Thursday, November 12, 2009

Offseason Blueprint (cont.)

Last time I was imagining what moves I'd make were I in Bill Smith's shoes. I started with a list of organizational principles:

1. Develop from within
2. Do the little things right
3. Buy low, sell high
4. Accumulate depth at all positions at the upper levels

then gave the first 5 steps of my offseason plan:

1. Sign Joe Mauer to an extension at 6 years/$120 million
2. Decline Michael Cuddyer's 2011 option
3. Renew Joe Crede's contract
4. Let the other free agents walk
5. Offer contracts to all arbitration-eligible players

Picking up where I left off...

6. Settle the 40-man roster

There's already been a lot of action on this front in the real world. Carlos Gomez is off, JJ Hardy is on. The free agents are off. Boof Bonser, Pat Neshek and Kevin Slowey came off the 60-day DL and are back on the 40-man. Brian Buscher, Justin Huber and Armando Gabino were removed, and Gabino was claimed off waivers by the Orioles. Juan Morillo has been added, but David Winfree has not, enabling him to become a minor league free agent.

I love Gomez for Hardy straight up, so I'm cool with that move. The FA/60-day DL stuff was automatic. As for the other moves so far, I would have also removed Huber while adding Winfree, since I see Winfree as the most capable corner OF replacement should something happen to Cuddyer or Delmon Young. Because Smith picked up Cuddyer's option, I can understand leaving Winfree off the roster - he's blocked at both positions - but he's still a more polished call-up option than some of the other guys who will be at Rochester this spring. I was inclined to hang on to Gabino and Buscher; Gabino looks like a decent swing man and Buscher's discerning eye at the plate makes him a pretty useful PH, even when he's got a low average and shows zero power like he did in 2009. If I only had a 4-man bench, he probably doesn't make the cut, but if we go with 11 pitchers (always my preference), he'd be in the running for that last spot.

The other guys I'd clear off would be Deibinson Romero, Drew Butera, and Bobby Keppel. Romero had an unimpressive season at Fort Myers, so I doubt there's much interest from other clubs in snatching him. 2 catchers would have to get hurt before we'd need Butera - I'll worry about adding a 4th C to the 40-man only if that comes to pass. With Bonser and Neshek back from their injuries, I don't see a spot for Keppel except as AAA filler. That's because I want to make room for higher-upside additions, like Alex Burnett and Rob Delaney. I give Huber's slot to Brock Peterson, a better fit to back up Morneau because he's a RH hitter. I expect Danny Valencia to make his MLB debut when Crede gets hurt or when the rosters expand in September, whichever comes first - he gets Romero's spot (and Crede is back on). The final spot goes to Brian Dinkelman, a more advanced prospect than Steve Singleton, for this year at least.

My 40-man has 3 C, 6 OF, 5 CI, 5 MI, 3 utility IF, 8 SP and 10 RP (and at least one of the LHP I've listed as a starter - Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins or Brian Duensing - will end up in the bullpen). It'd be nice to have one more OF, but otherwise I think it's a good balance.

7. Acquire JJ Hardy to be the starting SS

This has happened, and for less than I thought it would take. I was going to start the process by offering Duensing, who for his career hasn't been any more impressive than Glen Perkins, but whose stock will probably never be higher after the way he finished the season in the Twins' rotation. And the Brewers need pitching. Instead, they opted for Gomez' defensive ability and tools. So we get an everyday SS who rates as one of the better defenders at the position in the majors, and who has shown as recently as 2008 the ability to hit 25 HR and 30 2B in a season. Hardy is entering his peak years, and he's still under team control through 2011. And all we had to give up was a bench OF. Nice.

8. Acquire an ace

Since Santana was traded, the Twins haven't really had a bona fide ace - someone who consistently wipes out opposing hitters while sparing the bullpen and giving the team a strong chance of winning every five days. Baker is close, but I think he matches up better with other #2 starters. Kevin Slowey, when healthy, is a rock-solid #3, and Nick Blackburn has been a solid #4 or very good #5. I'm going to give Liriano a spot in the rotation next spring - he had a bit of bad luck on balls in play, and mostly needs to make a mechanical adjustment when he pitches from the stretch. If those two things get back to normal, I think he's a decent back-end starter. If he adds command of his fastball to the equation, he's back to the front-end. But those are big "ifs."

There is no true ace on the roster, nor is there one anywhere in sight in the system. We've got to go get somebody to fill this void. Preferably someone we can get under contract for at least the next 3 seasons. Unfortunately, none of the guys with Ace stuff in this year's FA pool have reliably made 33-34 starts over the past few seasons. The best option is John Lackey, who is expected to receive a contract similar to AJ Burnett's (5 years/$82 M). With escalating salaries from other core Twins players over the next few seasons, I'm not sure I want to go that far, even if I thought we could outbid the big markets for Lackey. And we want to always buy low, anyway.

So, from the available FA, my first choice would be Rich Harden. He has scintillating stuff, with a 9.4 K/9 for his career. Unfortunately, he's been very injury-prone, exceeding 30 GS and 150 IP just once in his career, though he was able to make 25+ starts in each of the last two years. The other trouble with him is that he's inefficient: he's averaged better than 6 IP/GS only twice in his career, and not since 2005. However, he's only about to turn 28, so he should still have some good years ahead of him if he can stay healthy. As far as bang for the buck goes, he looks like the best option, particularly since the bullpen figures to be pretty deep in 2010 and should be better able to absorb some short starts.

I'd offer Harden a contract for 2010 similar to what Pavano got in 2009, though, since Harden has made 25 starts in each of the past 2 years, and his stuff is so fantastic, the base is going to have to be a lot higher than Pavano's. I'd propose a $6 M guaranteed base salary. Because I want to encourage better efficiency from Harden, the escalators are based on IP rather than GS: I'd raise him $0.5 M for every 10 IP beginning with 140, so that the overall value of the contract would be $9.5 M if he reaches 200 IP. Furthermore, it would have a guaranteed $12 M option for 2011 that would vest once he reached 200 IP. Similarly, he'd get vesting options for $13.5 M for 2012 and $15 M for 2013 at the 200 IP mark. Plus, it would have bonuses for All-Star appearances, post-season success, and top-5 Cy Young finishes.

Under those terms, if Harden can lower his pitches/IP and keep himself healthy, he can effectively make this into a 4 year, $50 M contract - far more than anyone is likely to guarantee him based on his career so far. My 2nd choice for this sort of deal would be Erik Bedard. My 3rd choice would be Ben Sheets.

Trading is an option, too, but aces cost a lot. Getting a Josh Johnson would likely have to be something similar to the Dan Haren deal 2 years ago. The D-Backs had to give up their #1, #3, #7 and #8 BA-rated prospects, plus Greg Smith and Dana Eveland in order to acquire Haren and minor-league pitcher Connor Robertson. That would mean the Twins would have to give up something like Aaron Hicks, Wilson Ramos, Anthony Swarzak, Carlos Gutierrez, Glen Perkins and Mike McCardell for Johnson and a Philip Humber-type pitcher (good pedigree, but starting to run out of time as a prospect).

The other possibility would be for a shorter-term but even more impactful ace, like Roy Halladay. He's got just one year left on his contract at $15.75M. The Blue Jays are keen to dump that salary, but it will take an offer somewhere between the C.C. Sabathia deal with the Brewers (#1 prospect + 3 others) and the Cliff Lee (#2, #3, #4, #10)/Jake Peavy (#2, #3 + 2 others) deals. Maybe Ben Revere, Ramos, Swarzak and Duensing. It's not a horrible prospect, and we'd get 2 high draft picks back in 2011, but then we're still looking for an ace again this time next year. That may be the situation should Harden or whoever succumb to injuries once again. But I'd rather take the high-reward play and save my surplus prospects for other purposes.

9. Clarify the OF situation

Before the Hardy trade, I was going to prefer that the Twins stick with Gomez, hoping that he'd develop enough offense to be respectable, then give the Twins' pitchers 2 CF in their OF. That would mean trading Young somewhere, for whatever we could get. But with Gomez heading for the land of cheese, the OF situation I've been advocating for awhile can come to be. That is, had the Twins opted to give Gomez some regular AB at AAA, Jason Pridie could have been recalled to fill precisely the role that Gomez had at the end of the season: late-inning defensive upgrade for Kubel or Young in games the Twins are leading, PR in situations where the Twins need a run to tie or take the lead. Pridie isn't as exceptional as Gomez in those regards, but he has plus speed and OF defense and is a high-percentage base stealer. And like Gomez, he's a bit of a hacker with a lousy OBP. However, his left-handedness will have some extra utility on the days Cuddyer and Young get a rest - make sure the opposing starter is a RHP, and Pridie shouldn't be totally useless hitting out of the #8 or #9 spots.

Overall, exchanging Orlando Cabrera and Gomez for Hardy and Pridie should be a big net gain for the Twins.

10. Make trades to balance the system

This is something that will be ongoing from now to Opening Day next April. I'll get into it another day...

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