To be clear, I haven’t given up on this team…yet. That said, with every loss the road gets more and more difficult and one thought that has occurred to me on a couple of occasions is, “OK, even if this team goes on an improbable run and makes the playoffs, will they really have the tools to compete in the post-season anyway?” I know the old saying goes something like, “having a shot is all that matters, anything can happen once you get there” and I appreciate that sentiment, but realistically we’re looking at a lost season for the Twins that will end with their last regular-season game on September 28th. Given that probable reality, I think it’s safe to start looking towards the off-season to see what kind of moves the Twins could make to increase their chances of fielding a winning team in 2012.
Let’s start with the kind of money the Twins might have at their disposal. First, here are the 2011 salaries that will fall off the books at season’s end:
Michael Cuddyer ($10.5M)
Joe Nathan ($11.25M)
Matt Capps ($7.15M)
Jason Kubel ($5.25M)
Jim Thome ($3.0M)
Between those 4 players, that’s $37.15M off of the total $113.24M Twins payroll for this season. Now, the arbitration eligibles:
Francisco Liriano (2011 Salary – $4.3M – final year of arbitration)
Delmon Young (2011 Salary – $5.375M – final year of arbitration)
Kevin Slowey (2011 Salary – $2.7M – 2 remaining years of arbitration)
Alexi Casilla (2011 Salary – $865K – 2 remaining years of arbitration)
Glen Perkins (2011 Salary – $700K – 2 remaining years of arbitration)
Jason Repko (2011 Salary – $600K – 2 remaining years of arbitration)
Jose Mijares (2011 Salary – $445K – 3 remaining years of arbitration)
Matt Tolbert (2011 Salary – $425K – 2 remaining years of arbitration)
If the Twins retained all of those players, which they won’t, it would cost them roughly $5-$10M total in arbitration raises. That said, if the Twins maintain a $110M-$115M payroll, they are looking at having anywhere from ~$27M to $32M to play with during the off-season – which is a nice chunk of change to fill the myriad of holes this team has.
I think we can all agree somewhat that the Twins biggest needs at this point, in no particular order, are a) competent bullpen arms, b) middle-infield help and c) another legitimate starter, or two. A couple of things the Twins could do in-house to help themselves out are a) move Kevin Slowey to the rotation next year and b) move Brian Duensing into a long-relief/LOOGY role. Duensing has shown, earlier in his career, that he can be an effective reliever and has shown this year that the rotation isn’t really where he belongs. Slowey meanwhile, is in no-man’s land pitching for Triple-A Rochester which is ridiculous considering he has proven to be a competent 4th or 5th starter. Why the Twins have not made this switcheroo already is beyond me, especially considering how seemingly obvious a solution it would be for two of their current problems.
Let’s start with middle-infield talent because competent bullpen arms…well, they’re a dime a dozen if you know what to look for. If I’m looking for middle-infielders for the Twins, I’m looking for 2nd basemen because Nishioka is signed for a couple more seasons and I just don’t see the Twins replacing him at shortstop. In looking at 2nd basemen, one name jumps off the page and his name is Kelly Johnson. Johnson will turn 30-years-old next February and could be had for a relatively modest sum. He signed a one-year, $5.85M deal prior to this season and has had a down year hitting only .215/.296/.427. Johnson is a slick-fielding 2nd basemen with power and though he does strike out a lot, he has maintained a .344 career OBP which would be a MASSIVE upgrade on the Twins’ current batch of misfits.
Another intriguing option at 2nd base is Omar Infante. For those of you who are enthusiasts of the HBO program “The Wire”, you might already be taken by the first name alone. For those of you not familiar with the show, I highly recommend it, you will not be disappointed. Anyway, Infante will be turning 30 years old as well and while he doesn’t wield the power of a Kelly Johnson, he has been a consistent Major League performer with a .275/.320/.391 career line. Think of him as Johnson-lite if you will, and the salary would likely match that comparison as Infante is only making $2.5M this year. Either one would play a competent defensive 2nd base, either one could be had for relatively cheap money, and with Johnson you likely get the benefit of a bat to put in the middle of your lineup.
I’ll fore-go trying to target relievers because that market tends to change so much over the course of the off-season making it impossible to predict. That leaves starting pitchers, and the Twins will likely have many options. First, I think they should either resign Liriano or give him the arbitration raise, I think one or the other will happen this off-season, he’s just too talented to give away. If they do that, their rotation next year will be some combination of Liriano, Baker, Pavano, Blackburn, Slowey, and Duensing. I wouldn’t be disappointed in the least if they just moved Duensing and/or Blackburn to the bullpen leaving one spot for a guy they bring in. Here are some of the more intriguing guys who will be free-agents:
Hiroki Kuroda (Dodgers) – The knock with this guy is that he will be 37-years-old next season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down either. This year he’s having his best individual season sporting a 2.96 ERA (3.62 FIP) in 140+ innings with a 111/38 K/BB ratio. He’s making $12M this year, but I think the Twins could land him with a 2-3 year deal. He’s no ace, he has been very consistent and would fit in well near the top of the Twins rotation. Not only that, he’s Japanese which would help with Nishioka’s transition. Of the starters available, he’s probably the best option, but also the most expensive option.
C.J. Wilson (Rangers) – It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Rangers don’t re-sign Wilson, but if he’s serious about testing the free-agent waters, he’ll be available. He’s making $7.00M this season and while he doesn’t fit the traditional low-K/low-BB mold for Twins pitchers, he’s a competent left-hander who’s proven he can pitch in the Majors. Additionally, he’s spent his entire career so far pitching at the Ballpark in Arlington which is a launch-pad. Coming to Target Field would probably only make this ground-ball heavy pitcher even better.
Aaron Harang (Padres) – Harang is another one of those “maybe” guys, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s available. Harang and the Padres wrote a $5M mutual option into his one-year deal last off-season but at 33 years old, Harang doesn’t figure to play into the Padres long-term future, especially given how many young arms they have. Harang doesn’t have very good career numbers, but I like him because in pitching at Petco Park (a spacious park just like Target Field) this season, he has proven he can do a decent job. Harang is neither ground-ball or fly-ball heavy so given some decent infield defense and a spacious outfield, he could competently fill a 3-hole in the rotation behind Liriano and Baker. He could be had for $5-$7M and would be a decent right-handed addition to the rotation.
There are certainly other options out there, Edwin Jackson, Chris Capuano, Scott Olsen, etc, but none of those options inspire much confidence and it would be hard to argue that they are upgrade on what the Twins already have in-house. I believe that Bill Smith and the Twins will need to be active early-on in free-agency if they hope to land any of the players I’ve mentioned here today. Here’s a scenario I’ll throw out there (salary figures are the payroll hit for next season):
Re-sign Kubel ($6M): $6.0M
Liriano arbitration raise: $7.0M (roughly $2.7M more than 2011)
Sign Kelly Johnson: $6.5M
All of that adds up to about $19.5M leaving about $10M-$13M to re-sign a few other arbitration eligibles, grab a Wilson or Harang-type, and sign a few cheap-but-competent bullpen arms. I’m not saying I’ve got the answers here, but I think it’s time we start looking toward the off-season and beyond…this season is on life-support.
Looking ahead to the RedSox series, our very own Eric Pleiss answered some questions about the Twins over at BoSox Injection — check it out — http://bosoxinjection.com/2011/08/08/series-6-pack-minnesota-twins/2/