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!

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