November and December were two very busy months for the Twins. For a team that normally tends to wait until later in the offseason to scoop up bargain basement players, it was very out of character to sign four significant MLB free agents (Jamey Carroll, Ryan Doumit, Josh Willingham, and Jason Marquis) before the calendar turned. But even with all that activity, the Twins still have room to improve. They could add a free agent or make a trade this month.
Last year the Twins made some free agency moves in January by re-signing Jim Thome and Carl Pavano. They also claimed Dusty Hughes off waivers from Kansas City, but let’s forget about that one. It’s not likely that the team will have such a busy January this year. That’s partly because all of last year’s free agents have either re-signed (Matt Capps) or moved on to other teams (Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel). But money is also a factor. If Terry Ryan wasn’t pulling our legs with the infamous “$100 million” comment, the Twins have pretty close to zero dollars left for 2012 payroll. They might be able to add a player at $1 to $2 million without going much over the $100 million thresold. Finally, there is only one open slot on the 40 man roster. If Minnesota added more than one additional Major League player, that would require them to send a player through the waiver process and risk losing him.
Who might fill that last slot? One name that has come up recently is reliever Dan Wheeler. His agent apparently contacted the Twins last week. In baseball, as in many other industries, little work gets done in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, but we might hear some more about Wheeler this week. His fastball averages under 90 mph, but he uses a slider to his advantage, and he gets strikeouts when needed. For his career, Wheeler has held right-handed hitters to a .218/.267/.368 line. He made $3 million last year but had a down year, so his salary demands will probably be closer to the range where the Twins could afford him. I would actually feel pretty good about a bullpen of Wheeler, Glen Perkins, Matt Capps, Brian Duensing, Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak, and Jason Bulger. Wheeler, Perkins, Duensing, and Bulger would give the Twins plenty of late-inning setup options – enough to transform the bullpen into an asset, rather than the crushing liability it was in 2011.
If Wheeler doesn’t occupy the last slot, I’m still not giving up all hope that the Twins could go after Edwin Jackson. Remember, they did indicate some interest in the flamethrower a month ago. Jackson is a Scott Boras client, which means his agent will try to wring every cent out of the team that signs him, but the market might keep him at a reasonable price. Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors.com projects Jackson to sign for around 4 years and $44 million (some encouraging news: the Yankees might actually not have enough money to jump into the competition for Jackson). If the Twins offered a contract like that, they could backload it a little bit and still keep the 2012 payroll under $110 million. Sure, that’s well over $100 million, but it’s still a savings from last year’s total. And having Jackson on a multi-year deal would allow him to contribute to the team for several years, even if 2012 turns into a major rebuilding season. For the record, I think the chances of Jackson actually signing with the Twins are still tiny. I’m just saying it is probably doable, and he could be a great investment. Jackson, Francisco Liriano, and Scott Baker would give the Twins three power arms at the top of the rotation. None of them has yet realized his potential, but all are young enough that they could be hitting their primes in 2012.
Even if no free agents sign, we could see some trades this month. Terry Ryan is the trade master who brought us the Chuck Knoblauch trade, the A.J. Pierzynski trade, and the Luis Castillo trade. I cannot think of any GM in baseball who has made as many club-improving trades as Ryan. It is entirely possible that Ryan might make a move to add a key player or two. At this point, I don’t foresee the Twins adding a proven starting pitcher like Matt Garza, since the deals for Mat Latos and Gio Gonzalez have set the price very high, and the Twins do not have four impact prospects that they can part with. More likely, Ryan could make a move for a young player with potential who hasn’t made it to the Major Leagues yet. Alternatively, he could look to deal a veteran with a high salary to free up cash (see: Pavano).
This is, of course, 100% speculation on my part. But none of these moves are entirely out of the question. Whatever happens in January, you can be sure that Puckett’s Pond will be there to applaud or complain about it. Because that’s what we do.