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.