Thursday, February 25, 2010

More Upgrades

As the full squad workouts begin this weekend, the Twins have question marks at very few positions. The coverage I've read so far boils it down to these:

1. Who will be the 5th starter?
2. Who will get most of the playing time at 3B?
3. Who will take the final bench spot? Will that person be able to back up Denard Span in CF?
4. What will happen to Glen Perkins?
5. What will happen to Alexi Casilla?

I'm already prepared to answer #1: It'll be Francisco Liriano, and he'll be closer to a #1 than #5 starter this year. That leaves long-relief as the only spot open to Perkins, and Brian Duensing is probably equally capable of filling that role. If one of them gets the last spot, that could send Casilla to the waiver wire, and it still wouldn't provide an experienced backup to Span on the 25-man roster.

The 3B situation is expected to be split between Brendan Harris and Nick Punto until Danny Valencia shows he's ready to take the next step up from AAA. Harris is presently projected by the main systems (PECOTA, Bill James, CHONE) to hit something like .265/.330/.400 while playing below average defense at the hot corner (-19.6 UZR/150 for his career, -10 FRAA in just 93 career G). Hopefully, he's just a temporary solution, but what if Valencia struggles in Rochester? We don't want to have to rely on Punto as a regular starter at 3B, since he'll probably be needed to give occasional rest to JJ Hardy, Orlando Hudson and Span.

Why not trade Perkins to the Pirates for Andy LaRoche? He's being projected to hit something like .260/.340/.405 while playing above average defense at 3B (2.9 UZR/150, 11 FRAA in his first 235 G). He's standing in the way of Pedro Alvarez, the Priates' top prospect (recently rated the #8 prospect in all of baseball by BA). Alvarez could be ready for his MLB debut by early summer, meaning LaRoche's days as an everyday player for the Pirates are numbered. Pittsburgh is in need of pitching depth, though, so picking up Perkins makes some sense for them.

It's a fairly balanced trade: both Perkins and LaRoche are former top prospects who have been, on the whole, disappointing at the Major League level so far. LaRoche should be an upgrade over Harris, and still has enough upside at age 26 that he could become an impact player. This is a guy who absolutely torched AAA over parts of 2006-2008. Like Scott Baker, who yo-yoed between MLB struggles and AAA mastery for a couple of years, LaRoche is someone who just needs to make that last adjustment to the big-league game. At the very least, he's expected to have about .025 of IsoP on Harris and a much higher walk rate, all while playing markedly better defense.

With LaRoche in the lineup, Valencia can take his time. If he puts things together the way he has the previous couple of springs, the Twins can decide which player has the more promising long-term future, and trade the other. If LaRoche tanks, Valencia can step in. If they both tank, I guess Punto has to take over like he did in 2006.

Acquiring LaRoche would necessitate a trade of Harris - he plays the same positions as Punto/Tolbert, but without the strong glove work and PR possibilities. As spring training rolls along, it shouldn't be hard to find a team looking for a veteran utility IF to fill out their bench, especially if they prefer someone who has a fairly strong bat. Already this week, Khalil Greene's contract was voided with the Rangers - Harris could be a candidate to fill that hole on their roster. Perhaps they'd be willing to swap one of their bench OF candidates: David Murphy, Endy Chavez or Brandon Boggs.

I like this scenario because it answers questions #2-#4 in ways that add value to the team. As it stands, 3B is the only spot in the lineup not projected to have an average or better player (depending on Delmon Young's progress). LaRoche should be able to hit somewhere close to league average while providing plus defense. He's an upgrade over Harris, who can then be exchanged for someone who could back up Span in CF (in addition to the other OF positions). Perkins gets a fresh start in a new organization.

All that would still leave Casilla's future in doubt, but if he doesn't play well enough to win a bench spot with the Twins, I have a feeling he'll manage to find his way through waivers. The Twins can start the season with 11 pitchers and a bench of Punto, Thome, backup C, Casilla, backup OF while optioning Duensing and Pat Neshek to Rochester. Or they can go with 12 pitchers and stash their backup OF in Rochester, relying on Punto to spot in CF but having longer-term depth available at AAA should Span land on the DL.

The bullpen is so deep that the Twins may need to make a trade there, too, but that will depend on how everyone looks in games next month. Needless to say, Perkins is also going to have to show something before he'll have any trade value. Anyway, I'd be very surprised if the Twins break camp without making another move or two. When they do, I hope it has a positive impact on the Major League roster.

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