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?
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.
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