Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Offseason Priorities

This weekend the Twins hold their annual organizational meetings in Fort Myers. It's the time to assess all the talent in the system and craft a strategy for success in 2010 and beyond. They should be happy about:

1. The Major League Core

Joe Mauer (C), Justin Morneau (1B), Jason Kubel (DH), Denard Span (Leadoff/OF), and Joe Nathan (Closer) have proven themselves to be among the elite players in the league at their respective positions. They are complimented by Michael Cuddyer (RF), Jose Morales (C), Scott Baker (SP), Kevin Slowey (SP), Nick Blackburn (SP), Matt Guerrier (RP), Jon Rauch and Jose Mijares (RP). That's about half the roster right there, all capable of turning in performances well above average.

2. Acquiring high-ceiling prospects

Bill Smith's first 2 drafts have been huge successes. Recent #1 picks Ben Revere, Aaron Hicks and Kyle Gibson all have the potential to be regular MLB contributors. And this year the Twins handed out record bonuses in order to sign elite international prospects Miguel Angel Sano and Max Kepler. Those additions should see the Twins' system rise into the upper half of the talent rankings.

3. Depth at OF, 1B, 2B, C, RP, #3-5 SP

Throughout the Twins system, you see solid performances from those positions.
OF: Span, Cuddyer, Kubel, David Winfree, Rene Tosoni, Juan Portes, Revere, Joe Benson, Evan Bigley, Angel Morales (to say nothing of Delmon Young, Carlos Gomez, Hicks or Kepler)
1B: Morneau, Brock Peterson, Justin Huber, Erik Lis, Chris Parmelee
2B: Steven Tolleson, Brian Dinkelman, Steve Singleton, Ramon Santana
C: Mauer, Morales, Wilson Ramos, Danny Lehmann, Daniel Rams
RP: Nathan, Guerrier, Mijares, Jesse Crain, Rauch, Pat Neshek, Boof Bonser, Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney, Armando Gabino, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Loek van Mil, Spencer Steedley, Joe Testa, Santos Arias, Matthew Williams, Billy Bullock
SP: Slowey, Blackburn, Glen Perkins, Anthony Swarzak, Brian Duensing, Jeff Manship, Matt Fox, Ryan Mullins, Tyler Robertson, Steve Hirschfeld, Mike McCardell, Carlos Gutierrez, Brad Tippett, Bruce Pugh
I'm probably forgetting a few guys. Needless to say, I feel like the Twins have those spots covered.

4. Attendance trends

Since bottoming out in 2000, the Twins have seen their attendance figures increase in every year but one. They drew better than 2.4 million fans in 2009 (the play-in helped!), and reached the upper half of the majors in average attendance. Target Field should ensure that those numbers go even higher in 2010. Plus, they ranked 5th among the MLB teams in local TV ratings. This should lead to lots of revenues over the next couple seasons, and correspondingly increased payrolls.

They should be concerned about:

1. Sub-Replacement Level performances

The RP in VORP and WARP stands for "replacement player," the theoretical performance that any scrub called up from AAA ought to be able to achieve. For a major leaguer to fall short of that level is not a good thing. Of the 16 position players the Twins used in 2009, 6 had negative VORP (Brian Buscher, Nick Punto, Mike Redmond, Matt Tolbert, Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla) and 2 more were essentially at replacement level (Joe Crede, Brendan Harris) at the plate. WARP incorporates defense, which lifts up Gomez, Punto and Crede but pulls down Harris and Delmon Young. 10 of the 24 pitchers the Twins used wound up with VORPs of 0 or negative. When 40% of the roster can't even surpass replacement level, there is room for improvement, to say the least.

2. Lack of high-ceiling prospects at upper levels

Look at the guys who played for AAA Rochester and AA New Britain this year. An average player in the International League hit .262/.328/.395 and pitched to a 3.92 ERA and 1.36 WHIP. The Eastern League averages were .258/.332/.385, 3.90 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. Of the above-average performers, how many of them were previously established major leaguers (Tolbert, Mijares) or guys who broke camp with the Twins (Morales, Crain)? How many proved to be overmatched in the Majors when given opportunities in 2009 (Henn, Gabino)? How many have significant drawbacks to their ceiling/game, whether because of poor defense (Luke Hughes), plate discipline (Winfree) K/9 (Manship, Swarzak) or BB/9 (Morillo, Slama)? Could any of these guys be counted on to hold down a big league spot right out of spring training next year?

3. Lack of depth at SS, 3B, #1-2 SP

Of the players listed as SS on the Twins' roster and in their full-season affiliates (i.e. theoretically within 3 years of arriving in the Majors) only Trevor Plouffe is even an average hitter, and his youth makes another year at Rochester likely. Thanks to Hughes' poor glove and Deibinson Romero's step backward in 2009, only Danny Valencia looks promising at 3B, and he could probably use a couple more months at AAA before his first call-up. As for aces, Scott Baker is a bit stretched as a #1, and David Bromberg could be making himself into a #2. Kyle Gibson supposedly has that kind of talent, but he has yet to make his pro debut. Deolis Guerra was supposed to have that kind of potential, but has been inconsistent since joining the Twins. The short-season guys still have a long ways to go.

4. Escalating contracts

The Twins only had two arbitration-eligible players last season, but that figure goes up to 8 in 2010. The core players I mentioned above are already under contract/estimated raises totaling over $62 million, nearly as much as the 2009 opening day payroll. If the Twins bring back all the arbitration players, it should take the payroll up to around $74 million. And that would still leave considerable holes to fill at SS, 3B and, possibly, #1 starter. In 2011, Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, Cuddyer, Nathan and Baker could command more than $64 million between them. Mauer's next contract should make Morneau's long-term deal look cheap.

Taking all of those things into consideration, here are the steps the Twins need to take this offseason:

1. Sign Mauer to an extension

I guess my starting offer would be $90 million for 5 years, the same deal Ichiro got 2 years ago. And it goes up from there. It should be for as little guaranteed money and as few years as possible, but it's got to happen. The Twins simply cannot afford the PR hit of letting their home-grown MVP walk in the year they open their taxpayer funded stadium.

2. Acquire a #1 starter

The Twins could either trade for someone like Josh Johnson, Matt Cain, or even Roy Halladay, or try to scoop up one of the free agents, like John Lackey or Rich Harden. I wouldn't mind seeing them take a gamble on one of the oft-injured aces like Erik Bedard or Ben Sheets, provided the contract was structured properly. Whichever way they decide to go, they should be looking for someone who can matchup with Zach Greinke, Justin Verlander and Jake Peavey when those division rivals are in town.

3. Acquire a productive middle infielder

There is a pretty broad market for free agent 2B, so the Twins should be able to pick something up there. There may be trade possibilities for JJ Hardy or Brendan Ryan. If they're intending for this person to hit in the #2 spot, he should be able to bat RH and have a high OBP. Strong defense is a must for me. If this person is good enough, I can live with Punto in the other spot batting 9th.

4. Make a short-term decision about third base

Valencia seems by all indications to be the long term answer at the hot corner, but is he ready to be an everyday player in the big leagues right now? If not, who takes that spot until he's ready? One of the replacement level (or worse) guys we already have on the roster? Somebody coming off an injury could be a good fit, maybe Crede again or Troy Glaus.

5. Figure out the best way to use the major league outfield talent

Neither Young nor Gomez had particularly good seasons in 2009, and yet each showed enough to give us hope that they might be improving. Will they be able to reach their potential playing as infrequently as they did last year? Is there someone else in the Twins system who could adequately fill the roles those two were given last year?

6. Determine who can be traded in order to provide depth at all positions, especially at AA, AAA and MLB

There is enough of a surplus at certain positions that I think we can safely say that certain minor leaguers really have no shot at becoming regular contributors while they remain in the Twins' system. Do them a favor and send them to an organization where they have a better opportunity. Surely, there is another team out there that feels the same way about its 3B or SS and would be happy balance their own system.

Hopefully, those are the things the Twins management is talking about this weekend. I'll be back soon to suggest some specific moves they could make.

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