Baseball's Winter Meetings have concluded, and the Twins' big free agent signing was:
Punto's 2-year, $8.5 million (+option) contract means he'll be the Twins' opening day shortstop. This is somewhat disheartening because, of course, it doesn't make the team any better. Had Bill Smith been more bold or creative, there probably was a deal possible for a more impressive player.
On the bright side, the team didn't get any worse, either. The Twins' great strength right now is their good, young, cheap starting rotation, and everyone in baseball knows it. Smith was wise not to trade away any of the starters for a player who would represent only a marginal upgrade over the status quo (i.e. Jack Wilson). It's encouraging to see him showing such good sense.
Looking around the division, I don't see the moves that have been made so far helping the Tigers and White Sox very much - the Twins are still safely ahead of them on paper. The Royals have made some improvements, but probably not enough to make up 13 games in the standings. The Indians should be the major competition - their moves, combined with contributions from healthy Victor Martinez, Jake Westbrook and Travis Hafner, should be able to bring their win total into the high 80s.
As I stated earlier, the same Twins team that finished last season can win 88 games again provided they remove Carlos Gomez' anemic RH bat and replace it with Michael Cuddyer's healthy RH bat. It isn't unreasonable to assume that several of the younger players will make incremental gains in their numbers as they continue to adjust to the league, meaning the starters should throw more innings with a lower ERA, and Denard Span, Delmon Young, Alexi Casilla and Brian Buscher should get even more comfortable. Jesse Crain should be better in the second year back from his surgery, and Matt Guerrier should rebound to somewhere close to his career numbers. It's a roster that doesn't need any desperate action.
If Punto is the weakest hitter in it (batting 9th), I think that's OK. He plays above-average defense at SS, he's a threat to steal bases, and he does a pretty good job of working counts. As long as he can keep his OBP closer to .350 than .300, he'll be a solid contributor.
The remaining pieces the Twins might like to alter are 3rd base and the bullpen. I believe the Buscher/Harris platoon should be able to produce a combined OPS of at least .800 from what I project will be the #8 spot in the lineup, which would be pretty good. It's their defense that's the problem. The trouble is, the only third basemen I've heard discussed as possible alternatives either don't hit any better or don't field any better or both. In spite of that, many of their teams are demanding someone from the Twins' rotation in a trade - no thanks.
A particularly irksome development on this front is the news that Adrian Beltre recently put the Twins on his list of teams to which he can block a trade. Speculation is that this move was conceived by his agent, Satan - er, Scott Boras - to force the Twins to basically bribe him into waiving the no-trade clause. How cynical. But really, Adrian, do you want to spend your walk year in the middle of a rebuilding in Seattle or in the middle of a pennant race in MN? Which situation will produce the gaudier stats, playing with a bunch of kids in a pitcher's park, or batting with Span and Joe Mauer constantly on base in front of you? In 10 full seasons, Beltre has significantly exceeded an .800 OPS only twice - he's nothing more than a defensive upgrade over Buscher/Harris. Considering he's already going to cost a player or 2 in a trade and earn $12 million, I don't see any reason to bend over backward to give him more. He should be lobbying to get out of Seattle and come play for us. Who needs that?
Joe Crede is the best remaining free agent option. Like Beltre, he's had just 2 seasons with an OPS well over .800, but plays pretty good defense. Coming off 2 injury-shortened seasons, He'd probably be available for a cheap, short-term deal. None of the potential trade partners are worth the loss of a starter they'd require - though I still think Andy LaRoche could be extracted from Pittsburgh for some relatively painless pieces such as Philip Humber and Boof Bonser. Smith and Gardy say they're comfortable going into spring training with Buscher and Harris as their third basemen, and they should be. Just make sure you work like crazy with them on their defense.
As for the bullpen, I really don't think it's as bad as it seems. After all, 4 of the returning members (Joe Nathan, Jose Mijares, Craig Breslow and Crain) actually pitched quite well in 2008. If Guerrier were to rebound to his career averages (3.66 ERA, 1.34 WHIP) he'd be a perfectly decent contributor. That leaves a long-relief spot for either Bonser (who can't possibly repeat last year's badness - can he?), Humber or Rule 5 pickup Jason Jones. That group would probably be OK as is, though I'd still welcome a free agent and AAA guys like Bobby Korecky to the mix.
The Twins aren't doing much so far this winter, but they don't really need to. They can compete for the division title with what they've got. Winning in the playoffs is a different story. With some serious upgrades, they could be World Series contenders. With the status quo, they're going to need some good breaks.