Friday, November 11, 2011

Best Laid Plans

By The Common Man

Despite the firing of Bill Smith and the triumphant return of Terry Ryan, it seems likely there will be a bunch of hand-wringing around here, between Bill and The Common Man, over the next few months over the Twins’ decisions. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t seem fair to critique the work that Ryan and his staff will do over the offseason without offering an alternative.

The Common Man did lay out some general priorities in September, as the Twins were eliminated from contention. But now, with a better idea about who is in charge and how much money they have to work with, here are some specific ways for the Twins to prepare for 2012:

Given the payroll commitments already on the books, and the obligations the Twins will have to pay their players in arbitration, Aaron Gleeman estimates the Twins have roughly $81 million spoken for. Given Terry Ryan’s announcement that the payroll would probably dip to around $100 million this year, that leaves the Twins with about $20 million to play with as they try to fill holes in the bullpen, shortstop, corner outfield, and maybe DH.

It’s worth pointing out here that the Twins really aren’t in a place where they can tear down and rebuild. Their best players have had their value compromised by high salaries (Mauer, Morneau) and injury (Mauer, Morneau, Span). And dealing their secondary players, guys like Danny Valencia, Carl Pavano, and Francisco Liriano, are at a low point in their trade value. As such, the Twins are stuck trying to win in 2011, and going forward with the players they have on hand. So who do they target to maximize their chances of winning the division with the money they have left:

Shortstop: The Twins had four players who combined to hit .238/.292/.320 as shortstops last year, and whose defense ranged somewhere between horrible and atrocious. As such, virtually anything the Twins do will upgrade this position. Rafael Furcal would be nice if he slipped down to the Twins, given the value he can provide when healthy. Of course, health hasn’t exactly been the Twins’ strong suit, and if Furcal got hurt again the Twins would be no better off than they are today, with Nishioka and Plouffe as the backup options. Instead, TCM would go for Clint Barmes, an elite fielding shortstop who hit .244/.312/.386 for Houston last year (93 OPS+). That’s not out of line for recent performance either, as he’s averaged an 85 OPS+ over the last four seasons. If the Twins can acquire Barmes for a two or three year deal worth $4-5 million, they would be smart to take it.

Backup option: Ronny Cedeno is a slick fielder who has serious offensive limitations, and who was worth about a win and a half last year for Pittsburgh. But he’d be a stable addition to the club, and a serious upgrade over last year’s options. He could probably be had for a one or two year deal at less than $2 million, and could be moved to a utility spot if a better option became available.

Corner Outfield: The Twins have Ben Revere and Denard Span penciled in to the outfield in 2012, but will need someone else to roam out there. Michael Cuddyer appears to be generating strong interest elsewhere, and for the price he commands should be released. We don’t, after all, have a lot to play with. Jason Kubel is also out there and available, but Kubel is even a worse fielder than Cuddyer and his bat really isn’t strong enough to be an elite performer. If the Twins can get him back for $5 million, that’s fine, but even at his best he’s averaged just 1.2 WAR over the last three seasons. That’s not worth paying a premium for.

David DeJesus, on the other hand, might be just the kind of player the Twins could use in left or right field. DeJesus is stretched in center, but would be an above average to excellent defender at the corners. He also could potentially provide strong on-base skills at the top of the lineup to help set up Mauer and Morneau for more RBI opportunities. Now, DeJesus is coming off of his worst season since 2007, but he’s also a strong candidate to bounce back, given his previous level of performance and his age (32). He’s also likely to age well, given his skill set.

The down side is that DeJesus bats left-handed, like much of the Twins lineup (though so does Kubel). But much of DeJesus’ value comes from his defense. DeJesus made $6 million last year in Oakland, and after a rough campaign, is probably not due for a significant raise. A three-year deal for $7 million would actually fit very well for this Twins team, though he’d probably need a right-handed hitting caddy, like Andruw Jones, from time to time.

Backup option: Cody Ross plays above average defense at an outfield corner and hits right-handed. He does not provide strong on base skills, however. For $3-4 million over a couple years, he would be worth the price of admission and be a close enough fit with the club’s needs, while not blocking younger, better players.

Backup Catcher: If we learned anything in 2011, it’s that having an able backup catcher available is of paramount importance with a guy as injury-prone as Joe Mauer. Ramon Hernandez would be an ideal player for the Twins if the Reds don’t offer him arbitration as a Type A free agent. Chris Snyder, coming off a back injury, would also be an excellent option. Both would command at least $4-5 million, which is a lot for a backup catcher. But having them allows the Twins to DH Mauer regularly (eliminating the need for a full-time DH), and neither would be terribly out of place in the DH spot themselves, allowing the Twins to get a good right-handed bat in the game.

Backup option: Kelly Shoppach would cost less and would be strong against lefties, spelling Mauer regularly (or moving him to DH and spelling someone else) against them. And at $2 million would be worth the investment for a two year deal. He would not, however, provide enough offense to put him at DH on a day when Mauer was not playing.

Bullpen: Some would argue that the Twins need to sign a closer, but there’s no shortage of evidence that closers are made, not born. Joe Nathan is just the latest Twin to make that apparent, after Eddie Guardado, Mike Trombley, and Rick Aguilera before him. To wit, Glen Perkins is just sitting there. Now, using him in a traditional closer role would reduce his value, but if the Twins are going to insist on having a shutdown closer anyway, it’s better to have one making $1.5 million than $7 million. But the club still needs to fill in behind him, especially after the disaster in 2011.

Brian Duensing, if the club wises up and moves him back to the bullpen, should provide one capable arm. Anthony Slama would also fill another role, finally, in our reconstructed pen. Though shaky in 2011, TCM would bring back Jose Mijares, but would send Alex Burnett to AAA until he proves he’s actually capable of retiring batters at that level.

David Aardsma would be a good buy-low candidate, as he comes back from Tommy John surgery. As would Michael Wuertz to see if he has anything left. Shawn Camp would provide some durability and strong ground-ball-fu for a couple million bucks. Chad Qualls could also be available for a couple million. Let’s say it’s roughly, oh, $6 million for the quartet.

If we sign all of TCM’s first options, that works out to roughly $23 million at the max. While not technically at the supposed $100 million limit proposed by Terry Ryan (according to Aaron’s math, we’re actually at $104 million), that would be well within the realm of possibility.

Would it be enough to help the Twins win the AL Central in 2011? The Common Man doubts it. The Twins won only 63 games last year, and would need to win 25-30 more to be in contention. Even with these upgrades, and the presumed improvements of Mauer, Morneau, Span, Revere, Valencia, and Liriano, there’s significant risk that one or more players will suffer a similar step back. The Common Man would still plan to be competitive, since there’s really no other option at this point, and remains optimistic, even as he acknowledges the tough road ahead.

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