Now that I've had a few days to recover from the 2008 season, I'm ready to take my first look forward to 2009. Many of the blogs I link to have already gotten a good start on arguments for off-season priorities, and I'm happy to join the discussion. My approach will be to establish a baseline for off-season upgrades by answering the question: What kind of team can the Twins produce from players already within their system?
The first step is to assess how many of the players who finished the season with the Twins are likely to be back next year. The answer is extremely good news. Everyone is either under contract or team control for 2009 with the exception of Nick Punto, Dennys Reyes, Eddie Guardado and Adam Everett. Furthermore, the team's payroll obligations fall so short of its capacity (something on the order of $30 million) that the Twins could easily re-sign all of those players if it so desired.
So the 2009 Twins could be exactly the same as the 2008 Twins. Would that make 2009 just as competitive? A lot of folks point to down years in Cleveland and Detroit, the strength of the White Sox, and the strong finish from the Royals as evidence that the division will be much tougher next year. On its face, I'm not sure I buy that. Age is swiftly catching up to the Tigers and Sox, the Indians diminished themselves by trading away CC Sabathia and Casey Blake, and the Royals' young talent is at least half a year behind that of the Twins. I don't expect any of these teams to stand pat this off-season, but free agent acquisitions and trades, no matter how splashy, are no guarantee of success (just ask the Tigers). There are enough weaknesses among the other members of the division that I believe the Twins could win 88 games again with the same players.
That's also because the Twins are young enough that many of their players can be reasonably expected to match or improve upon this year's performance. We've all seen Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer hit for more power than they did in 2008, for example. Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez, each just 22 for most of '08, have plenty of time to make hitting adjustments. And the rotation of Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins, having all pitched deep into September, should be even more settled and stronger down the stretch in 2009.
Certainly we expect a few players to regress or have down years (hello, Matt Guerrier). But, in general, I think it's likely that the Twins will have a lower staff ERA, allow fewer unearned runs, and remain in the top half of the AL in scoring (the BA with RISP will undoubtedly be lower, but the HR numbers should increase, which will make up for a lot of the loss). In other words, I think the Twins could run out the same squad they did in September and come away with more or less the same run differential, which would translate, on average, into about the same number of wins. Will 88 wins be good enough to take the division? Probably not, but it should be enough to keep them in the running.
But the Twins won't be running out the same squad next year. With Pat Neshek and Cuddyer returning from injuries, there are more outfielders and pitchers than spots available. Boof Bonser and Philip Humber are out of options, and will be lost if they don't make the team. And there were a couple of players whose performance doesn't merit bringing them back.
Guardado and Everett should be allowed to move on without a thought. Punto and Reyes deserve a little more consideration.
Shortstop is a position in which the Twins could offer someone a multi-year deal, since their is no heir-apparent to the position in the minors. But the available free agents aren't too impressive for the money they'll be demanding. If the baseline is Punto, that's not a terrible place to start. His career OPS is essentially the same as Everett's - nothing to crow about, of course, but his .320 career OBP makes him likely to be on base more than Gomez, for example. He's got good speed on the bases, and can play above-average defense at 6 positions, including SS. I'd be inclined to offer Punto a 2-year deal for around $3 million a year - then if something better comes along at SS, you've still got one of the league's most versatile bench players.
As for Reyes, anybody who thinks the Twins need to upgrade the bullpen should think twice about letting him walk. Despite missing some time and effectiveness in 2007 when he had some arm troubles, Reyes compiled a 2.14 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 126.1 IP in his 3 seasons with the club. His K/9 was 7.77, and his G/F ratio was about 3/1. Out of 531 total batters faced over his stint with the Twins, 62.7% put the ball on the ground or struck out - the sort of outcomes you're looking for when you bring in a reliever with men on base. Only 26 of 109 H were for extra bases (23.8%), and he allowed only 3 SF. Lefties hit just .202/.272/.266 against him with 3 HR and 63 K in 248 AB (25.4% struck out).
It's true that Craig Breslow and Jose Mijares pitched brilliantly for the Twins this year, but they're each relatively untested. They have just 75.2 MLB IP combined. Breslow was hurt earlier in his career by a high walk total - maybe Rick Anderson sorted that out, or maybe it was just something he was able to hide in 4+ months with the Twins that will resurface next year. Mijares was dynamite in September, but will he be as effective once the scouts catch up to him? Say he has a lousy spring training, and the team decides to give him a little more seasoning in AAA to start the season. Having Reyes on board would give the Twins that luxury. Plus, who says you only need 2 LHP in the bullpen? If 3 of your best pitchers happen to be lefties (as would appear to be the case here), why shouldn't they all make the team?
Lefty specialists can play a long time. Based on his recent track record, I wouldn't be shy about offering Reyes up to a 3-year deal at the going rate for matchup pitchers.
More incredibly good news for the Twins - only Matt Guerrier and Jason Kubel are eligible for arbitration this year. This would be the time to sign Kubel to a multi-year deal. While his power numbers began to approach their potential, his BA could still probably improve. He's entering his physical prime, and appears to be over the knee injury that cost him all of 2005 and a big part of 2006. If the Twins wait one more year, and his performance improves again, the price will go up a lot. If they act now, his actual performances should make it possible to get him for something like 3 years, $20 million (+ an option year!).
As for Guerrier, I don't think his abominable finish is indicative of anything more than physical and mental burnout, and that if he were returned to the lower leverage roles he held in earlier seasons he would be effective. But with the emergence of Breslow and Mijares, and the return of Neshek, I'm not sure there's a spot for him. I'd try to trade him before arbitration looms.
Odd Men Out
Bonser and Humber must both make the team or be lost to waivers. That's not going to happen. Each finished the season pretty strongly, but neither has the overall numbers to displace other, more established members of the bullpen. I suppose Humber would have to be considered as a #5 starter should the Twins opt to trade either Perkins or Blackburn, and Bonser could get the nod if they decide not to sign Reyes and Guerrier. There is likely no room for Bobby Korecky in any case. If it were me, I'd make every effort to trade these guys before February.
The outfield is pretty crowded. His big multi-year contract assures us that Cuddyer will be starting in RF. Denard Span had way too good a season at all levels to be denied a spot. Kubel was the 2nd-best power threat on a pretty wimpy team - most of the time, he'll DH. Delmon Young, despite a mostly underwhelming season, made strides in his K/BB rate, and was much more productive in the last 2/3 of the season. And then there's Carlos Gomez, defensive wunderkind, terror on the bases, mess at the plate.
Unless the Twins opt to trade Young, the corner OF positions are set, and there's no way Gomez beats out Span next year. Span was such an effective leadoff hitter, the Twins would be nuts to trade him to make room for Gomez. So the question becomes: Do they put Gomez on the bench as a PR/defensive replacement, or send him to the minors to refine his game? I think the right thing to do is to give him 4-5 ABs every day in AAA. Just as they did with Liriano this year, the Twins need to show Gomez that he's got to produce the goods if he wants a slot on the big club, and that means learning a plate approach that puts the ball on the ground, goes the other way, takes walks, and cuts down on strikeouts. Unless he shows up in spring training with that sort of approach, I'd be inclined to option him down and let Jason Pridie fill the bench role.
As for the rotation, the Twins have 5 starters who are average or better under team control for the next 4 years. They certainly have the option of trading one for something else they'd like to upgrade, but they can't be blamed for wanting to horde them either. That means that starters at the upper levels of the minors, unless they're undeniably awesome, are all expendable. I'd put Humber, Kevin Mulvey, Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak on that list.
So, looking exclusively within the organization and not fantasizing about any other players who may or may not be available, the best squad the Twins can put together for next spring looks like this:
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Alexi Casilla, 2B
3. Joe Mauer, C
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Michael Cuddyer, RF
6. Jason Kubel, DH
7. Delmon Young, LF
8. Brian Buscher, 3B
9. Nick Punto, SS
1. Mike Redmond, C
2. Brendan Harris, IF
3. Matt Tolbert, IF
4. Jason Pridie, OF
5. Randy Ruiz, DH/PH
1. Scott Baker, RHP
2. Francisco Liriano, LHP
3. Kevin Slowey, RHP
4. Nick Blackburn, RHP
5. Glen Perkins, LHP
1. Joe Nathan, Closer
2. Pat Neshek, RHP
3. Jose Mijares, LHP
4. Jesse Crain, RHP
5. Dennys Reyes, LHP
6. Craig Breslow, LHP
Cuddyer breaks up the string of Mauer/Morneau/Kubel. The relatively disappointing contributions of Young, Buscher/Harris and Punto are all a bit more palatable when they slide down a slot in the lineup. Pridie and Tolbert provide speed and glove upgrades over the 3Bs and corner OFs. And, despite his high K rate, Ruiz has compiled a strong enough minor league resume to merit at least a platoon/PH role in the Majors. Everybody else performed well in 2008 and obviously deserves a shot at holding their spots in 2009.
With a surplus of about $30 million and Bonser, Humber, Guerrier, Korecky and Duensing all crying out to be traded, there's certainly plenty of capital available for upgrades, and the front office should make an effort to spend it. But they should remember that if they'd held their cards last season, they probably would have had a 90-win team instead of 88. This team can win 88 again in 2009 - that's the baseline. Take it from there.