Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Keep Moving

Assuming Santana and the Mets come together on a contract extension by Friday afternoon, the Twins will find themselves with a system loaded with cheap, young talent, the building blocks for a successful team to open the new stadium in 2010. But with four of their highest paid players from last year no longer on the payroll (Santana, Hunter, Castillo and Silva), they have ample resources available to improve the team in 2008 and 2009 as well.

The Twins' opening day roster will contain players who should be mainstays at their positions for the next 3 years. Kubel, Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Young, Harris and Lamb should be able to provide average to above average run production at DH, catcher, 1B, RF, LF, 2B and 3B. Pridie, Span, and now Gomez are all options for CF by late 2008 if they continue their development. Liriano, Baker, Bonser, Perkins, Slowey, Blackburn, Duensing, and now Mulvey and Humber are all possibilities for the starting rotation over the next year. Or they could join Neshek and Guerrier in the bullpen. While there are question marks about many of them, all of these players have been successful at various times and situations in their young careers. All of them are either under contract or under team control through at least 2010. Together with the other players the Twins have under contract, they will fill 75-80% of the roster spots over the next 3 seasons, never costing the team much more than $50 million combined.

The Twins said they had $77-$80 million to spend this year, and they've tried to spend it. They offered Hunter $15 million, and they offered Santana $20 million. Neither star would settle for a length of contract that was in the Twins' comfort zone. They have about $20 million in cash available for talent, but there's not much left in the free agent market that's palatable. Still, it would be prudent for them to continue to work on making the team as good as their considerable assets will allow.

Here are a few moves I'd like to see them pursue:

1. Sign a veteran CF
There are now 3 center fielders who should begin the season at Rochester (4 if you count Darnell MacDonald). Pridie and Gomez could possibly be in the lineup on opening day, but it appears that both would benefit from at least a couple more months at AAA. Denard Span had a promising second half after dismal opening to 2007 - if he can pick up where he left off, he might be ready for the majors by late summer as well. Whichever of these guys the Twins prefer, the best thing for them is to avoid the pressure of starting the year in the majors.

The Twins should sign a cheap, veteran free agent to a one-year deal. Either Kenny Lofton or Corey Patterson would fit the bill. Neither should cost much more than $3 million. Whoever they sign, trade him in July when the preferred prospect is fully prepared for major league duty.

2. Offer Joe Nathan an extension
This is something I never would have advocated had the Twins been able to re-sign either Hunter or Santana. Closers with Nathan's track record command 8-figure salaries, and that's a lot of money for a guy who pitches maybe every other day for one inning. Especially when Neshek can probably do the job just as well for a fraction of the cost.

But the fact is, now that the high-priced guys are gone, the Twins have money to burn. And with all the public money heading into the new stadium, it is unconscionable for the Twins to leave any available money unspent. It makes them look callous and greedy, and sucks up a lot of the good will that's been building up over the last few seasons.

A 2-3 year extension for Nathan would be a nice continuation of the Cuddyer/Morneau trend from last week, a clear sign to the fans that the team is doing all it reasonably can to lock up its all-star players. I'd offer him Cordero money (he got 4 years/$46 million), but for a shorter term, and throw in the signing bonus just like with Cuddyer and Morneau. Starting offer: 2 years/$20 million with a $4 million signing bonus. I might go as high as 3/$33 million + $4 million signing bonus.

It will be a comfort to the coaching staff to have a reliable veteran backing up such a young, inexperienced pitching staff. It will be a comfort to the fans to see that at least one more star player will be in the fold when the new stadium opens.

3. Trade from the surplus of prospects for an established player in his prime.
The Twins should be as willing to offer some of their considerable stockpile of quality young players as they've been willing to offer their cash. There's only so much AA and AAA talent that the team can actually use in the next couple of years.

No matter how you stack it up, the rotation is going to be young and full of question marks. But there are four guys I feel comfortable taking a chance on at this point:

Liriano: When healthy, he was actually better than Santana. Who knows whether he'll ever recover to that level, but he'll definitely get a shot.

Baker: He's been inconsistent, but man is he good when he's on. Hopefully he's beginning to reach maturity, and there will be a lot more of the 1 and 2-hitters, and not so many of the 7 runs in 5 innings.

Bonser: Lights out for 4-5 innings, then he hit the wall. Judging by how seriously he's taken the conditioning ultimatum given him by the coaching staff, it looks to me like he's ready to take a big step forward this year.

Slowey: Cool as a cucumber, intelligent, great control. Reminds me of Radke at the same age.

4/5 of the rotation settled. All of them under team control through at least 2011. None of them able to earn big money in arbitration until 2010 at the earliest.

The bullpen is the same that finished 2006. Whether Reyes, Crain, and Rincon can regain their form from that year remains to be seen, but it's certainly a strong place to start. Any shortcomings in that department can easily be filled by whoever fails to take the last spot in the rotation.

Candidates for that spot include Perkins, Blackburn, and Mulvey, with Duensing and Humber possibly ready by the end of the summer. Any of these guys projects to be a suitable contributor to the 3-5 slots in the rotation. The Twins should be willing to offer at least two of them in trades. Most of us were surprised to see Blackburn earn the #1 prospect ranking last week. He could be over-valued at the moment. His stock may never be higher - good time to trade him.

I've already mentioned the logjam in center field. With Cuddyer, Young, and Kubel taking up 3 outfield slots for the next few years (and Craig Monroe taking another this year), the Twins only need an every day CF and a bench guy. If Gomez is the CF of the future, trade Pridie and put Span on the bench. If Pridie's the guy, trade Gomez and put Span on the bench. If it's going to be a platoon, trade the odd man out.

With Mike Lamb, a decent-hitting, poor-fielding 3B in place for the next 2-3 years, there is no longer a spot for the organization's other decent-hitting, poor-fielding 3B: Brian Buscher. He burst out of mediocrity last season to earn the Minor League Player-of-the-Year Award. Can he repeat that? He's of little use to the Twins, and his stock will almost certainly never be higher. Trade him.

There are a multitude of pitchers at the lower levels of the organization who have been progressing excellently. Deolis Guerra joins Tyler Robertson, Yohan Pino, Jeff Manship, Anthony Swarzak, Daniel Berlind, Kyle Waldrop, Oswaldo Sosa and Jay Rainville (there may be more!) in a pool of young pitchers with upside. Some will make it to the Twins one day. Some won't. Hard to say who will be the successes at this point. The Twins should be willing to part with at least two of them if it helps them improve the team now.

If there is even the slightest chance that the Twins could get in the middle of the Erik Bedard situation, they should make every effort to do so. I wouldn't feel the slightest compunction about offering the Orioles the very 4 players the Mets just sent over. If the O's would accept that, it would net out to trading one year of Santana for 2 years of Bedard. That would be a very good deal for the Twins after all.

But they should be willing to look at other players and positions as well. If there's a young shortstop they think could be good for next year and beyond, go get him. If there's a starting pitcher who can lead the rotation for the next couple of years, make the deal. If there's a 3B they like more than Lamb or Buscher, trade them and go get him.

Whatever Bill Smith and company decide is best for the team, I'll be happy to see it. There's no reason to be satisfied with the teak as it is now constituted. Plenty of possibilities to explore - keep moving!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Best Deal?

Pending a workable contract extension, Santana is headed to the Mets. In return, the Twins will get CF Carlos Gomez, and pitching prospects Kevin Mulvey, Philip Humber, and Deolis Guerra. These are quality prospects, and at least three of them will probably wind up on the roster. But I don't find this deal too appealing, mostly because it doesn't seem to address the team's needs as well as some of the other scenarios would have.

If you look at the Twins' system, you'll find an ample number of quality pitching prospects: Blackburn, Duensing, Manship, Pino, Robertson, not to mention likely rotation members Baker, Bonser, Liriano, Perkins and Slowey, none of whom have yet started as many as 50 games in the majors. Adding 3 more pitchers to the mix turns a crowded minor league system into a bit of a logjam. As for Gomez, he might be ready to take over in CF, but he's not a whole lot further along than Pridie or Span. So here are 4 quality prospects, but not doing much to fill the holes in the system. I'd rather they'd acquired Mike Pelfrey and Martinez (plus maybe one of the others) and let them keep Gomez. It seems like Pelfrey is ready to join the rotation now, and Martinez could be a star down the road.

Either Red Sox deal would have served the Twins better. Ellsbury is definitely ready to be a factor in CF, Masterson is as good a pitcher as Mulvey or Humber, and Jed Lowrie would have been a candidate for SS after Adam Everett's 1-year deal is up. The even better offer was the one that included Jon Lester (another guy the Twins could have dropped right into the rotation) and Coco Crisp, who could have affordably filled the CF/leadoff spots, while providing more MLB experience than any of the other possiblities.

Even the Yankees' offer of Hughes, Cabrera and ? would have been preferable, as Hughes would have stepped right into the 2 (at least) slot in the rotation, and Cabrera would have been just slightly behind Crisp in experience, but still young and with a bit of upside.

It looks as though the Yanks and Red Sox were pulling back on their offers, so the Twins may have felt that it was the Mets or nothing. I heard a report today that Santana had turned down $100 million for 5 years from the Twins - if that's true, they may have felt it would be impossibly out of their comfort level to sign him.

But there was one other alternative to consider: let him pitch for the team this season, and take the 2 first round picks when he walks. That would have enabled the Twins to get 2 players of Guerra's potential (if not better), plus 20-25 wins from Santana this regular season. If only a couple of these Mets prospects turn out to be contributors for the Twins, even that scenario might look better in hindsight.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Sign Fest

As the various legs of the Twins caravan converged on Minneapolis for this weekend's Twins Fest, I had to wonder if the front office would announce some transactions to coincide with the event. After all, the team has been in a holding pattern with Santana for over a month, and the natives are getting restless. Particularly since Mr. Smith so economically filled some of the lineup holes with former Astros, resulting in a budget surplus that would be nearly impossible to use up. This made the claims that the team couldn't afford to sign Santana to a long-term deal especially difficult to swallow. Why should anyone be enthusiastic about the upcoming season with the organization sending so many signals that it isn't serious about competing long term?

The announcement I anticipated arrived Friday afternoon, though in a form that was even better than I expected. The Twins signed two of their arbitration eligible regulars, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, to multi-year deals. The combined 9 years and $104 million goes a long way toward allaying fans' fears about the direction the team intends to take heading into the new stadium.

Cuddyer's deal pays him $5 million this year, $6.75 million in 2009 and $8.5 million in 2010, with a $2.75 million signing bonus. The team holds a $10.5 million club option for 2011 with a $1 million buyout. Looking around the league, that seems like a pretty fair value for a player of his level of production and experience.

Morneau gets the biggest deal in Twins history in terms of years and dollars: $7.4 million this year, $10.6 million in 2009 and $14 million in each of the final four years, plus a $6 million signing bonus. Though he has yet to put together a complete season of dominance, he's been such a terror when he's on that, should he manage to play up to his ability for all 6 months of the season, this deal could prove to be a bargain. And because his salary doesn't inflate over the last 4 years, his proportion of the payroll will diminish as revenues increase in the new stadium.

The detail of these contracts that I like the most is the signing bonuses. Mr. Smith found a way to entice reasonable long-term deals from two core players by using up $8.75 million of the present surplus. The Santana-included team payroll now stands at around $72 million. The bonuses also give me hope that Mr. Smith will attempt to use that tactic to help coax a long-term deal out of Santana as well.

After all, the dizzying sequence of potential Mets and Yankees packages illustrate the Mr. Smith is negotiating his butt off with those teams. The fact that today's announcement follows a 1-year deal that Morneau signed last week shows that the Twins were willing to keep talking to Justin (and they weren't afraid to commit to him for 6 years). But the Twins haven't made any effort yet to negotiate with Santana. Each side made their opening offers, and that's been that.

The success they Twins have had in their talks with Morneau and Cuddyer over the last week should inspire them to come back to the table with Santana. If their first choice is to retain him, as they still attest, then they need to put in more of an effort to accomplish that goal than they have so far.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Super Blah

I haven't been watching very much football this January. Not since the first 3 quarters of the Rose Bowl, actually. My wife and I are experimenting with life without cable TV. I think we can see pretty much whatever we want on the internet, and, starting next month, our bandwidth will increase almost 10-fold for only five more dollars per month. But one thing you can't watch on the internet is the NFL, so I've let it slide.

I've missed some good games. Some big plays, some exciting finishes. But, in the end, I'm left with the Giants-Patriots matchup.


The Super Bowl party I've attended the last few years, thrown by my talented and prosperous friend Matt (who writes music for reality TV - the royalties are nice), is off this year. Matt now has a 7-month old daughter, and he and the Mrs. couldn't get together on how many people constituted a "smaller" party. Just as well. I might skip watching it altogether this year.

It might be a good game, though I doubt it. The Patriots strike me as pretty similar to the big football factory schools: they may look bad here and there (while still winning), but they definitely show up for the Bowl game. I think the Super Bowl is going to turn out like all the big bowl games this year, where the Pats are USC/LSU and the Giants are from the Big 10. Yawn.

Regardless of how close it turns out to be, there are two possible bottom-line outcomes of the game:

1. Boston wins. Again. Didn't they just win 3 of the last 6 Super Bowls? And 2 of the last 4 World Series? And aren't the Celtics kicking butt too? I guess they're making up for 80-some years of agony all at once, but I'm already ready for them to resume their suffering and gnashing of teeth. Too smug, too confident, yuck.

2. The only NFC franchise that really bugs me wins. I don't know why they do, it came on somewhere in the last 8 or 9 seasons. The Vikes have more or less given as well as they've gotten during that time (other than the 41-0 NFC championship game), but I still feel like the Giants are always there to foul things up for me. I was so pulling for Favre to go out on top, particularly because, had he won, he might actually have gone out finally. Now, he'll probably be back next year, helping the Packers win games they have no business winning. Stupid punk Giants.

Oh well, only 4 weeks 'til Spring Training...

Friday, January 18, 2008

Don't Deal

Ever since Torii was signed away by the Angels (for absurdly too much money - good luck LAA), I've felt that, for PR reasons, the Twins had no choice but to either get front-line, MLB-ready players for Santana, or re-sign him. Like most in the blogosphere, I've anxiously looked for the bids to increase. But it's become increasingly clear that the best offers are, at least as far as the off-season is concerned, already on the table.

The only three teams in the running, the Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox, are competitive in their current forms. While all could benefit from adding Santana to the rotation, they could also benefit from keeping their MLB-ready youngsters in the fold for the coming years. I don't think it's so much the size of the contract extension that stops them from upping their offers. It's the fact that, if they wait the Twins out, they'll have an opportunity to sign Santana to a mega-contract next season, while still having their Ellsburys/Gomezes/Hugheses contributing to their success this year and beyond. If he were signed for 3+ years, I think they'd up their offers substantially. But, things being as they are, this is probably as good as it gets.

Good enough? Clearly not, or a deal would have happened by now.

Meanwhile, the team has signed a few low-rent veterans, and agreed to 1-year deals with Kubel and Morneau (the organization is apparently in wait-and-see mode with those two, perhaps wondering if either can put together a complete season that reflects their potential). So at this point, there is not only a huge payroll surplus available for 2008, but there is very little money committed for 2009 and beyond. And that means that there is absolutely no short-term financial obstacle to paying Santana $20 million a year for the next couple of years.

Of course, the team has already offered to pay him $93 million over the next 5 seasons. They wouldn't have made that offer if they didn't think they could afford it. They also wouldn't have made it if it was the most they thought they could afford. Nobody who understands markets or negotiation opens with their best offer - what if the player would have accepted less? And no player in a solid bargaining position (as Santana is, considering his worst season so far was still good enough for an ERA a full run below the park-adjusted league average and 5th in Cy Young voting) would accept a team's opening offer - what if they would have paid more?

The Twins can afford to pay more than $93 million over 5 years, and Bill Smith, Santana, and his agent Mr. Greenberg all know it.

So far, the negotiation has progressed like this:

Smith: Hey Johan, you're pretty awesome. We'd like to offer you an extension of $20 million/year for four years.

Santana: Thanks, Bill, that's nice of you. But I'd rather get $20 million/year for 7 years.

Smith: Wow, that's a lot of years Johan! And we have a ton of holes to fill in the lineup, let me see if I can fill them all by trading you...

Many weeks have passed, and the number of holes has been reduced to one: Center field. The Twins have some options in the minors, but none is a slam dunk to start this spring. However, if the Twins trade Santana for a young CF, they will create a different hole that will be much more difficult to fill: #1 starter. Not just on the team. In the whole sport.

Now is when the negotiation should resume:

Smith: Hi again Johan! I know we haven't spoken in a while, but I've been thinking about you a lot! I know you asked for $20 million/year for 7 years. How about 5?

Santana (Using the bargaining skills he learned in the markets of Venezuela): I've never been so insulted in my life! Could you do 6?

Smith: How about 5 and a $6.75 million signing bonus that makes your total salary for 2008 $20 million?

Santana: That would effectively give me a 6-year, $120 million contract. But Zito got $126 million!

Smith: Actually, over the 7 years of Zito's contract (2007-2013), you'd make $133 million. That's a whole million dollars/year more!

Santana: Would that make me the highest paid pitcher ever?

Smith: In terms of total years & dollars, yes!

Santana: Let me sleep on it...

Would he take it? I bet he would. But could the Twins afford it?

Well, if a slightly above-average pitcher like Silva can get $12 million/year now, I wouldn't be surprised if a similar pitcher makes $15-$16 million by 2013. Santana's $20 million wouldn't be outlandishly more than that. And, as revenues increase and the new stadium opens, the payroll the team can sustain should go up accordingly. Meaning that $20 million in 2013 would be less expensive to the Twins than it would be in 2012. Certainly there's a risk that he will decline or get injured, but for a player as special as he is, I think it's worth the risk.

The other important factor to consider is that to trade him now for an underwhelming return would really take the wind out of the team's sails. Part of what made the 2006 season so thrilling was a competitive team that also contained the MVP, batting champ, Cy Young, and almost ROY. Though Hunter is gone, all of those players remain. The marketing department should be able to sell the possibility that the glory of 2006 will return with the new additions Smith has brought in so far. But not without Santana. Not with a payroll that is surpassed by the Royals. Attendance would drop, and the incentive for people to line up seats at the new stadium would diminish. That would cost the Twins a lot of money. Maybe $20 million?

It's been heartening to see others coming around to this line of thinking recently. First it was Buster Olney. Then Howard Sinker, supported by some excellent reasoning from Jim Crikket. And then Dugout Central chimed in.

Hopefully this represents a change in attitude that will also be reflected in the mind of Bill Smith. With Santana at the top of the rotation, improved production from the offense, the bullpen as solid as ever, and a hopefully resilient Fransisco Liriano, the Twins should be able to hold their own in a very tough AL Central.

And, as a fan, that's all I can really ask for.