren—surely the Twins could have put together a better package than the Diamondbacks received—but that ship has sailed. Instead, I’d call up the arm-infested Rays and see what it would take to pry loose James Shields, whose 3.57 SIERA and lower salary are an improvement on Greinke, and whose fly-ball tendencies would fit well in Target Field. Hicks would likely have to be included, and I’d mention how Ben Revere has great speed in center field, gets on base, and doesn’t strike out very much, so perhaps he can become the player they procure to allow them to trade B.J. Upton—or even include Upton in the trade in return for Denard Span. Failing that, ask the Blue Jays about Shaun Marcum.

The idea is to find an undervalued mid-rotation starter at a reasonable price, rather than paying through the nose in cash and draft picks for Greinke or a free agent—and if none of that works out, toss Gibson out there and trust that the development staff have gotten him ready. The playoffs are a crapshoot—the important thing is to elbow your way up to the table, and if you really feel you need that extra oomph once you get there, you can always rent a starter at the trade deadline, and do so at a better price.

Offense: Given the contact tendencies of the pitching staff, defense in the middle infield is a key component of the Twins’ success. Shortstop J.J. Hardy has a fine glove and power potential, and is under team control for one more year, so it’s a simple decision for me to offer him arbitration and up his salary rather than take my chances in a scant free-agent market. At the keystone, free-agent-to-be Orlando Hudson is a similarly gifted defender, but we need to save money somewhere. As much as I love me some O-Dog, we can replace him with the dirt-cheap Alexi Casilla and hope his bat isn’t a liability. Much of the rest of the lineup is set: Joe Mauer, Morneau (assuming he’s healthy), Danny Valencia at third, an outfield of Young, Span, and Michael Cuddyer, or Jason Kubel if Cuddyer has to fill in for Morneau. And Jim Thome at DH—I see no compelling reason not to bring him back to see if he can again provide some lefty sock in part-time action, with Mauer, Kubel and Cuddyer spelling his as necessary. As much as I’d love to upgrade the outfield defense, I don’t see a reasonable way to do it unless the Rays decide they’d rather take back Young than live with Upton. That’s a trade I’d make in a heartbeat, but I wouldn’t hold my breath that Andrew Friedman would.

 Did I say that the Twins make for boring Hot Stove seasons? No need for me to mess with their success in my only day on the job. Other than trying to trade for an undervalued mid-rotation starter, most of my suggestions involve tightening the bolts on a machine that’s been humming along nicely. Making the playoffs most every year, only to lose, isn’t a terrible thing—lots of franchises would kill for a record that. One of these times the Twins are bound to break through, and if it were up to me, I wouldn’t forfeit a large chunk of money and the franchise’s future to try and procure a magic bullet, because just as often you wind up with magic beans. 

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

Related Content:  Minnesota Twins,  Trade,  The Who,  Twins,  The Call-up,  Ace

28 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Kampfer

You are paying way too much for relievers. And seriously, two of them are type A... did you consider the opp. cost? Type A relievers should be let go in almost every circumstances.

Nov 15, 2010 01:10 AM
rating: 0
 
SC

Unless they are likely to accept arbitration. Not sure, but that could be a risk with Fuentes, and the Twins definitely can't pay him $8m+.

Nov 15, 2010 09:05 AM
rating: 0
 
dkeenan80

The Twins only have 1 Type A reliever - Guerrier. Fuentes is a Type B. Pavano is also a Type A free agent.

Nov 15, 2010 10:13 AM
rating: 0
 
John Collins
(110)

Ken, I'm guessing that you meant that somewhere *Calvin* Griffith is smacking his head in disbelief. Calvin was the guy who brought the Twins to MN, and who was famously penurious in all matters regarding the Twins.

So would it be safe to say that your view is that there is really nothing wrong with the Twins, and that, with some minor changes, essentially the same quality team should be sent back out there, and that the playoff failures are just what sometimes happens to excellent teams, and no reason to think a dramatic change is in order?

Nov 15, 2010 10:36 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Yep, you're right -- I meant Calvin, not Clark. My bad.

And yes, that's pretty much my view of the Twins. I mean, of course it would be great if they could get better. Signing Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford would make them better. But the more I looked at it, the harder it became for me to see how they could make themselves demonstrably better without without either taking on a ton of salary, which they're not going to do, or trading away a lot of their future, which I'm always leery of. Greinke might make them somewhat better, but if the cost is two major leaguers and your top prospect, the marginal improvement between, say, Greinke and Slowey, isn't worth the cost of, say, Young and Hicks -- maybe not even for this year, certainly not in the long run. I'd rather they try and add on to the roster at the trade deadline, when the cost should be less.

Nov 15, 2010 11:05 AM
 
thegeneral13

Nice writeup. I know you don't specifically include "Bench" in these assessments, but adding an inexpensive right-handed bat with some pop would be one of my top priorities in addition to those you mentioned. Matchups will continue to be a big problem for the Twins in a short series with a lineup core that is very lefty-heavy and nothing but automatic outs on the bench.

Nov 15, 2010 10:39 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Very good point -- though the fact that the automatic outs are on the bench, rather than starting at short, second and third, point to the progress the Twins have made since 2009. Sounds like they might be kicking the tires on Marcus Thames, and that makes sense. I'd re-sign Punto cheap, since he's a great guy to have around so long as you don't have to let him start. The very first move I considered when thinking through the options was to sign Paul Konerko for the "DH/Morneau Insurance" position, which I still think would be a great fit, but there's probably not a budget for it.

Nov 15, 2010 11:13 AM
 
dodgerken222

In the Gardenhire era, the Twins are something like 18-58 against the Yankees, worse than the .250 of the 40-120 New York Mets. That's more than random chance. The Twinkies won't beat the big bad Yankees until they totally re-make this team of choke artists who seem to be intimidated at the sight of a Yankee uniform. As to Liriano being a "true ace": if he were, he'd be able to get someone like Curtis Granderson out in a key spot, which any leftie should be able to do.
But noooo....Twins "leaders" like Morneau are more concerned with padding their HR totals by moving in the fences. Forget the fact that the Twinks were 53-28 at home..that means nothing to Morneau. We anti-Yankee fans are as disgusted with this Twins team as we are with the Yankees.

Nov 15, 2010 11:51 AM
rating: -3
 
thegeneral13

It's tough to say why a team might fare as poorly against one opponent over so many games, but I have a theory on the Twins, and it's one that doesn't hinge on ex-post character assessments. It ties into what I posted above.

1) The Twins typically have a long-sequence offense.
2) The Twins' lineup is heavily skewed toward lefties.
3) The Twins never have bench depth.
4) The Yankees generally have bullpen depth.

Take all these things together: you have an offense that usually needs a sustained rally to put up a crooked number, a rally that can be short-circuited by exploiting some obvious platoon splits in the starting lineup, with no suitable bench options to offer a tactical solution, facing a team with the bullpen depth to aggressively play matchups (not b/c they have great lefties, but b/c they typically have enough depth that they don't have to leave a righty in to face a lefty b/c he is their last quality arm in the bullpen). I think this dovetails well with the Twins' well-publicized inability to hold a lead against the Yankees, which is just a symptom of being outscored in the late innings when matchups become more important. This is all just a theory, but I find it plausible and better (or at least more therapeutic) than just chalking a < .250 winning percentage against one team in a half season's worth of games up to luck.

As an aside, I am a Twins fan and also an Ohio State fan - is Gardy the John Cooper of MLB (.702 winning percentage as the Buckeyes' head coach but 5-18-1 combined against Michigan and in bowl games)? Where is our Jim Tressel?

Nov 15, 2010 15:23 PM
rating: 4
 
Benjamin Harris

Unfortunately it seems that Joe Torre > Lloyd Carr and Joe Girardi > Rich Rodriguez.

Nov 15, 2010 16:45 PM
rating: 1
 
Benjamin Harris

Also, you do realize you just compared Michigan to the Yankees, and Ohio State to the Washington Sena-- Minnesota Twins, right?

Nov 15, 2010 16:49 PM
rating: 0
 
amazin_mess

I totally agree. I hope the Twins miss the playoffs so I don't have to witness their continued futility once they get there. Here's to 82-80 in 2011!

Nov 16, 2010 17:41 PM
rating: 0
 
Kyle E.

Nick Punto wasn't offered arbitration. I consider the off-season a success already.

Nov 15, 2010 12:23 PM
rating: 1
 
dodgerken222

Scott Podsednik wasn't offered arbitration either, but there is still talk that LA might sign him. As a Dodger fan, this scares me tremdously. So..until Punto signs somewhere else, Twins fans, be afraid.

Nov 15, 2010 12:38 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Why everybody be hatin' on Lil' Nicky? His glove makes him a perfectly acceptable utility infielder. Don't pay him millions, of course, but I'd take him on my team.

Nov 15, 2010 17:13 PM
 
capn14

I don't have a problem with Punto, per se. My issue is with the fact that Gardy actually tends to play him. A lot. That scares me.

Nov 16, 2010 11:14 AM
rating: 1
 
Brandon R. Warne

He only had 20 odd plate appearances after Aug 1. last year.

If the Twins can re-sign him for 3 years and say, $5 million total, they truly ought to do it.

Nov 16, 2010 21:32 PM
rating: 0
 
spmcguire

Hi Ken. Thanks for the article and analysis. Greatly enjoy the format. And could not agree more about the 3M time machine and Danny Haren - where were the Twins? You and the current GM may be thinking along the same lines - slow and steady wins the (Central) race. First, what is the price tag for your efforts? Second, the club had a few players that significantly regressed in '10, such as Span and Kubel and a few that exceeded expectations - Valencia, Thome & Young. What do you see happening with these players? Third, do you think the Twins need to rethink the lefty heavy lineup due to the way right field plays at home?

If you went big on your day at the helm, what would larger deals/plans look like in terms of salary or trade assets? Given the lineup lists to the left, do you see any value to trading Span, Young, or Kubel? I like Kubel but think that Target Field got in his head - made him pull happy. Young found most of what he lost during the offseason - trade high? Perhaps a trade for Beltran and an expiring contract with some cash back? Or move for BJ Upton and Shields (Bartlett instead of Hardy?) and make it a blockbuster -what would it take? A few young, cheap, strike-throwing starting pitchers should be of value.

Shifting gears, what about the Twins low-mid minors OFs - eta on arrival and ceiling (may inform a big trade if time to move Hicks)? And finally, I like offering arb for picks and a right handed bench bat Thames or Hall (and another power arm (Harden/De La Rosa/Balfour/Benoit). Thanks again!

Nov 15, 2010 21:37 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

My calculator tells me that if Pavano, Guerrier and Crain all accept arb (or Crain signs a reasoanble 2-year deal) the payroll would go up to around $120 million depending on arb awards -- high, I know, but it doesn't add any big long-term commitments, and with Cuddyer coming off the books the payroll could start to edge down next year (the Twins have already hit the peak annual salaries for Mauer and Morneau). If Pavano declines, it would be $110, though you might want to find another starter. If Guerrier declines too, it would be around $105, but you'd probably want another bullpen arm.

I think you've got it pretty well pegged as far as whose likely to be better or worse. Span and Kubel I agree ought to improve, and I personally expect Hardy to hit better as well. Valencia and Thome won't be so crazy good. Young I think can play as well as he did last year -- really, he wasn't all that good, especially given his defense. Casilla hopefully is ready to at least get on base enough to not be a 2008-style offensive black hole. And hopefully you have Morneau back full-time. All-in-all, even losing O-Dog, it pretty much evens out. Might even be better, depending on Morneau.

I love having all those lefties -- spending so much time watching the righty-heavy Cubs and Brewers lineups, the platoon advantage they gain is probably bigger than any ballpark-related loss. Some of those lost home runs become outs, but some became doubles and triples. It's not like Morneau and Mauer and Thome weren't productive hitters, and having Cuddyer, Young, Valencia and Hardy balance things out.

I don't think Kubel has that much trade value given his defensive deficiencies; I'd love to sell high on Delmon, but I never could think of a trading partner for him, except for Upton, which is probably a non-starter. Suggestion? Span I'd want to keep since he's cheap and the only proven CF on the roster, unless I'm convinced Revere is better than him right now. The blockbuster for Shields/Upton would be great, but if there's one team that doesn't need cheap strike-throwers, it's Tampa.

I'm not KG -- his answers to your questions are coming soon! -- but I'm a big believer in Hicks.




Nov 16, 2010 06:46 AM
 
Ogremace

It does seem like the Twins need to add something dangerous - facing Bick Blackburn and Brian Duensing in postseason games is a great thing as a non Twin.

But that lineup is lookin better than it has in years, so maybe this would work out.

Nov 15, 2010 23:47 PM
rating: 0
 
Brandon R. Warne

Better yet, start Baker and Slowey. I'm still facepalming from that decision.

Nov 16, 2010 21:29 PM
rating: 0
 
jdmurphy

If the team doesn't resign Hardy, I think the smart move would be to give Trevor Plouffe a chance to win the spot rather than signing a free agent.

Nov 16, 2010 06:09 AM
rating: 0
 
Brandon R. Warne

Plouffe has a shot to be a decent major league regular, but Hardy is a well above average shortstop in today's game, and the Twins can't afford to have two black holes in the middle of their infield again in 2011, because while Casilla controls the strike zone well, he's only really been successful at the plate in the first half of 2008 and then in extremely limited duty in 2010.

Nov 16, 2010 21:31 PM
rating: 0
 
spmcguire

Ken, greatly appreciate your thoughtful response - one of the many reasons why BP is such a wonderful resource and enjoyable site. Keep up the great work and thanks again!

Nov 16, 2010 16:53 PM
rating: 0
 
spmcguire

Whoa - another head-scratcher deal - Uggla for Infante & Dunn. Huh? Again, couldn't the Twins have matched up better - particularly in the other league rather than within the division? Also, rumor has it that D-Backs are shopping Justin Upton (?)- do the Twins have the assets to move for him (Slowey, Blackburn, Revere/Hicks, etc.)? And if so, would that deal be wise for the twin towns? After the last AZ trade with Haren, I would have their FO on speed-dial....

Nov 16, 2010 17:05 PM
rating: 0
 
rudyrosen

Greinke isn't a true ace? Where were you in 2009? Dead ringer for Scott Baker?
You care to elaborate past your shallow evaluation of each pitcher's 2010 stats? You should probably just go ahead and take that one back. Your bosses may start questioning your employment at BP

Nov 17, 2010 09:57 AM
rating: 0
 
Ogremace

I do believe he immediately said "Greinke is better than Baker" and his reasoning for not going after him wasn't that he wasn't an upgrade but that he wasn't at the right price. Maybe this is still stupid, but at least respond to what's in the article.

Nov 17, 2010 11:11 AM
rating: 1
 
Brandon R. Warne

Where was anyone in 2009? Where was Greinke of 2009 in 2010? He was good, but not earth-shatteringly great in 2010, and Funck absolutely nails it on the head with his assessment. Sometimes it's easier to criticize when one doesn't have to create their own version of the content.

Nov 17, 2010 22:39 PM
rating: 0
 
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