Monday, December 31, 2007

Ahh, Vikes...

Good to be back after a crazy Holiday season! My wife's family was in town for Christmas eve, and my parents and sister joined them on Christmas morning, when we informed them that we're expecting a baby on July 1, 2008! The news of Baby Fiscal '09 (my wife is an accountant) brought tears of joy and hugs - the highlight of an emotional week. I also had Lasik on the 22nd, in order to spend the last 2 grand of my health plan's Flex dollars, and very nearly had major knee reconstruction surgery on the 28th. I'm getting donated tissue, and it didn't quite match - we'll have to wait until January.

In the midst of all this, the Vikings took us on their typical emotional roller-coaster. How many times have they played just well enough to give us hope, before falling flat in the big game? So consistent - makes you proud to be a fan!

Obviously, a lot of the blame is going to be directed at Tarvaris Jackson, and much of it will be deserved. He should have cost us the Bears game, and did cost us the Redskins game, where solid play would have resulted in a playoff berth. However, he certainly played well enough to force overtime in the Denver game, and deserved to win it in regulation. After all, it's not his fault Chester fumbled at the pylon, or Troy Williamson dropped a sure long touchdown. Had Troy made that catch, Jackson's QB rating for the game likely would have been around 100 - a good game for sure!

The last three games may color the evaluation of Jackson too much. His overall record as a starter was 8-4. Even with his putrid performances against Chicago and the 'Skins, his total numbers over the last 7 games were pretty good:

120/184 (65.2%) for 1311 yards, 7 TDs, 7 INTs

for an average of:

17/26 for 187 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 89.8 avg QB rating

If Williamson hauls in that long pass on Sunday, his average yds/game is 197.4, and his average rating is solidly in the 90s. His .712 winning percentage over that stretch would be sufficient for at least an 11-win season over 16 games.

He was certainly uneven in his performance in 2007. He had four bad games (rating < 65) in which he went 1-3, four decent games (65 < rating > 90) in which he went 4-0, and four good games (rating > 90) in which he went 3-1. Hopefully, with a full season under his belt, he can turn 1-2 of the bad games into decent games, and 1-2 of the decent games into good games. Either way, with the running game/defense the Vikings have, he should be able to steer the team to 10-11 wins next season, especially if the Vikes make the right moves this off-season.

With the emergence of Adrian Peterson, the Vikes have two stud running backs. Personally, I think if Peterson gets 25-30 carries a game, he's going to rack up 100+ yards every time. Mewelde Moore can spell him for a few plays here and there. So Chester Taylor becomes expendable for the Vikes, but a very valuable trade item for some other team. I'd like to see the Vikes move him for a tight end of comparable ability/experience, or a high (20-50 overall) draft pick.

The two biggest weaknesses with the 2007 Vikes were pass offense and defense. At this point it looks like they'll be making the 19th overall pick in the 2008 draft. The latest Scout's Inc. prospect rankings on show lots of nice defensive players in that neighborhood: OLBs Keith Rivers (USC) and Dan Connor (Penn State), and CB Mike Jenkins (S. Florida). There are also two wide receivers around there in Limas Sweed (Texas) and Early Doucet III (LSU). Any of those guys would be good choices for the team's needs.

But I think the biggest upgrade the Vikes need to make is at tight end. With an offense so geared toward the run, it's essential that our starting TE be a downfield receiving threat in addition to a good blocker. With defensive coordinators scheming 9-man fronts against us the last few weeks, the running attack was stymied. The Vikes could burn that game plan by having a guy who could slip out of his block and pick up yards down field.

But, in 2007, the Vikes didn't get much production from the TE position. Shiancoe, Kleinsasser, Dugan, and Mills combined for 40 catches for 449 yards and 1 TD. That's a per/game average of 2.5 catches for 28 yards. In all the NFL, only Seattle, Arizona, Detroit and Cincinnati had less production from the TEs. Since WR also isn't a very strong position for the Vikes' offense, it's especially important to get some production out of the tight end.

There isn't a sure-fire 1st-round TE in this year's draft class, though John Carlson (Notre Dame), Fred Davis (USC) and Martin Rucker (Missouri) could all go by the end of the second. There are also some possible under-classmen who might declare for the draft. The Vikes should be able to pick up a quality player here, particularly if they trade Taylor for a draft pick.

Cheer up Vikings fans - the team is on an upswing, despite the short-comings in December. If the team can show the sort of improvement in 2008 they showed in 2007, they should be able to win 10-11 games and compete for the division title, or at least be in the mix for the wild card again.

Then we'll be all set up for disappointment in January!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Plan D?

When I saw that SS Adam Everett had been non-tendered by the Houston Astros yesterday, I thought, "Ooh, we need a shortstop!" After spending about 30 seconds perusing his career stats, my enthusiasm faded, and I moved on. So, of course, today the Twins signed him to a 1-year, $2.8 million contract. My initial reaction was something like:

Ummmmm, 'kay.

But a few more minutes of research showed Everett to be one of the most superlative defensive shortstops in the game. Guys like that can make a big difference to a team, especially when a young starter gets himself into a bases-loaded, 1-out jam, and that two-hopper up the middle turns into a double-play instead of a two-run single. Casilla may have more offensive upside at short, but it won't make too much difference to have Everett get those at-bats instead. We can always pinch-hit for him in a critical situation. It's a good Moneyball move: his best skills are under-valued, so his contributions are affordable for the Twins.

It may also help us to focus on Bill Smith's strategy for this off-season. The Twins obviously won't be able to slug with the Tigers, but could outpitch and out-defend them. Let's put our resources toward the parts of the game the Tigers have overlooked. Why not put together the best defensive team we possibly can?

I think Marcus Giles fits into that, while providing some offensive potential that someone like Everett has never shown. Why not go after Inge for 3B? He'll solidify the left side, and provide 20+ homers while he's at it. How about Coco Crisp or Corey Patterson for CF? Either one will play dynamite D up the middle while getting on base less than 1/3 of the time. The pitching would have to carry the team, but that's our strength right now, and the market for available players doesn't offer much in the way of hitters.

The heart of the lineup, as currently constituted, should provide plenty of pop - Mauer, Cuddyer, Morneau, Young, and Kubel are all capable of improving on their numbers from last year. The other four slots in the lineup would be filled with pretty light hitters, but that was also the case in 2007. The Twins should be able to improve upon their run total from last year. And with a team built for defense and pitching, they might prevent a few more runs while they're at it. That improved run differential should be enough to provide a winning season.

By the way, this Everett signing highlights how easy it is to fill roster spots with players commanding moderate salaries. Such players will be available in every off-season. Just another reason it should be considered possible to set aside $20+ for Santana.

In other news, there was this report that came out today. The only Twin implicated for performnce-enhancing drug use while a member of the franchise was pitcher Dan Naulty. Though no one claims the list of players in the report to be exhaustive, I think it serves to confirm what I had always suspected - that Ron Coomer came by his power naturally.

Only the good kids could go through the steroid era without anybody hitting 30 homers in a season.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The 3-Year Plan

I'm going to attempt to demonstrate to Joe C. and other doubters that the Twins can pay Santana $20+ million a year and field a competitive team while staying within their current payroll projections and business model. Yesterday I laid out how that might look in 2008, but next year isn't the problem. Terry Ryan did such a good job setting up the contracts for '08, the team could have given Hunter $15 million and Silva $10 million and still come in right around the budget. It's 2009 and 2010 that are going to be a bit tricky.

Let's lay out the best-case scenario for the team I put together yesterday (exchanging Tyner for some other league-minimum bench player, probably Buscher or Jones at this point). Everyone performs at the top of their game - Santana racks up another 20 wins, Morneau clobbers 40+ homers, Mauer challenges for another batting title, Cuddyer gets back to 25 homers 100 RBIs, Kubel and Slowey pick up where they left off last season, etc. The team wins 90+ games, and remains in the division race until the last week of the season. Attendance tops 2.5 million, about a 10% increase. MLB as a whole has another record year in terms of revenue. The Twins' overall revenue goes up about 10%, and the 2009 payroll is set for $86 million.

Our liabilities, according to the contracts I proposed yesterday, would look like this (in millions):

Kemp ($1)
Harris ($1)
Mauer ($10.5)
Cuddyer ($8)
Morneau ($10)
Young ($0.5)
Kubel ($3.5)
Casilla ($0.5)
Morales ($0.5)

Santana ($21)
Nathan ($12)
Silva ($10)
Baker ($1.5)
Liriano ($1.5)
Slowey ($0.5)
Neshek ($1)
Guerrier ($1)
Crain ($1.7)
Perkins ($.5)

Total ($86.2)

Monroe, Giles, Punto, Redmond, and Reyes become free agents, and the remaining 20 guys are already topping the projected budget - and the six highest-paid guys are making $71.5 million, almost 83% of the payroll!

Meanwhile, over in Rochester, Span, Bonser, Duensing, and Buscher are ready to assume regular major-league duty. So, we trade Silva for 2-3 excellent prospects, and bring up Duensing and Bonser, one the 5th starter, one for the bullpen. That's a net savings of about $9 million, leaving the payroll at $77 million for 20 spots. Buscher and Harris can split time at third. Span becomes the 5th outfielder. Tolbert becomes the bench infielder. Still $8 million left to fill 2nd base and the last bench spot, and we haven't had to trade Santana, Nathan or Cuddyer. Let's bring back Giles for another year at $7.5 million, and call up a serf to fill out the final bench spot. The top six guys are still making over 80% of the total, but with so much pre-arbitration talent on the team, we were still able to return all 9 field starters, 4 starting pitchers, and 5 members of the bullpen. We also added a couple of good prospects to the system.

Now, because we've kept the team together and stayed reasonably competitive within the division, the new stadium sells out in 2010, setting a new attendance record of over 3.2 million. Don't think that's realistic? Even the Brewers drew 2.8 million in the first year of Miller Park, and they were horrible (68-94). With Santana, Mauer, and Morneau on the roster, as well as budding stars Matt Kemp, Delmon Young, and Fransisco Liriano, enthusiasm for the team will never be higher. And now, the team gets to sell luxury boxes on top of all the ticket sales. If they keep with their formula of using 51% or so of total revenues for payroll, the budget should easily approach $100 million. I'll be conservative and say $96 million. If that's the limit, what are we up against contract-wise? Lots of guys are suddenly arbitration-eligible:

Kemp ($3.5)
Harris ($3.5)
Mauer ($12.5)
Cuddyer ($9)
Morneau ($13)
Young ($3.5)
Kubel ($6)
Casilla ($2.5)
Span ($0.5)
Buscher ($0.5)
Morales ($.75)
Tolbert ($0.5)

Santana ($21)
Baker ($3.5)
Liriano ($5)
Slowey ($2)
Duensing ($0.5)

Nathan ($12)
Neshek ($2.5)
Perkins ($1.5)
Bonser ($1.5)

Total ($105.25)

21 guys, and we're way over-budget. The top six guys are making 70% of the payroll - the high end of the range, and with so many mid-level players on the team, too much to handle. Some folks will have to go.

Span is ready to take over CF, Kemp moves to left, Cuddyer can be traded for a 2nd or 3rd-year 2B or SS with major upside, netting us $8 million in savings down to about $97 million. Close to the budgeted payroll, but still a few slots to fill. Now we trade Nathan (2009 would likely be his last really good year anyway) for a couple of good prospects, netting a savings of $11 million. Neshek becomes the closer, and there's plenty of room to fill out the last few spots.

Even if I'm off a fair amount in my salary estimates for the arbitration players, there's still plenty of flexibility here. If the payroll is starting to get pinched in between 2008 and 2009, trade Nathan then. Trade Cuddyer at the deadline if the team is struggling. Discard players who aren't living up to their potential. But I hope you can see how paying Santana $21 million a year doesn't preclude us from putting a competitive team on the field. Just as importantly, it shows the fans that the team isn't giving up on 2008 and 2009 just because the new revenue isn't coming in yet. That should result in steady momentum for fan interest and attendance leading up to the opening of the new stadium. Then the Twins will finally be capable of doing what I've always wanted - compete cleverly as a small market, but keep the truly special players in Minnesota for their whole careers.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

If I Were Bill Smith...

The past few days, I've laid out a lot of options for how the Twins could proceed over the next few years. I want to see the team strike the right balance between on-field success (winning) and off-field success (making money). While winning consistently is a good way to sell tickets, it's no guarantee of sellouts, as the Twins and A's showed throughout the first half of the decade. If you don't sell out, eventually you have to dump your star players. It seems to me that dumping your star players is the reason you don't sell out. It's the combination of wins and stars that gives you the attendance records and the payroll increases every year.

For that reason, I would have offered Hunter 5 years. I think he'll still be a contributor at 37, and he would have continued to be appreciated by the fans as the face of the franchise, they would have taken pride in his remaining a Twin. I wouldn't have offered him $18 million/year, of course (good luck with that, Angels). $10-12 million in the last two years of the deal would have been OK, though. His performance on the field wouldn't have been worth it, but his value to the franchise would have made up for it.

Minnesota sports fans have seen Randy Moss and Kevin Garnett leave in recent years in underwhelming trades. This year, the Vikes had trouble selling out some early season games (hopefully they're over that hump now), and the T-Wolves' attendance is in decline. Not only weren't they winning, but who are the players? Who are we cheering for? To lose Santana now for anything less than All-Star caliber players would surely send the Twins' steadily growing attendance the other way.

With that in mind, here's where the Twins stand as of tonight (salaries in millions):

CF - Tyner (about $1)
3B - Harris (about $0.4)
C - Mauer ($6.25)
LF - Cuddyer (about $6)
1B - Morneau (about $7)
RF - Young (about $0.4)
DH - Kubel (about $1)
2B - Punto ($2.4)
SS - Casilla (about $0.4)

C - Redmond ($0.95)
C - Morales (about $0.4)
OF - Monroe ($3.82)
3B - Buscher (about $0.4)

1P - Santana ($13.25)
2P - Baker (about $0.4)
3P - Liriano (about $0.4)
4P - Slowey (about $0.4)
5P - Bonser (about $0.4)

CL - Nathan ($6)
RP - Neshek (about $0.4)
RP - Guerrier (about $1)
RP - Reyes ($1)
RP - Crain ($1.05)
RP - Perkins (about $0.4)

The total, with one spot left to fill, is about $56 million, well short of last year's $71 million, let alone the $78 million or so they can afford. The contract deadline for arbitration eligibles is tomorrow, so let's get spending!

Free Agents

I like Marcus Giles for his defense and power at second base. Coming off two down years, he should be willing to take a 1-year deal for something around $5 million. Even his awful 2007 was better than Punto's. Sign him and send Punto to the bench, where his glove and base-running can make a difference late in games.

Let's go ahead and sign Carlos Silva to that 4-year, $40 million contract. He's only had one bad year, otherwise he's been totally solid. We'll plan on trading him later in 2008, of course, whenever it's most advantageous. But meanwhile, we'll get an innings-eater who, with a little run support, could have easliy been a 16-18 game winner last year. Boof can test out his conditioning in Rochester.

If the bells have finally stopped ringing, bring Koskie to camp. Not much to lose, huge potential upside if he returns to form, in terms of production, defense, and PR.

I have a lot of strategic reasons for liking Kemp. He should be similar to Cuddyer defensively and power-wise, but hit 30-50 points higher. I see him as a band-aid in CF until Span or Pridie is ready. After that, he's an option to send to LF when we're ready to move Cuddyer. I'm not sure Nick Blackburn's stock will ever be higher - the Dodgers might be enticed to make this trade one-to-one. Of course, if they'd take Boof and somebody else, I'd be OK with that, too. Tyner moves to the bench, where his glove, pesky bat, and base-running can make a difference late in games.

Give Santana a 5-year, $105 million extension with a $7 million signing bonus. That will get his 2008 salary over $20 million, making him the highest-paid starting pitcher in the league, and the second-highest paid player overall (at the moment), a number befitting his stature. I bet he'd take it.

Give Morneau 4 years, $45 million, with a $15 million option for a fifth year. He's ready to start hitting 40 homers a year in 2008.

Give Cuddyer 3 years, $23 million, with a $10 million option for a fourth year. We'll likely trade him at some point in the life of this contract.

Give Kubel 4 years, $18 million, with a $10 million option for a fifth year. He's ready to blow up - we should lock him up while he's relatively cheap.

Give Guerrier 2 years, $2 million.

Give Nathan a 3-year, $36 million extension. We'll likely be trading him at some point in 2008 as well.

Giles, Silva, and Santana's signing bonus get us up to $78 million - the fans can be secure that we won't be outspent by KC, and that Pohlad's not pocketing any more money. Can we compete? Here's the revised roster, with the production I'd expect from each player (BA, OPS, HR for position players, ERA, WHIP for pitchers):

CF - Kemp (.320, .850, 20)
3B - Harris (.280, .750, 12)
C - Mauer (.320, .850, 12)
LF - Cuddyer (.280, .825, 20)
1B - Morneau (.300, .900, 40)
RF - Young (.300, .800, 16)
DH - Kubel (.290, .825, 20)
2B - Giles (.265, .750, 12)
SS - Casilla (.270, .700, 3)

C - Redmond (.300, .700, 1)
C - Morales (.280, .750, 5)
OF - Tyner (.280, .675, 1!)
OF - Monroe (.270, .800, 10)
IF - Punto (.250, .640, 1)

1P - Santana (3.00, 1.00)
2P - Silva (4.20, 1.30)
3P - Liriano (3.50, 1.10)
4P - Baker (4.20, 1.20)
5P - Slowey (4.25, 1.25)

CL - Nathan (2.00, 1.00)
RP - Neshek (2.00, 1.00)
RP - Guerrier (3.00, 1.20)
RP - Reyes (3.50, 1.50)
RP - Crain (4.00, 1.30)
RP - Perkins (3.50, 1.20)

The guys in this bunch who really played to their potential in 2007 were Silva, Nathan, Neshek, Guerrier, Perkins (when he was around), Kemp, Redmond, Tyner, Kubel in the second half, and maybe Harris (not a lot of data on him yet). In most cases I expect their numbers to be about the same or slightly lower. Monroe's numbers are based on his appearances against lefties, the only pitchers he'll be facing in 2008. Everyone else has it in them to improve upon last year, and I've tried to come up with numbers around their career average, or between 2006 and 2007.

Not too bad - get a lead after 6 or 7 and things should go well. This lineup should produce a lot more runs than the 2007 team, while the pitchers are capable of putting up a team ERA as good or slightly better. Span, Pridie, Buscher, Tolbert, and Bonser are all waiting at AAA when someone goes down. Hunter is the only player of any importance to the fans who isn't back, and he and Rondell White have been replaced by two of the most promising young hitters in the Majors. Keep those season ticket sales coming! If we can't keep up with Cleveland and Detroit by the end of July, we can deal Silva and/or Nathan, even Cuddyer, for some major returns, since the receiving teams will be getting high-value players under long-term contracts - no rent-a-players from us! A lot depends on whether guys can bounce back from their troubles of 2007, but hopefully, they'll all be motivated to do so. They should be able to get us back over .500, at least.

Next: How these moves can start the Twins on the road to success through 2010.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Money to Burn

Even if the Twins start 2008 with Santana on the roster (as I hope they will), and pick up a couple of sensibly priced veterans (Marcus Giles, please!), and give the arbitration eligible folks healthy raises, they'll still have a significant amount of money to spend to reach their projected payroll of about $78 million. With so much public money going to that lucrative new stadium, it would be a PR disaster to leave $10-12 million on the table. So whatever shall they do with it? The mind swims with the possibilities....

1. Sign a veteran pitcher
We know Gardie would love to have another one. Rather than put ourselves through another spring of Ponson/Ortiz style mediocrity, why not go out and get the best guy available? That's right, our very own Carlos Silva. Of all the pitchers out there, he's the one most likely to be steady and effective. Plus, he's loved in the clubhouse, and the fans would have even more reassurance that the team is capable of re-signing its players. He's looking for something like $10 million/year for 4 years. Why not? He wouldn't be a Twin for more than one year of the contract. His value would be sky-high when starters begin to hit the DL this summer - the Twins should be able to dump him for some high-level prospects, even a starter if the right deal comes along. After all, he wouldn't just be a rent-a-player, but a rotation staple through 2011 for the lucky team that lands him. This would also give Boof a little more time to establish himself as a 7+ inning pitcher. If the Twins contend, they could keep him for 2008, then trade him after the season, again for a pretty good return.

2. Give Santana a signing bonus
With what Santana was rumored to be asking for to waive his no-trade clause, it could be tough even to get him to accept $21 million a year as I have proposed. He might be more inclined to sign an extension if the contract included a bonus which would make him the league's highest-paid pitcher beginning in 2008.

3. Sign a veteran bat
Since the Delmon Young trade, I've been pretty content with the idea of Kubel being the everyday DH, at least against right-handers. But if the Twins fill out their roster as I hope they will, they'll wind up with a bench of Redmond, Morales, Tyner, Punto, and Casilla. That doesn't really leave a fearsome pinch-hitter, or a strong backup for Morneau. If the Twins were to sign someone like Tony Clark, they'd have a capable backup for 1B, a DH to face lefties, and a veteran presence on the bench. Casilla could then get tons of playing time at Rochester until the Twins are ready to shake things up. Or they could unload Punto.

4. Save it for a mid-season trade
The Twins would have room to trade for a veteran or two to fill whatever they find to be their most glaring needs through the first 50-80 games of the season.

5. Sock it away for 2009
Declare that the team is adequately constructed to compete in '08, but that the surplus money will be added to the payroll in '09. Drop the money in Pohlad's highest-interest bond fund, and pull it out in a year to bring the 2009 payroll up to $90+ million.

6. Contribute it to the stadium costs
If anything could undo Pohlad's reputation and legacy as a miser, this would be it. Hey, even the Grinch found his heart in the end, right?

Did I miss anything?

Next: My strategy for making the Twins successful in 2008 & 2009.

PS: How about those Vikings? Peterson got nowhere (didn't think that was possible), and they still won easily. Love that easy schedule! Keep it up fellas....

Friday, December 7, 2007


Yesterday, I proposed that the Twins sign Santana to an extension worth an average of $21 million/year through 2013. The move would have a lot of benefits, but it would deprive the team of a chance to potentially fill 3 or more holes with a single move. It may not be possible to acquire a player of Phil Hughes' or Jacoby Ellsbury's pedigree. But there are some opportunities to fill in the lineup with some capable, economical players.

Free agency is a nutty market these days, and it's too easy to overpay for someone who had a good year recently. I don't want to see the Twins saddle themselves with any bad contracts. The Angels are going to regret the contract they just gave Torii - probably by year 3. Players are an investment, and the key to investing is to buy low and sell high. The Twins should be looking for players who are undervalued at the moment, and should try to trade players who may have a perceived value that is artificially high.

As for the type of players the Twins should be seeking, they need to keep firmly in mind the style of play they want to employ. The Twins aren't going to be able to outslug the Tigers or Yankees, but they might be able to outpitch and out-hustle them. In light of that, here are the pieces of the opening day roster that I feel good about right now:

2. Harris, 2B or 3B
3. Mauer, C
4. Cuddyer, LF
5. Morneau, 1B
6. Young, RF
7. Kubel, DH
9. Casilla, SS

Santana, Baker, Liriano, Slowey, Bonser

Nathan, Neshek, Guerrier, Crain, Reyes, Perkins

Redmond, Morales, Tyner, Punto

If the Twins elect to use 11 pitchers, these would be the guys. It'll probably make everyone more comfortable to have 3 catchers on the roster, and Morales is a promising bat to use off the bench. Tyner and Punto are both versatile defenders, and could be good additions in late-inning situations.

All that's missing are a centerfielder, and a third or second baseman, depending on what you want to do with Harris. I'd also like to see one more right-handed bat with pop for the bench. How can the Twins fill these holes?

Free Agents

In Center, Aaron Rowand is the best available, but he's coming off the best year he'll ever have, and so is a bad deal waiting to happen.

Mike Cameron has to serve a suspension, but afterward could be decent option, especially if you think of him replacing Rondell White's spot in the lineup. Then again, he's of the age where he could turn into the next Rondell White.

Corey Patterson intrigues me - there's been a lot of talk about the Twins acquiring Coco Crisp, and Patterson's stats the last two seasons have been pretty similar to Crisp's. Defensively, they bring similar tools as well. Patterson has a notoriously low on-base percentage, which may be a deal-breaker. However, he struck out 29 fewer times in 2007 than 2006 in about the same number of at-bats, and increased his ground-ball/flyball ratio (though it didn't improve his batting average). If he can continue that trend, with his wheels, he's bound to start racking up Luis Castillo-style infield bleeders. And one of those per week, as Crash Davis pointed out, is the difference between hitting .250 and .300. Anyway, Patterson's salary would be about the same as Crisp's, but the Twins wouldn't have to give up anything to get him.

Of the available second basemen, Marcus Giles is the one who jumps out at me. He's an excellent fielder (last year 2nd in the NL in zone rating and 3rd in fielding percentage), with a pretty good eye at the plate, and has shown some nice power in the recent past. His hitting fell off a bit in 2006 and then was dreadful last year, although a lot of the damage was done during his 81 games in the pitcher's haven of Petco Park. On the road he hit .252, with a .662 OPS. If he could improve on those numbers, he'd be a terrific addition to the Twins lineup. He should certainly be able to exceed what we got from Punto last year. Because of his 2-year decline, his value should be relatively low, and he would probably welcome a contract with terms favorable to the Twins.

At third, Mike Lamb could be a bargain, and part of a possible platoon with Harris (although he hit better against lefties last year).

Or for a true sleeper, how about Corey Koskie? If he's finally ready to return from his concussion, he might be willing to take a minor league deal just to get himself invited to spring training. Before his injury in 2006, he was on pace to hit about 25 homers with an OPS over .800, plus his usual steady defense. He wouldn't cost much, he would definitely take a 1-year deal, and the fans would love to see him back!


Coco Crisp is one of 3 centerfielders who is suddenly the odd man out. He's never performed in Boston the way he did in Cleveland, but he's still a reliable defender and base-runner. He's signed through 2009 for a reasonable salary.

Reggie Willits is suddenly without a spot after the signing of Torii Hunter. The very essence of scrappy, he ranked 9th in the league in steals and 11th in on-base percentage in 2007. Basically, he's super-Tyner. Would be a great lead-off hitter.

And then there's Matt Kemp, suddenly without a home after the Andruw Jones signing. Just 23, he's a natural hitter, like a right-handed Joe Mauer. He doesn't have as much range, but has more power potential than Crisp or Willits.

I would think any of these guys could be acquired for Nick Blackburn, maybe less.

At third base, Brandon Inge is suddenly without a spot after the Cabrera trade. He's under contract for $19 million over the next three years, but the Tigers may be willing to eat some of that to move him, particularly if it helps them replenish their decimated farm system. Inge had a horrible 2007 after a brilliant 2006 - the reality is probably in the middle somewhere. He'd at least be a very nice platoon candidate - his splits against lefties are quite good. Like Bartlett, he makes a lot of errors, but he gets to more balls than most.

Farm System

After a solid second half at Rochester, Denard Span seems like a candidate to debut in the Majors sometime in 2008. Jason Pridie and Darnell MacDonald are also possibilities. None of these guys is likely to be ready on opening day, however.

There's some flexibility in how the middle infield spots are filled, but the Twins are reasonably secure with some combination of Casilla, Punto, and Harris. Matt Tolbert may be able to insert himself into the mix as well.

As for third, Brian Buscher moved way up in 2007, and may be able to stick at the Major League level, at least in a platoon. Matt Macri may be ready to make an appearance sometime this year also.

Lots of possibilities! At this point, here's what I'd do:

Free agents: Make a serious attempt at Marcus Giles. If he turns into the second coming of Brett Boone, Tolbert should be ready by summer. And try to land Koskie - so cheap, why not?

Trades: Of the CFs, I like Kemp the most. He'll probably be better suited to LF in the long run, but that might be very workable after Span comes up, and Cuddyer's expanding salary can be traded away. If not Kemp, make it Willits.

Find out what the Tigers want for Inge. Might not be too costly, and, at his worst, he's still better than Punto.

Ideally, the roster fills out like this:

1. Kemp, CF
2. Harris, SS
3. Mauer, C
4. Cuddyer, RF
5. Morneau, 1B
6. Young, LF
7. Kubel, DH
8. Giles, 2B
9. Inge, 3B

Bench: Redmond, Morales, Tyner, Punto, Casilla

Waiting in AAA: Tolbert, Buscher, Span, Koskie

This lineup should hit for a high average, with decent pop at every position, and be solid defensively. Tyner and Punto/Casilla would be regular defensive substitutions for Kemp and Harris.

This would cost the team Blackburn, a couple of AA/A prospects, and $10-$12 million.

According to my estimates, this makes the payroll about $66 million, well below the $78 million which has supposedly been budgeted.

Next: What to do with that extra $12 million

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Plan B

It seems that a lot of folks are disappointed at the offers for Santana at the Winter Meetings. Bill Smith is right to hold out for the package that would bring us 3 quality players for opening day (Ellsbury, Lester, Lowrie or Hughes, Cabrera, Kennedy). Whether it’s the cost in young talent, or the impending extension to clear the no-trade clause, not even the free spenders of the league want to go there.

Meanwhile, the Tigers/Marlins deal has shifted my thinking. The Tigers blew out their payroll a bit, but made a huge splash, created a thoroughly dominant lineup, and will surely reap the benefits in season-ticket sales. The Marlins, having dumped their two most marketable players, may turn a profit in ’08 with their miniscule payroll, but will surely play to an empty stadium every night. I doubt the tax-payers of Miami will be excited about ponying up hundreds of millions of dollars on a stadium for a team nobody watches.

While I don’t recommend that the Twins overstretch their projected 2008 payroll (about $78 million), they would benefit from mimicking some of the Tigers assertiveness this week. Neither should the Twins clean out Santana and Nathan for a series of prospects who won’t begin to make a name for themselves for a few years – the franchise would lose the ticket-office momentum they’ve been building the last couple of years.

In light of those conclusions, I propose bold action:

Spend what we have to spend, but sign Santana.

The 4-year extension we’ve offered him would work out to $18.6 million/year through 2012. He was reportedly asking for $25 million/year through 2013 to waive his no-trade clause. I don’t believe the Twins could reach that, but I also think it’s something his agent threw out there knowing he was dealing with the Red Sox and Yankees, two teams that spend money like it was water. For the Twins, I suspect they’d come down a bit.

Santana is still young enough, and has shown sufficient durability, to be a worthwhile risk in 2013 (when he’ll be 34). So I’d come back to him with a package that pays him $19 million/year for 6 years. From there, I’d hope to meet somewhere in the middle, maybe at 6 years, $126 million (a figure I heard he was looking for prior to the Winter Meetings). That would make him the highest-paid pitcher by more than 10%, and make him the second-highest paid player overall, behind only A-Rod. Nothing to sneeze at. It would be great to have some insurance on the latter years of the deal, in case he gets hurt. Maybe a clause where if he pitches fewer than 150 innings in either 2011 or 2012, the Twins would have the option to buy him out. But if he’s healthy, he gets paid.

Why do this? Is anyone worth that much money?

Well, if anyone is, Santana’s the guy.

But the value of extending Santana goes beyond his performance on the field. It would let the fans know that the Twins are not in rebuilding mode, and are not just a farm team for rich, East-coast clubs. It lets everyone know who they can expect to see on opening day in the new stadium. And, it shows that the Twins are at least willing to out-spend the Royals.

Can the Twins succeed long-term with so much of the payroll tied up in one player?

Certainly. With Hunter in Anaheim, there is ample space to pay Santana extra in 2008. The 2009 payroll, if it follows the recent pattern, will increase to about $84 million. $21 million for Santana would represent 25% of the total – unprecedented, right? Well…

In 2004, Radke’s salary represented almost 23% of the payroll (on a playoff team), so that’s the benchmark so far. Surely, Santana is even more valuable to us than Radke was! My goal would be to keep Santana’s proportion as close to that as possible in each year of the deal (estimated payrolls are hopefully on the conservative side – new ballpark!):

2008: $13.25 million (17% of $78 million)
2009: $20 million (23.8% of $84 million)
2010: $21.25 million (22.1% of $96 million)
2011: $22.5 million (22% of $102 million)
2012: $24 million (21.8% of $110 million)
2013: $25 million (20.8% of $120 million)
Total: $126 million (21.5% of $590 million)

The year in which things get stretched is 2009, but the Twins can probably absorb that. Look at the combined salaries of the Twins’ 6 highest paid players each year since 2002, and the proportion of that total to the overall payroll (numbers from

2002: (Radke, Reed, Milton, Hawkins, Hunter, Mays) $26.25 million = 65%
2003: (Radke, Reed, Stewart, Milton, Hunter, Mays) $37.85 million = 61%
2004: (Radke, Hunter, Stewart, Koskie, Jones, Guzman) $31.33 million = 67%
2005: (Radke, Hunter, Mays, Stewart, Jones, Santana) $40 million = 71%
2006: (Hunter, Radke, Santana, Stewart, Castillo, Lohse) $44.5 million = 70%
2007: (Santana, Hunter, Castillo, Nathan, Morneau, Silva) $45 million = 63%
6-year total: $224.93 = 66%

As you can see, it’s quite common for 63-70% of the total payroll to wind up in the wallets of just the top 6 guys. Only one losing season in those 6 years, and not by much. Clearly, a successful model, so why not keep it up? If we set aside 66% of payroll for the top 6 for the next six years, they would get:

2008: $52 million
2009: $56 million
2010: $64 million
2011: $68 million
2012: $72 million
2013: $80 million

It’s not feasible to project who these players might be 5-6 years from now (in 2002, could anyone have guessed that Luis Castillo, Joe Nathan and Carlos Silva would be among that group in 2007?). But let’s project possibilities for the next three years:

Santana ($13.25 million)
Mauer ($6.25 million)
Nathan ($6 million)
Cuddyer (about $6 million)
Morneau (about $7 million)
Nick Punto(!) ($2.4 million)
Total ($41-ish million)

Santana ($20 million)
Mauer ($10.5 million)
Morneau (about $10 million)
Cuddyer (about $8 million)
Kubel (about $3 million)
Liriano (about $3 million)
Total ($55-ish million)

Santana ($21.25 million)
Mauer ($12.5 million)
Morneau (about $13 million)
Cuddyer (about $9 million)
Liriano (about $6 million)
Kubel (about $5 million)
Total ($67-ish million)

I'm projecting 4 years/$33 million for Cuddyer. Morneau's numbers are similar to David Wright. Hopefully the salary estimates are a little high, and the payroll guesses are a little low.

There's no reason the Twins can't keep 3-4 big stars around at approximately market value while capably filling out the remainder of the roster with $30 million. That's where the small-market moxy will continue to pay off. Eventually, many productive players will have to move on - Silva, Nathan, eventually Cuddyer and Kubel will follow in the footsteps of Koskie, Guardado, Jones. They'll be replaced by younger players who can produce about as well for a fraction of the cost. But as long as the team retains the couple of players the fans consider to be truly exceptional, the tickets will continue to sell, and the Twins will have an opportunity to succeed.

Next: How to fill the roster holes without trading Santana.