As we all take our guesses on whether or not the Minnesota Twins will improve on their back-to-back last place finishes in the American League Central, the 2013 Twins already look very different from the team that took the field in 2012.
With another descent to the bottom of the AL Central, there's reason to believe that the 2014 team will look even more different.
But how different, exactly?
Like most people with their heads screwed on straight, I don't anticipate much of a "Cinderella" team in Minnesota this year. Rather, I think the time is now to build for 2014 and beyond.
In a division that is getting older, the Twins would be keen to part ways with some of their older cogs if they fall out of contention before the trade deadline.
That means Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham (as well as others) could be on the hot seat soon.
Assuming the Twins do in fact fail to contend for a third straight campaign, let's take a look at some possible moves aimed towards building a contender in the near future. Keep in mind that these scenarios are a bit unlikely, but provide a loose blueprint of what the Twins might be looking for come mid-season.
Let the discussion begin.
Jeremy Hellickson is young, controllable and vital to the Tampa Bay rotation. While he may be close to untouchable, the Rays could use a powerful first baseman and a top prospect to refill their farm system.
The Des Moines, Iowa native owns a career 3.06 ERA in parts of three major league seasons. He remains on pace with his 2011 Rookie of the Year numbers and should be a force in the rotation for many years. At age 25, he won't be arbitration eligible until 2014. The Twins could get smart and make a play for the righty and lock him up through 2017, his first slated year of free agency.
If Justin Morneau could be extended this season, perhaps the Rays would see more value in bringing him to St. Petersburg and perhaps add another piece to their end of the bargain.
To me, this trade makes sense for both sides: It improves Tampa Bay's offense now and down the road. Morneau would fit immediately into the middle of the order and Buxton would bring blazing speed and five-tool talent to the outfield as soon as 2015. And with Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia ready to crack the Twins outfield, Hellickson would help them forget about the toolsy Buxton's future in Minnie.
For Minnesota, it brings a proven major league arm and a de facto ace to the rotation for years to come.
Now age 33, Josh Willingham had the best year of his career in Minnesota in 2012. He cranked 35 home runs over the Target Field walls, adding in 110 RBI and 85 runs. His value may stay relatively high if he reproduces those numbers in 2013 and can be shopped to a team in "win now" mode.
Finishing 79-83 after sitting pretty at 67-54 on August 19th, the Pirates' front office and their fans are hungry to regain the thunder they had at the beginning of 2012.
With a relatively solid starting rotation, maybe the Pirates would part with their number six overall prospect Kyle McPherson to add a little insurance down the stretch.
After being drafted in the 14th round of the 2007 Amateur Draft, McPherson had his cup of coffee at the major league level in 2012, where he posted a 2.73 ERA in three starts.
The Twins will certainly look to add to their lower-level depth if they fall from contention in 2013 and fan-favorite Josh Willingham could very well be on his way out of Minnesota at the trade deadline. If the Twins are going down and the Pirates are coming up, this trade might make sense for both sides.
Other pitching prospects the Twins could ask about in Pitt include number five Luis Heredia and number nine Stetson Allie. (Assuming of course that Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are completely untouchable)
Julio Teheran was once one of the brightest pitching stars in the minor leagues. After a dazzling 2011 season in AAA where he went 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA as a 20-year-old, Teheran struggled at the same level in 2012 where he saw his ERA nearly double (5.08) due to handing out more hits and considerably more home runs.
Teheran has much to prove in 2013 to regain his former status, and he would certainly crack any major league rotation if he does.
However, if he struggles in the least it may be the perfect time to buy low on the young phenom. the Braves could be interested in a few of the Twins pieces, including Morneau and Willingham—or perhaps outfield prospects like Joe Benson or Oswaldo Arcia.
At age 22, Teheran has nowhere to go but up, and the Twins may have a few pieces to scrap together a deal.
Ryan Doumit has settled in nicely as a member of the Minnesota Twins and could possibly fetch a decent prospect due to his recent production and Michael Cuddyer-like ability to play multiple positions. He's also a switch-hitter, which profiles nicely in any lineup.
The Baltimore Orioles could use his depth behind the plate, in the outfield and as a primary DH.
The only question is the return the Twins could get for Doumit. My other scenarios have nothing but pitching coming to the starved Twinkies, so I'll look to Baltimore's powerful first base prospect Nick Delmonico.
He's their number four overall prospect—and highly touted—so the Twins may have to add another player to wrest him from Baltimore.
I think this scenario makes sense for both sides as well: Baltimore gets a major league ready contributor down the stretch and the Twins get a replacement for Justin Morneau who features discipline and moderate power. (assuming Chris Parmelee stays in the outfield)
A ridiculous return for a PR nightmare in Minnesota?
While this trade will probably never happen, it's fun to think about possible returns for mega-star and face of the franchise Joe Mauer.
According to Peter Gammons, the Red Sox at least called to kick the tires on Joe Mauer to no avail:
Red Sox inquired on Mauer in Sept., Oct., Nov..."not being traded" response. Period— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) November 28, 2012
But even if this is true, it's hard to imagine the Red Sox parting with such a bundle to acquire Mauer. (Even though they already parted with the likes of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford in one fell swoop)
If they were, however, willing to free up a list of players for Mauer, the trade could make sense for Minnesota.
In this scenario, I've given the Twins a capable starting pitcher who would immediately crack the rotation, a young catcher who could take Mauer's spot, and an elite prospect who would give the Twins middle infield security for a long, long time. On top of that, it frees up Mauer's annual $23 million salary through 2018.
It would be the blockbuster trade of the year and firmly prove that the Twins are geared to rebuild, but it will never happen.
And we might not even want it to.