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November 30, 2007

Prospectus Today

Whither Johan?

by Joe Sheehan

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First, a quick summary of major league baseball coverage over the past few days:

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The talented Twins left-hander, who can be a free agent at the end of the 2008 season, seems to be the only major topic on the table. Whether it's talk radio or the back pages or a national sports show, all anyone wants to discuss is how the best pitcher in baseball can get to their favorite team.

What's missing, of course, is whether the many, many, many trade ideas that have been floated make any sense for the Twins. It's par for the course to disregard the needs of the other team when calling your favorite radio host-or that guy in your fantasy league who tends to fall down a lot-but if you're crafting a franchise-changing trade, it's generally a good idea to think about the other team involved. The proposed deals, especially the ones involving the Yankees, have not acknowledged the Twins' biggest problem: they have very few major league hitters on their roster.

Let's back up a second. I have this theory that states that no matter what a team actually needs, its GM always thinks it need pitching. An extension of that has been in play over the last week or so, where the imagined offers for Santana all center around a couple of highly-touted pitching prospects, with hitters generally being secondary elements. This would seem to make sense, because the Twins have to replace Santana, and who doesn't love cost-controlled pitchers with upside? The problem with this in this case is that the Twins are lousy with cost-controlled pitchers with upside, and have approximately four players capable of putting up a 775 OPS in their entire organization, even after the Delmon Young acquisition. What follows are two lists: the top ten hitters in the Twins' organization, and the top ten pitchers, save Santana:


Hitters                Pitchers
Justin Morneau         Joe Nathan
Joe Mauer              Kevin Slowey
Delmon Young           Boof Bonser
Michael Cuddyer        Anthony Swarzak
Jason Kubel            Scott Baker
Craig Monroe           Nick Blackburn
Brendan Harris         Pat Neshek
Alexi Casilla          Brian Duensing
Garrett Jones          Juan Rincon
Jason Pridie           Matt Guerrier

Five of the Twins' top six prospects are pitchers now that Eduardo Morlan is gone, and even in a post-Matt Garza, post-Johan Santana world, they can start the 2008 season with a rotation of Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Boof Bonser, Brian Duensing, and Nick Blackburn, with Francisco Liriano waiting in the wings and Anthony Swarzak coming up hard on the outside. That rotation isn't going to win anything in 2008, which doesn't matter: if the Twins trade Santana, they're doing so in an effort to win in 2009 and beyond, and they have more than enough pitching already in the room-I haven't mentioned Jeff Manship or Tyler Robertson yet-to plan for that. What they don't have is a leadoff hitter. Or a number six hitter. Or really, anything worth penciling into the lineup aside from the that Mauer/Young/Morneau core.

There's nothing wrong with building a trade package around Philip Hughes or Jon Lester, and having the next-best player be someone such as Melky Cabrera or Jed Lowrie. The problem is that it's just not what the Twins need. If the Twins are going to trade the best pitcher in baseball, or more accurately, one year of his work and exclusive negotiating rights, they have to make their team demonstrably better in the medium term. That means acquiring two hitters who will step into their lineup and upgrade their offense, and who will be capable of being among the best players on contending teams in the new ballpark. Trading Garza for Young was a step in the right direction, it's just not the last step. The Twins still have staggering amounts of pitching depth, and nothing remotely comparable on the hitting side.

This is why I don't think the Yankees, short of putting Joba Chamberlain into the deal and also trading two of the usual suspects with him, have a chance. The best hitter the Yankees can trade is Melky Cabrera, although you might argue that Austin Jackson is better. Jackson is two years away from the majors, of course, and harder to project. The Red Sox would be a stronger contender if they wanted to include Jacoby Ellsbury, but that seems highly unlikely.

No, the teams the Twins should be looking to trade with are the ones with major league-ready hitters who not only are good now, but who have star potential. The Mets might have fit the bill, with outfield prospect Lastings Milledge ready to play right now, another in Fernando Martinez who's among the 25 best prospects in the game, and some pitching depth with which to play. [Ed. Note: The story on Milledge to the Nats broke just minutes ago.] The Dodgers are an even better fit, loaded with hitters (Matt Kemp, Andy LaRoche, James Loney, Ching-Lung Hu), prone to trading them away and dying to make a big move. The Angels would be interesting if they were to include Howie Kendrick, but that seems unlikely. The bloom is off players such as Brandon Wood and Jeff Mathis.

You can throw names around all day, but the key thing to keep in mind is that those names should come attached to bats. The Twins have more than enough pitching to survive trading Santana. To make the right trade, though, they can't fall into the "young pitching" trap. They have to add one or two top-tier hitters to the 2009-2013 Twins.

Of course, there's another option here, one that hasn't been brought up very often. By virtue of having very few veteran players, the Twins have a low payroll, and one that is unlikely to rise much in the next few years given all of that cost-controlled pitching. They're also moving into a new ballpark in 2009, one that should provide a larger-than usual boost in revenue as they get out from under a brutal lease at the Metrodome. Like all teams, the Twins have seen a jump in central-fund revenue, and even in the new park, they may find themselves the recipient of revenue-sharing money.

Taking that into consideration, the Twins should sign Johan Santana themselves. Even setting a new pitching standard of $20 million a year, or $22 million a year, is more than affordable for a team that will be able to support a payroll approaching $100 million and won't come close to that figure without Santana around. The key thing we know about the free agent market is that the very best players in baseball are the ones on which you should spend your money. It's infinitely better to overpay a bit-if it's even overpaying-for Johan Santana than it is to try and replace his performance in the market, or through development.

Like Alex Rodriguez in 2000, like Barry Bonds in 1992, like Greg Maddux that same winter, Johan Santana is an elite talent irreplaceable through normal means, and as durable as any pitcher can be in modern baseball. If the standard in six years and $140 million, or seven and $155 million, as ridiculous as those figures sound, they may be well worth it if the alternative is spending two-thirds of that over that same period for half the performance.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Brian Duensing,  Twins

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