Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Offseason Blueprint

(I'm just going to post this before something else happens. I'll fill in the blanks at the bottom in the coming days...)

Organizational Principles

1. Develop from within

The Twins have been savvy when it comes to acquiring prospects and training them to be contributors at the Major League level. Players that come up through the system have an investment in the Twins, and the fans become invested in them. Wherever feasible, positions on the 25-man roster should be filled by players who have been brought up as Twins.

2. Do the little things right

Catch the balls you're supposed to catch. Know when to take the extra base (and when not to!). Keep pressure on struggling pitchers by taking a few pitches. Make sure that, when you make an out, you've at least had a productive AB, either advancing a runner or making the opposing pitcher work. Attack the strike zone, especially against weaker hitters. Be cautious with your location, especially when facing an elite hitter with RISP late in the game.

These are the sort of things the Twins have gained a reputation for doing. If that reputation is to be deserved, any players filling the roster must be inclined to execute all the little things that make such a big difference over the course of the season.

3. Buy low, sell high

Despite promising revenue trends in recent years, the Twins are still a small-market club, and must be wise about how they spend their resources. They cannot afford to overpay for free agents (as Toronto did in recent years). Nor can they afford to throw away players whose value is temporarily low (Craig Breslow). They must instead be brutally honest about what sort of production every considered player is capable of, and then target the ones who may be undervalued at the moment for whatever reason.

4. Accumulate depth at all positions at the upper levels

Rochester was pretty thin last season in terms of MLB-ready pitching, 3B and MI prospects, and that lack of depth held the Twins back for most of the summer. The offseasons that really caught my attention last year were those of the Red Sox and Dodgers, who each made sure to pick up multiple veterans (like Takashi Saito, John Smoltz and Brad Penny) even though they had promising youngsters available to fill those roles (like Justin Masterson and Clay Buchholz). Some of those moves paid off more than others, but when something went wrong, those teams had plenty of options to fill in. And they still traded for more depth at the deadline. I think depth was a big reason those teams won 90+ games last year. The Twins can't spend as much as those guys, but they'd be wise to try to accumulate as much depth at each position as they can afford.

With these principles and the organizational review from last month in mind, here is what I would do were I in Bill Smith's shoes:

1. Sign Joe Mauer to an extension at 6 years/$120 million

This represents a bit of a conflict between Principle #1 and #3. Had the Twins been proactive about extending Mauer last offseason, I think he might have settled for something similar to Morneau's deal. Not anymore. Mauer has earned his 3rd batting title and will likely pick up his second gold glove and first MVP award. And he's only just entering his peak years. While I'd try to keep him to as few years as possible, since he plays a brutal position and has already spent significant time on the DL, I think it's realistically going to take at least 6 guaranteed years at nearly $20 million/year to get this deal done. So I propose to pay Mauer $19 million a year from 2011-2015, $20 million in 2016, and have a $20 million option for 2017 with a $5 million buyout. Perhaps it will be possible to defer some money as the Cardinals were able to do on Albert Pujols' current contract.

It's a ton of money, but Mauer may well be worth even more than that to the Twins, particularly if he's able to repeat his 2009 numbers in any of the upcoming seasons. And the loss in revenue and goodwill among the fan base if Mauer were allowed to walk or traded probably wouldn't be worth the savings. We've got to suck it up and get it done.

2. Decline Michael Cuddyer's 2011 option

This kinda sucks, because Cuddyer's been a good player for a long time and is coming off not only one of his best seasons, but one in which he helped carry the team into the postseason. It's unfortunate that his contract is structured in such a way that this decision has to be made within 5 days of the end of the 2009 World Series. If we knew how much Mauer was going to cost in 2011, I might feel differently. But without any cost certainty there, the sensible thing is to decline Cuddyer's $10.5M option.

Hopefully, he has another great season and, if things look favorable, we can offer him a contract for 2011 anyway. Certainly, we'll offer arbitration at the end of next year, making ourselves eligible for compensation draft picks should he sign elsewhere. And realistically, with his peak years behind him by then, we can probably expect about as much production from David Winfree or Rene Tosoni or some other prospect instead.

3. Renew Joe Crede's contract

This is for #2 and #4. Crede provided a few big hits for the Twins while playing exceptional defense at 3B. He only managed to play in about 60% of the games, but the Twins knew going into the season that he was injury-prone, so they signed him to a contract with a low base salary and incentives for more playing time. I think he provided reasonable value for what he was paid in 2009.

Someone is needed at 3B to start the season because Danny Valencia, one of the top prospects in the Twins' system, isn't quite ready for The Show. He demolished AA to the tune of .284/.373/.482, but gave back nearly .100 points of OPS in his 3 months at Rochester. But that's been his pattern as he's split levels over the past 3 seasons. As he moves up, he initially has trouble with strike zone control, but makes the adjustment by the following spring. In his first go at Fort Myers, he had a 3/1 K/BB ratio - that tightened to 3/2 when he came back in 2008. Then he went to New Britain and posted a 4/1 K/BB ratio, which he improved to 4/3 in 2009. He had about a 4/1 K/BB ratio in his first months at Rochester - we'll expect that to turn around this spring. When it does, he'll be ready for his MLB debut.

So I re-sign Crede to the same contract he had last year. If he does no more than in 2009, he'll buy Valencia a little more development time and make a solid contribution to the lineup for a portion of the season at a reasonable price. If he gets hurt, Valencia gets called up. But if he stays healthy, he's capable of performing at a level that will earn every bit of the extra money we'll owe him.

4. Let the other free agents walk

With the emergence of Jose Morales and Wilson Ramos set to start 2010 at AAA, we now have 3 above-average catching options at the upper levels. Which is to say, there are now 3 guys who could outperform a 39-year-old Mike Redmond. His offensive numbers have been in steep decline since 2006, and his catch-and-throw skills have deteriorated as well. He's been a marvelous asset to this team over the past 5 seasons, and I'd welcome him into the coaching ranks if he has any interest, but I don't think his body will allow him to have a positive impact on the field any more.

Ron Mahay gave the Twins a great month of September. He was available because the Royals released him after he had a terrible month of August. He see-sawed between lousy and great all season long. That meant his overall numbers were only OK, and his splits vs. lefties were only OK. He's just a couple of months younger than Redmond, so I wouldn't anticipate anything better from him next year, and it's more likely that things will get worse.

Carl Pavano gave the Twins 12 pretty good starts: he averaged 6 IP, 4.64 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 7.2 K/9 and just under 2.0 BB/9. Kevin Slowey, who should be 100% recovered from his wrist injury, averaged 5.2 IP, 4.86 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 7.4 K/9 and 1.5 BB/9. And it was a bit of an off year for him. Pavano is in position to get some pretty good guaranteed money and perhaps a multi-year deal, though 2009 was the first year since 2004 that he'd thrown more than 100 IP. About to turn 34, a big injury risk, duplicates Slowey (i.e. #3 starter) and we'd be buying high, which is a no-no.

Orlando Cabrera was as hot as anyone down the stretch, but he'll be 35 next year and is showing signs of physical decline. His OPS dropped for the second straight year, and he made a ton of mistakes at SS. His career OBP is just .322, which is not what you want in the #2 spot in the lineup. If I thought his defense were solid, I might try to get him for just one year. But it's not, and he'll probably be looking for more than we'd offer, so we wish him well...

5. Offer contracts to all arbitration-eligible players

This list includes Boof Bonser, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Francisco Liriano, Pat Neshek, Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and now JJ Hardy. As you'll see later, I'm inclined to try to trade some of these guys. But none of them will be so expensive that they couldn't perform up to the value of their contracts. I'm particularly keen to keep a roster full of quality bullpen arms, so Bonser, Crain, Guerrier and Neshek all come back with a chance to make the team next spring. Liriano had poor control last year, but had a ton of bad luck as well - he'll get every opportunity to make the rotation. Just 24 years old, Young still has time to improve. I'd only consider non-tendering Harris, but it's better to hold onto him for at least the first part of the offseason as I see how other pieces fall into place.

6. Settle the 40-man roster

7. Acquire JJ Hardy to be the starting SS

Check that one off the list.

8. Acquire an ace

9. Clarify the OF situation

Check on that one, too.

10. Make trades to balance the system

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