Monday, November 8, 2010

It Ain't Broke

2010-2011 Offseason Blueprint

Congratulations to the San Francisco Giants on the occasion of their first World Series title in 50+ seasons on the left coast. They join the 2006 Cardinals and 1987 Twins on the short list of weakest rosters to lift the trophy. Their pitching was elite, but their lineup basically consisted of an outstanding rookie and a bunch of past-their-prime castoffs who all managed to have one last good half season at the same time. Of the 8 teams that made it to the postseason, I would have ranked them 7th or 8th, yet they come away with the rings. They are proof that anything can happen in October. The hard part is getting there.

Nobody had an easier time getting to October than the Twins, who clinched their division with 11 games still left on the schedule. However disappointing their ALDS showing against the Yankees, they were by far the class of the AL Central. Whatever moves the front office makes between now and opening day have to be in support of maintaining the dominance over the division this team has already shown.

The Twins are facing some major payroll constraints, thanks mostly to a pair of poor decisions Bill Smith made on either end of the 2009 season. The first was when he chose not to offer Joe Mauer an extension in the spring. Coming off a batting title and gold glove in 2008, Mauer had established himself as the face of the franchise. But he was hobbled by a back injury which wound up costing him all of spring training, his 3rd major DL stint in 6 MLB seasons. Mauer's leverage was never going to be lower. Smith should have offered him a 4-year, $60M-ish extension (including $16M option for 2015) at that time. That's more than Jorge Posada got, and similar to what Justin Morneau got. In the midst of his sacroiliac drama, there's no way Mauer turns that down. But Smith decided to let Mauer come within a year of free agency, and now he's paying him $23M for 2011 instead of $14-15M.

The other misstep came in early November, when Smith exercised Michael Cuddyer's 2011 option based on his 2009 season. I never saw the sense of that. Even if Cuddyer had managed to repeat his career year in 2010, and the Twins wanted him back in RF in 2011, he wouldn't have cost a lot more than $10.5M. A duplicate of 2009 would have likely made Cuddyer a Type A free agent. Offer him arbitration, and if he declines, you've got another high pick in what's projecting to be an especially high quality draft. If you can't resign him, Jason Kubel is your RF and you just need to sign a platoon partner for him for a pittance. Instead, Cuddyer had a pedestrian 2010, but is locked in for something around double what he'd command on the open market.

Those significant constraints notwithstanding, the Twins aren't in bad shape heading into 2011. Here's a potential opening day roster one could assemble from the guys who are currently on the 40-man roster and under team control for next season (click to enlarge):

Bad news: the Twins could replace every departing free agent with a pre-arbitration farmhand and still have a payroll about 10% above what they started with last season.

Good news: This team would still be solidly average or better, almost across the board. The only weak spot in the lineup is Casilla, who has put up league average 2B numbers in 2 of the last 3 seasons. Of the pitchers, only Nick Blackburn is below par, though he, too, has put up above average numbers in 2 of the last 3 seasons. Even with a bevy of rookies on the bench and in the bullpen, this team can contend in the AL Central.

However, there are a tremendous number of what ifs associated with this roster. Can Nathan and Morneau (and Neshek, Hardy, Baker and Slowey) shake off their injuries to deliver performances in line with their career numbers? Can Span, Kubel, Cuddyer and Blackburn bounce back from down years? Can Young, Valencia, and Duensing sustain their breakouts? Can aging prospects like Hughes, Slama, Morales, Tolbert and Delaney finally stick on a big league bench? Can young prospects like Revere and Burnett overcome a lack of experience at AAA to have an impact with the Twins?

The answer to many of those questions will probably be no. But, in many cases, it could be yes. If we knew which areas wouldn't work out, we could focus our offseason personnel decisions around strengthening those positions. But we don't know, and likely couldn't make any definitive determination until the first part of June.

That being the case, my recommendation for this offseason would be to upgrade this roster around the margins while retaining as much talent and payroll flexibility as possible for the trades we'll need to make at the beginning of the summer. Specifically:

1. Let the FA go, but be courageous about offering arbitration.

Carl Pavano, Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson, Brian Fuentes, Randy Flores, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Ron Mahay and Nick Punto are all free to pursue deals elsewhere. Only Flores, Mahay and Punto are in poor position to expect a multi-year deal from their new team. As it stands now, the Twins can expect to get only 1 of the top 60 or so picks in next year's talented draft class. If they're bold with their arbitration offers, though, they could get as many as 8 picks in that range.

Fuentes, Crain and Rauch are Type B free agents, and all have closer aspirations. They should each be a relative bargain for other clubs looking for "proven" closers. Those clubs don't lose any picks for signing them, though the Twins would gain supplemental first round picks should they offer them arbitration. Any of them would be worthwhile additions to the bullpen should they accept. In fact, if the payroll weren't already so high, I'd actively try to bring back Fuentes and/or Crain. But I'm guessing all of them will test the market, and thereby earn the Twins 3 supplemental picks.

Pavano should be looking for something like what Randy Wolf got from the Brewers last year (at least $30M over 3 years). At the least, he'll be expecting what Joel Pineiro got from the Angels (2 years, $16M). Either way, he's declining arbitration this time around. I have a feeling he'll wind up with one of the bottom half finishers such as the Mets, meaning the Twins would only get a high 2nd round pick and a supplemental pick for him. But that's still a nice tradeoff for a low-risk arbitration offer.

The tricky case is that of Guerrier. Non-closer relievers tend to be a tough sell as Type A's. Guerrier wouldn't be worth giving up a top 30 pick for. But 50th or later? Sure. And there are plenty of scenarios in which that could be the case. Guerrier is the sort of veteran Dayton Moore can't resist signing; KC's 2nd round pick should be around 50th overall. How about a return to his native Cleveland? Or Pittsburgh? Or what about some of the bigger spending teams who could be signing multiple Type A's? After the Yankees grab Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, would they have any qualms about dropping their 3rd round pick on Guerrier? Better still, what if the team that lands Adam Dunn decides to give up their 2nd-rounder for Guerrier? The Twins would get the 1st-round pick, because Guerrier is actually ranked higher by Elias. The upside could be outstanding. The downside if he accepts arbitration is minimal. I would want to bring back one of the bullpen veterans for 2011. If it has to be Guerrier at $3.5-4M, that's hardly a disaster.

With some cajones and a few good breaks, the Twins could be turning their 2010 veteran sell-off into a pool of talent that will be the core of their team for the 2nd half of the decade. Let's go for it.

2. Use multi-year deals to keep the arbitrator away.

In addition to 10 FA, the Twins have 10 players who are eligible for arbitration. I would non-tender Glen Perkins and Clay Condrey. Casilla, Repko and Neshek get 1-year deals for $1M or less. By offering multi-year deals to 4 of the others, we can trim a few million dollars off the estimated payroll, leaving some headroom with which we can add bigger salaries later in the season.

Quick note: I'm taking my baseline salary estimates from the Twins Centric guys, so there won't be any controversy about the numbers. However, they're way off base with their $2.75M estimate for Slowey. There's no way he gets a lot more than Liriano did in his 1st year of arbitration. He'll get $1.75M at the most.

Hardy's situation is the easiest. The Tigers and Jhonny Peralta just set the market for late 20's, RH SS with some power but no SB: 2 years, $11.25M, with a $6M option for 2013. Compare their 3-year averages:

Peralta: .260/.319/.414, 49 HR, 4/7 SB in about 1900 PA
Hardy: .262/.324/.419, 41 HR, 3/6 SB in about 1450 PA

Hardy is the better fielder, but Peralta has been more durable. They're the same age. Basically, there is no justification for Hardy to expect anything different than what Peralta got, which pays $5.5M in 2011.

Liriano's best comps are Zach Greinke and Josh Johnson, budding aces who missed a considerable chunk of early 20's development time to various ailments. Greinke got 4 years, $38M following his 1st arbitration year in which he was paid $1.4M. Johnson got 4 years, $39M the next year, also after earning $1.4M in his 1st arb year. Liriano just made $1.6M. The other 2 had better numbers in the season before the contract, though, so the Twins could hopefully get away with a bit less, say 4 years, $36M. The others made $3.75 in the 1st year of the deal; I'll structure it so Liriano gets $3.5M next year.

Young should get at least what Matt Kemp got: 2 years, $11M. It might make sense to take it out to 4 years, similar to Mauer's 1st big contract, which paid him $23M over the final 2 years of the deal. Either way, Young makes $4.5M in 2011.

Capps is the backup closer, so we don't want to pay him like the 1st-string guy if he's only setting up. I'd offer him a 3-year deal with a $5M base salary and some pretty massive incentives for Games Finished. Something like an extra $0.5M for every 5 he racks up after 20. That way, if he's out there for 50 save situations, he earns $8M - real closer money, but not so rich that he wouldn't be tradeable to just about anybody. If he stays in the setup role, he's a bit overpaid, but not as much as he would have been on a 1-year deal.

If Guerrier accepts arbitration, he would fall into this category, too. I'd try to get him for 2 years, $8M but pay him just $3.5M of that this season.

All of that shaves around $6M off the payroll, leaving perhaps around $12M to play with over the course of the season.

3. Don't sign anybody until late January.

4. At that time, fill out the roster with some bargain veterans.

Repko will be the bench OF, giving Revere at least a couple hundred PA to continue his development as an everyday player in Rochester.

If Guerrier didn't accept arbitration, here's when we go after Crain (if he's still available) or somebody comparable to give Gardy a little more security at the back end of the 'pen. Between Nathan, Capps, Mijares and Crain, he should be feeling pretty good about the close ones. Burnett will head back to AAA for more seasoning.

I'd like to pick up another LHP, a true LOOGY if no one more versatile is available. Could be Randy Choate, could be our old friend Dennys Reyes. Neither should cost much more than $1M, especially at this stage of the offseason. This gives the Twins the luxury of filling out the 'pen with just 2 of Neshek, Slama and Delaney, leaving the odd man at Rochester as call-up depth.

This was around the time the Twins signed Jim Thome for 2010, the most astute FA signing of the offseason. They have to pull that off again, this time with a RH batter. My choice would be Troy Glaus. Last season proved that he can't hack it as an everyday fielder anymore, but also showed that he has plenty of power left when healthy. As a DH/PH and occasional (say, twice a month) fill-in at 1B, I bet he'd hold up over the season at least as well as Thome did, and for about the same price. He's better against LHP, but not useless against RHP, so he could suitably fill the broader role of "Power off the Bench" whenever we need that 3-run HR but Casilla is coming up.

All that adds up to a little under $107M. Plenty of potential from that roster, but room enough to add some premium talent during the season should there be a need. And it's accomplished without trading any top prospects from the system, leaving those players as potential minor league depth or as pieces of midseason transactions. Good enough for now.


Ben said...

I like it a lot, but I wonder if the Twins would gamble on everyone declining arbitration.

But they surprised us last year with all the splurging, so who knows?

neckrolls said...

Well, I'm not afraid to gamble with their money.