MLB's Winter Meetings are fast approaching, during which the glacial pace of this hot stove season is expected to pick up considerably. While I look forward to having some actual moves to talk about (other than obvious stuff like picking up Mike Redmond's option or offering Dennys Reyes arbitration), it will also mean the death of limitless fantastic possibilities. So, before reality has a chance to intrude, I'm going to outline what I'd try to do to improve the Twins for 2009, given their projected financial and human resources and the players who are at least rumored to be available via trade and free agency.
As I laid out a few weeks ago, the Twins could probably expect to win 88 games again next year simply by retaining Reyes and Nick Punto and sending Carlos Gomez to AAA. That was before I found out Pat Neshek would be lost for the season, leaving the Twins with the largely unproven Jose Mijares in the driver's seat to earn the 8th-inning role he performed so well over the final weeks of the season. The bullpen really hurt the Twins last year, and there are 2 ways to try to solve the problem:
1. Spend some of the (considerable) available cash on a probably overpriced free agent arm, or
2. Try to take some pressure off the 'pen by compressing the number of innings they have to throw.
I'm going to opt for the latter. The other area everyone agrees could be improved is the left side of the infield. I'm assuming that a Brendan Harris/Brian Buscher platoon would play slightly below-average defense with an OPS of about .800, and that Punto as the starting SS would play splendid defense with an OPS of .650-.700. That's what we're trying to beat with any new players.
Since the Twins managed to increase their attendance over 2007 by about 6,000 fans, I'm going to assume that the payroll trajectory that was in place at this time last year still applies. In other words, the team should have the money available to fund about $85 million in player salaries.
Step 1: Re-sign Reyes
People say we can let him go because Craig Breslow and Mijares can handle the match-up lefty role for less money. But those guys also get right-handers out better than some of the righty pitchers in the Twins' 'pen. So I'd rather have Reyes around to get that one tough lefty batter with men on base - he's more likely to keep the ball in the infield via a strikeout or grounder than the other two. They would then be free to start innings with the bases empty.
An effective bullpen lefty is a very tradable commodity, should the Twins feel they need to make room for someone else later on.
Jeremy Affeldt is a pretty similar pitcher - a little better at getting righties out, not as good at getting lefties. He throws more innings, though, so the Twins should be able to sign Reyes for a little less than Affeldt's 2-year, $8 million contract with the Giants - let's say 2 for $7 million. That sets up this bullpen:
Joe Nathan - closer
Jose Mijares - 8th inning
Jesse Crain and Reyes - matchups
Breslow and Boof Bonser - long relief and matchups
Step 2: Acquire Andy LaRoche from the Pirates
A super-prospect just a year ago, LaRoche was injured in spring training last year and never found his groove in 2008. He was skipped on the Dodgers' depth chart in favor of Blake DeWitt, then traded to the Pirates in the deal that sent Jason Bay to the Red Sox and Manny Ramirez to LA. Finally given the starting job he was blocked from in Los Angeles, he proceeded to hit a woeful .152/.227/.232 in 49 games for Pittsburgh. The Pirates have another competent third baseman at AAA, and are most in need of improving a pitching staff that ranked 28th in the Majors in ERA and 29th in BAA and walks allowed.
This time last year, LaRoche would have commanded a premium player in a trade, but his .560 OPS through his first 111 Major League games has put an end to that. I would offer the Pirates Philip Humber and Harris. Humber, like LaRoche, was a highly valued prospect a year ago, having led the PCL in WHIP in 2007, but lowered his stock with a poor showing in 2008. To his credit, he seemed to finally put it together after the All-Star break, putting up a 2.60 ERA and 1.07 WHIP over his final 8 starts with a 51/11 K/BB ratio. He followed that up with a decent September out of the Twins 'pen. So it's at least possible to argue that Humber is back on a quality trend.
Harris, as disappointing as he was in the Twins' lineup, would be an upgrade (offensively, anyway) over SS Jack Wilson, whom the Pirates are attempting to trade, at a fraction of the cost. He would also be able to fill in at 3rd if they want to give Neil Walker a little more time.
So the Pirates would get an everyday IF and mid-rotation starter for a player who, so far, hasn't shown anything at the Major League level. Humber is out of options, and I don't see the Twins having a spot for him, so he's someone the Twins have to try to deal. LaRoche becomes the right-handed part of the 3B platoon, making Harris superfluous. The Twins don't stand to lose much by making this trade - if LaRoche continues to be an MLB bust after a couple months, they can call up Steve Tolleson or Trevor Plouffe from Rochester.
But I think LaRoche's 2008 was equivalent to Scott Baker's 2006. You just don't dominate every level of the minor leagues and then suck in the Majors. I put a lot more stock in the 2,000+ PA he's had in the minors (hitting .295/.382/.517 with a HR every 19 AB and 4/5 BB/K rate) than the 300-some PA he's had in Majors. He's also got considerably better defensive range than Buscher. If he puts up the kind of numbers he did in the minors, then the Twins have got a patient, RH hitter with pop to stick in between Mauer and Morneau for the next 5 years. The downside is so small - I'd take that risk.
Step 3: Acquire JJ Hardy from the Brewers
With CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets both likely to depart as free agents, the Brewers need to replace some serious innings. They've got an in-house SS they're ready to promote, so Hardy is on the block in order to land some pitching help. He's a 25 HR hitter with a solid glove, just entering his prime at 26 years old, and won't be eligible for free agency until 2011. That means getting him is going to sting a little bit.
I'd offer the Brewers Nick Blackburn and Matt Guerrier. Blackburn was the Twins' #1 prospect a year ago, and had a strong rookie season (he easily would have won 15+ games with better run/bullpen support) capped by his impressive 1-0 loss in the playoff at Chicago. He won't replace Sabathia, but he should be able to give the Brewers 200+ IP for the next 5 years. His ground ball tendencies should also be helpful in HR friendly Miller Park.
Guerrier fell apart at the end of 2008, but that was the first time in his big-league career that he sucked for any prolonged stretch. He's likely to rebound back to his career averages, which are pretty solid (3.66 ERA, 1.34 WHIP). Guerrier has expressed interest in starting again, but he'll never get a chance to do it with the Twins. He's going to be reasonably affordable for the next 2 years.
The Brewers would be trading 2 years of strong production from their SS for 5 years of solid, mid-rotation, innings-eating pitching from Blackburn and 2 years of steady middle relief or back-end of the rotation pitching from Guerrier. It also likely saves them $10 million, give or take, in arbitration money they'd have to give Hardy, which they can spend on signing another free agent starting pitcher. The Twins enormously upgrade their production from the SS position at a cost of - I'll say - $13.5 million over the next 2 seasons.
Step 4: Acquire Jake Peavy from the Padres
I'm really dreaming now, huh? With Blackburn gone, the Twins have a spot in the rotation available, and why settle for filling it with Kevin Mulvey? Peavy has been one of the elite pitchers of the NL over the last 5 seasons, and would immediately become the ace of the Twins' young staff. He's under contract through 2012 with a club option for 2013, the total value of which would be $81 million for 5 years or $63 million for 4 years. Either way, the Twins get a pitcher who compares pretty favorably with Johan Santana for about $4 million a year less than they offered him last winter.
The Padres expect their attendance to drop off drastically, so they're looking to slash payroll. They want pitching help and an IF to start with. It sounds like they're headed for a '99 Twins style rebuilding, meaning they can start some players who might ideally spend another few months in the minors. My proposed package for Peavy: Carlos Gomez, Luke Hughes, Bobby Korecky, Anthony Swarzak and Kevin Mulvey.
Gomez is a liability in the Twins' lineup right now. He doesn't appear to be close to hitting at the level of Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young or Jason Kubel - 4 OF all under team control for at least the next 2 seasons. By the time Cuddyer's option comes up, Dustin Martin should be ready to fill that slot. And Ben Revere looks to be on pace to arrive in the Twins' OF by 2012 at the latest, and then there's Aaron Hicks right behind him. Gomez has the tools to be a better player than Span someday, but by the time he figures out how to use them, there will be others in the system who can fill his role just about as well. So he's expendable.
Hughes got on a lot of people's radar this spring with a fantastic performance at AA (.319/.385/.551 with 15 HR in 70 games). He finished the season at Rochester and is currently participating in the Venezuelan Winter League. He's expected to be a member of team Australia in the World Baseball Classic this spring. If he stayed in the Twins' system, he'd probably be ready to contribute at the Major League level in the 2nd half. But I've just acquired Andy LaRoche, who I believe will hit for just as much power with a better BB/K ratio and a better glove at 3B. If we think about moving Hughes to 2B, there's Steve Tolleson - a similarly sized RH-hitting 2B - to consider. In a full season at AA, Tolleson hit .300/.382/.466 in 343 AB, compared to Hughes' 2008 total of .309/.369/.524 in 391 AB. I'd rather have the OBP. Tolleson makes Hughes redundant.
Korecky doesn't have a spot in the Twins' bullpen. But at his age (29), and with his career minor league numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.20 WHIP), he deserves a chance somewhere. He's served as Rochester's closer for the last 2 seasons, and it just so happens that the Padres need a closer now that they've decided to cut Trevor Hoffman loose.
Swarzak and Mulvey finished 2008 at AAA and were recently rated the organizations' #6 and #8 prospects, respectively. But with the Twins' rotation crowded with young guys who are still 3 or more years away from free agency, and with talented arms like Jeff Manship and Tyler Robinson coming up behind them, these guys become surplus. Swarzak would ideally have a few more months at Rochester before reaching the Majors, but Mulvey is definitely ready to start now.
It was disappointing for a lot of Twins fans last winter when the Santana trade didn't net the Twins any MLB-ready talent (nope - Gomez wasn't ready). The Padres fans won't have that problem. They may have to push some of these guys a little faster than they might have liked, but by the second half of 2009 they will have turned their Ace pitcher into 2 high-ceiling starting pitchers, a 3B/2B with good power potential, a setup man or closer, and a CF with the wheels to track down balls in their spacious outfield - all cheaply under team control for at least the next 5 seasons.
As for the Twins, while dealing away a bunch of good players that they might have had a hard time finding spots for, they receive a dominant top of the rotation starter. Not that Francisco Liriano or Scott Baker couldn't have filled that role, but that's the beauty of it. I'm perfectly confident in Baker, Liriano and Kevin Slowey as the Twins' 1-3 starters; I'm extremely confident in them as 2-4 with Peavy at the top. If it wasn't before, that certainly makes the Twins' rotation tops in the division, and matches them up well with Boston, LA and Tampa - the teams they'll likely be facing when they make it to playoffs this year.
Of course, Peavy could always nix this with his no-trade clause. Would he want to come play for a perennial winner in a brand-new stadium? He's OK with going to the Cubs, so I know the cold weather isn't freaking him out. Maybe he wouldn't allow it - it'd be interesting to see.
Step 5: Lock up Mauer and Kubel
Many people (me included) thought Joe Mauer was more valuable to the Twins than Justin Morneau this season. He's proven that, when healthy, he's one of the very best players in the league. If the Twins wait until next off-season to sign him to an extension, they're going to risk getting into the same mess they were in with Santana. I'd offer Mauer an extension that pays him in the neighborhood of Morneau's $14 million/year, something like 4 years, $63 million + a $5 million signing bonus. That locks up one of the league's most talented all-around players through his age 31 season.
As for Kubel, it's been a long road back from the knee ligament injury he sustained in the AFL 4 years ago (as someone who recently had major knee reconstruction, I can certainly empathize), but his numbers are definitely headed in the right direction now. If the Twins wait until next year to sign him to a long-term deal, I suspect his performance will push the price way up. As it stands, his numbers compare pretty favorably with those of Cuddyer, so I'd offer him the very same contract they just gave Cuddyer last year (minus the signing bonus - Cuddy had a 24 HR, 102 RBI season on his resume, Kubel doesn't): 3 years, $20.25 million with a club option for 2012 at $10.5 million. That would lock Kubel up through his age 30 season - years that I suspect will be very productive, and a bargain at that price.
Starting with a team that should win around 88 games and compete for the division title, I've created a team that should win around 95 games and go deep into the playoffs. I've upgraded an already outstanding rotation, taking pressure off what should be a balanced, solid bullpen. I've added power to the lineup while maintaining a high OBP and improving the R/L balance and IF defense. If things break the way I expect with LaRoche and Cuddyer bounces back from an injury-plagued season, the lineup could look like this:
Span (.390 OBP)
Mauer (.410 OBP)
LaRoche (.370 OBP, 25 HR)
Morneau (30 HR)
Cuddyer (25 HR)
Kubel (25 HR)
Hardy (25 HR)
Young (.300 BA)
Casilla (.330 OBP)
On the bench, we've got Mike Redmond to back up Mauer, Buscher (initially) to platoon with LaRoche and spell Morneau (let's make sure we do that once or twice next year, OK?), Matt Tolbert to fill in around the IF, Jason Pridie to pinch-run and add range in the OF, and Randy Ruiz to DH and PH vs. lefties. Everyone in the rotation is capable of throwing 200+ IP. The bullpen has 3 lefties and 3 righties, anchored by one of the best closers in baseball.
Including the signing bonus for Mauer and the $3 million still owed Mike Lamb, the payroll comes in at around $82 million, still leaving a few million available for signing draft choices or acquiring someone over the summer. The Twins gave up a lot of talent to attain these upgrades, but nobody they were imminently dependent upon over the next couple of seasons. (You'll notice that I've traded away 3 of the 4 players acquired for Santana - shows you what I think of that deal!) I think the offers for LaRoche and Hardy are fair, but if they need to be sweetened a little, we could throw in a AAA reliever (Tim Lahey or Mariano Gomez), catcher from the 40-man roster (either Jose Morales or Drew Butera - we'll need one of them in 2010, but Wilson Ramos is ready to go after that) or some other mid-level prospect from the low minors.
I doubt Bill Smith will actually do as well this off-season. Then again, for somebody who works in the real world, that's to be expected.