The Twins haven’t exactly been building a contender this offseason. Oh sure, they signed one of the most sought-after Japanese infielders, but they also traded away their shortstop (and arguably one of the best shortstops in the league) for a bag of balls couple of relievers, and seem content to pencil in the replacement-level Alexi Casilla as the everyday SS. Actually, they’ve been pretty content to sit back and watch their more expensive free agents leave for greener pastures, while their closest division rivals, the Tigers and White Sox, have been aggressively upgrading their teams, obviously with the intention of making a deep run in the postseason. That her favorite team appears more interested in saving money than fielding a competitive ballclub is enormously frustrating for a fan who spends a decent chunk of her paycheck on tickets. Worse yet, with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau entering their primes, the team looks to be throwing away an entire season for two of its most valuable players. How maddening.
However, I can’t help but wonder if the front office is smart to save their money, and if building for 2012 is really the best strategy.
First of all, the division isn’t all that strong, even though both Detroit and Chicago have been actively improving their ballclubs. The Tigers won 81 games last year, and the addition of Victor Martinez and Brad Penny (while dumping Jeremy Bonderman) might give them three or four more wins. The White Sox look to have done the most to improve their team, signing Adam Dunn to fill their gaping hole at DH, and adding Jesse Crain and Will Ohman to the bullpen. Given how strong their starting pitching was last year, the Sox are, on paper, the best team in the Central and the early favorites to win the division. Of course, if we have learned anything over the past ten years, the Twins should never be counted out. It’s unlikely, given all of the holes they have in the rotation (if they fail to sign Carl Pavano), and the lineup (if they fail to re-sign Jim Thome or add another bat), the bullpen, and all of the question marks in the middle infield. Still, this is a team that won 94 games last year, and the Twins have managed to do well with much less than they have right now, so it isn’t unreasonable to think they could somehow find a way to win the division again. After all, a lot of things went wrong last year, and yet the Twins still managed to run away with the Central. Maybe Justin Morneau, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey will all manage to stay healthy for an entire season; maybe the BABIP gods will shine favorably upon Francisco Liriano; maybe Joe Nathan and Pat Neshek will be healthy and effective; maybe Danny Valencia’s breakout rookie season isn’t a fluke; maybe Delmon Young’s 122 wRC+ and .195 ISO are for real; and maybe Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer will rebound from their disappointing 2010 campaigns.
Even if the Twins find do themselves out of contention by the trade deadline, however, that might actually be a good thing. They’ve been in the midst of a dogfight with Chicago and Detroit over the past three seasons, and as a result, they’ve also been forced to hang on to some of their more toxic contracts. Contenders desperate to add a bat or a bullpen arm at the trading deadline are typically more willing to take on salary than they would be during the offseason, making it much easier to deal overpaid outfielders and relievers like Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan. Unfortunately for the Twins, being in contention for a playoff spot means they must hang on to their expensive veterans, rather than unload them for whatever prospects they can get. They probably wouldn’t get much, considering that Cuddyer and Jason Kubel will become free agents next year (and perhaps Nathan, too, if his option isn’t picked up), but they could also dangle some of their more expensive younger players, like Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, or Delmon Young, and perhaps get a better return.
Secondly, the Twins will have a lot more wiggle room when it comes to payroll in 2012. Even if they aren’t able to unload their worst contracts at the trade deadline, most of them will be coming off of the books next year anyway. Some of their young players will be due raises in arbitration, but they should still have an estimated $30 million to play with. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the front office should punt on this season; after all, there are still potential free agent bargains available that could address some major needs, particularly in the bullpen and a right-handed bench bat. It’s just that it’s unreasonable to expect the front office to make much of a splash this offseason; there are just too many holes and not enough money available to address them via free agency.
Thirdly, and I think this is the most important part, there is a wave of very good prospects who should be major-league ready as soon as 2012. Kyle Gibson and David Bromberg will likely be in the rotation full time by then, and Alex Wimmers will likely join them by the end of the season. Carlos Gutierrez should be a force to contend with in the bullpen. Ben Revere, Rene Tosoni, and Angel Morales round out an intriguing group, and there are even better prospects in the low minors (though they probably won’t be ready by next year). It’s unlikely that any of these players will develop into superstars, and none of them alone would be much to get excited about, but the Twins already have established superstars in Mauer, Morneau and (hopefully) Francisco Liriano. They just need a strong supporting cast to complement these guys, and they should have that in the current crop of prospects.
Contrary to popular belief, the Twins are not really built to contend right now; it is instead Detroit and Chicago who find themselves in that position. Two of the best players on the White Sox, Paul Konerko and Mark Buehrle, are both in their early thirties and may not have too many good years left. While John Danks is barely 26 and one of the best young pitchers in the league, the Sox are nonetheless an aging team, with the average age of their starting rotation at 29 and their position players 30.7. Tigers have a younger core, with Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander turning 28, and Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello all under 27, but their farm system is barren. Fangraphs ranked the farm systems for the White Sox and Tigers towards the bottom of the league, and dougdirt at Minor League Ball put them at 27 and 22, respectively. The Twins, on the other hand, look to be set up pretty well for future success. Their core players are barely thirty, and are locked up for at least four more years, while their farm system consistently ranks in the top ten in baseball. With a lot of young talent and a lot of money to spend, the Twins look to be very dangerous for many years to come.