A Log for the Hot Stove: Four Goals for the Minnesota Twins' Offseason

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A Log for the Hot Stove: Four Goals for the Minnesota Twins' Offseason
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I've never formally said it, but when Alex Rodriguez announced he was opting for free agency in the midst of the 2007 World Series, I was pretty much disgusted.

I hate it when players try to elevate themselves above the game, and that's exactly what Rodriguez did.

You want the spotlight on you? Get to the damn series yourself. (sidenote: and then he did, and everyone loved him. See how easy that was?)

This is why despite having about 15 articles sketched out for the Twins' offseason, I haven't even posted my idea of how the offseason should progress generally, let alone with any specificity.

But, as soon as Robbie Cano flipped the ball to Mark Teixeira for the final out of 2009, the offseason officially began.

So, with the 2009 season over, I'm ready to begin the offseason chatter. I laid out some groundwork earlier, disproving myths that could lead to signing the wrong player or players, so this guideline will essentially be action steps based on those issues previously raised.

Coming after this will be specific profiles of the players I'd like to see the Twins add, as well as those who may be in the conversation.

 

1) Re-sign Joe Mauer

Bill Smith told TwinsCentric that as long as they were confident Mauer wanted to stay in Minnesota, they were reasonably comfortable with the idea of going into the season without a deal actually in place.

I can understand where Smith is coming from both in a PR sense and in an actual practice sense.

From a PR standpoint, if you tell people you really want to get [specific thing X] done and it doesn't happen, people will start to question your ability to get things done.

In this case, if Smith had said that getting Mauer locked in was priority No. 1 and it didn't happen, the rumbling going into the season would not be so much rumbling as "that sound a tsunami makes just before making landfall".

From a practical standpoint, Smith has a lot to do this offseason, lots of players going to arbitration, a new field to open, trades to make, etc. The Mauer negotiations will be a protracted affair if for no other reason than it's going to involve a lot of money.

Mauer has said he doesn't care about being the next A-Rod, but the Twins aren't going to lock him in for the most productive years of his life with a bag of McDonald's and a shiny nickel. He's going to get paid.

And when a team like the Twins is pondering a contract upwards of $100 million, it's not going to be something they take lightly.

If they're pretty sure they aren't going to have to convince him to stay and that negotiations will be pretty amiable, saving them for a time when Smith is less swamped is a totally acceptable idea, which is why it doesn't bother me that he said that this was the plan.

It may not bother me that it looks like Mauer could go into the season without a deal, but it's not what I would do. If the Twins start off the season poorly for any length of time greater than about six weeks, the trade rumors are going to be flying.

The air will be so thick with them it will be like that town in Mexico where all the monarch butterflies spend the winter.

Even if the talk of paydays and deals doesn't entice Mauer to actually leave, it's going to be an in-season distraction the likes of which we've never seen.

You think the last few months of Johan Santana's tenure were bad? Mauer rumors:Santana rumors::The Black Death:The Common Cold.

Yes, locking Mauer in for the long haul this offseason, then having him blow out his knee during Spring Training would be awful, but that's part of the game of baseball. Get the business done before on-field matters start complicating off-field negotiations. 

 

2) Add a power arm

Twins pitchers put a ton of balls in play due to their low strikeout rates and even lower walk rates, which puts a tremendous amount of strain on the defense. And while the easiest way to mitigate this is to improve the defense, having a pitcher on staff who is going to end his own hitters will help as well.

The reality of the game is that luck plays a big role in the outcomes; a median batting average on balls in play [BABIP] for a pitcher is somewhere between .280 and .300, meaning that of every pitch put into play (no walks, strikeouts, or home runs) a little less than one-third will fall for hits.

Pitchers with a high groundball rate can drop this number some (and their slugging allowed on balls in play even more), but even a pitcher with a 100 percent GB rate will have one-fifth or more of their groundballs sneak through.

A perfect example of this is Joe Saunders, the Angels' starter in Game Six of the ALCS. Saunders strikes out hitters at a rate of about five per nine innings, and generates groundballs at about a 1-1 rate with air outs (line drives or flyballs).

He lasted just 3.1 innings and took the loss, despite generating 11 groundballs. He hurt himself by walking five, but perhaps the bigger issue was his complete lack of strike outs.

Of the 22 batters he faced, he got two strike counts on six of them, of those six, two reached on walks and two singled, meaning he was putting hitters where he wanted them (two-strike counts), but not finishing them off, and it cost him the game and his team the series.

Closer to home, fans saw this issue played out in the person of Scott Baker. Of the five starters to finish the season, Scott Baker had the highest K/9 rate, though Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey both had higher marks before ineffectiveness and injury, respectively, removed them from the rotation.

Baker's 7.5 K/9 rate shows that he's still reliant on his defense, but he's not quite in the same class as Nick Blackburn or Glen Perkins, both of whom were notching fewer than five strikeouts a game.

When Baker was on, he was generating lots of two-strike counts and finishing hitters off either by the strikeout or by inducing weak contact on a defensive swing.

In his best start of the season, his complete game shutout of the Indians on Aug. 14, Baker needed just 94 pitches to get through nine innings.

Of the 30 batters he faced, he got two-strike counts on nearly half, 13 to be exact, giving up just one hit and no walks after putting hitters on the ropes.

He struck out just five, but according to the play-by-play database just two balls were even well struck. He generated 10 swing-and-miss strikes and just 14 foul balls in nine innings, a very impressive total.

Contrast that with his 115-pitch, six-inning start against the White Sox on July 28. Baker gave the Twins a quality start, but allowed a staggering 39 foul balls to the 22 batters he faced, or a staggering 1.77 per hitter!

Needless to say, this drove up his pitch count and took him out of a game in which he was otherwise effective.

This was indicative of many of Baker's starts. When he was giving up lots of foul balls and not finishing off hitters, it was easy to assume that the game would end in the hands of the bullpen.

If he was finishing off hitters, the Twins stood a good chance of winning. Of Baker's 10 starts in which he went seven or more innings, the Twins were 9-1, with the lone loss coming in Jesse Crain's last appearance before his demotion (the deuce he dropped against the Cubs).

Coming back around to the point, the Twins need another pitcher who is going to finish hitters off and this comes either by power or fantastic control.

Greg Maddux never blew anyone away, but hit the corners and edges of the strike zone so consistently, the Rolling Stones' song Paint it Black may as well have been about him.

Getting Kevin Slowey back will help. A lot. But there are guys out there who can help fill this void as well.

 

3) Make a formal decision about Danny Valencia and Alexi Casilla before the season starts

"Failing to plan is planning to fail" is the old adage that get parroted at every middle school student almost ad nauseum as parents and teachers try to instill the idea of not flying by the seat of your pants.

It's a lesson that the Twins' FO would do well to take to heart here. Available to them are five infielders under team control and two others who, while technically free agents, would likely come back even at a reduced rate.

Figuring that of those seven the team can probably cobble together a decent infield is, indeed, planning to fail.

Not that Valencia/Cabrera/Punto with Harris and Casilla coming off the bench is a bad idea, indeed it could be pretty ok, as we've seen the last few years, finding that right combination takes time and is incredibly frustrating.

There's nothing wrong with camp competition, but figuring that the situation will sort itself out in time isn't good planning.

Call Nick Punto an enabler here, because without him, the Twins would be forced to pick positions and stick with them.

However, Punto posted the third best UZR at third base in 2007, was a better second baseman than shortstop in equal time in 2009, but his best position career-wise is short.

The Twins can plausibly stick him anywhere and have a decent defender, which makes uncertainty around him that much easier to tolerate.

As I'll flesh out in the next section, I feel pretty strongly that the Twins should look to add one of the front line middle infielders that will be available this offseason, but which one they pursue will depend largely on where they feel the greatest need is.

Danny Valencia seems to be the 3B of the future, but if Kelly Theiser's mailbag is to be believed, he's still a long way from being handed the job, which means that there is a third base vacancy.

Unlike my colleague Andrew Kneeland , I'm eager to part ways with Joe Crede. As I outlined before Crede was officially signed last offseason, his back injury is the type of injury that isn't likely to recur, but once it does, it is likely to recur multiple times.

While it's worth noting that the back injury only popped up in mid-August, that he needs surgery to correct the issue is worrisome to me.

When he was healthy, the Twins got exactly what they should have expected from Crede: solid defense and a little bit of power at the expense of batting average.

While a time-share between the two may seem like a good idea, all it would do at this point is retard Valencia's development to prolong Crede's career. He says he wants to play 10 more years, it would shock me if he plays past 2011.

Alexi Casilla...boy, I do not envy the Twins' brass this decision. Casilla got off to a horrible start this year and really never seemed to rebound fully.

In 111 pre-All Star Game ABs, he went .180/.242/.225 with 21 strike outs to just eight walks.

He was demoted to AAA Rochester, but showed up almost a week late after opting to drive his car to New York instead of flying. His 117 post-ASB at-bats were better across the board: .222/.313/.291 with 14 walks to just 15 strikeouts.

In a way, this was a huge disappointment, Casilla had ended the 2008 season as the odds-on favorite to win the second base job heading into the season after he hit over .300 for three straight months before an injury nearly ended his season.

He came back, but wasn't 100% and his stats showed it. Still, he'd shown a ton of promise heading into 2009.

In another way, this was completely expected. Casilla has, for his entire career, been an enigmatic player due to an unholy even/odd year split reminiscent of Nick Punto's. Unlike a platoon split, there's really no good reason these should exist. Some speculate it has to do with comfort at the minor league level, others attribute it to a lack of focus, but whatever the reason, it's something Casilla needs to address if he's ever going to be more than a half-solution at best. In the short term, the Twins are left to wonder if once the calendar turns to 2010 if Casilla will turn back into a prince or if he'll stay a toad.

4) Acquire a marquee infielder

When a team has a long standing hole, it can be very easy to think that an acceptable stopgap solution is all that's necessary. Joe Crede was a solid signing last year, but there was no way that he could be considered a long-term solution.

Look at it this way, if third was the only hole the Twins had had last year, that Crede missed 50 games would have been a much bigger deal.

Instead, the bullpen and middle infield emerged as more pressing concerns and the hole at third base became just another place where production was less than ideal.

With players like J.J. Hardy, Dan Uggla, and possibly Yunel Escobar available for trade, the Twins have a chance to move one of those positions from "we need our annual cheap stopgap" to "invest in other positions, this one is set."

Acquiring a player like one of the three above would allow the Twins to shore up their defense in back of pitchers who put an extremely high number of balls in play, as well as present Ron Gardenhire with a player who could legitimately bat ahead of Joe Mauer.

Perhaps the best way to describe what I'm saying is to call back to Orlando Cabrera's tenure with the Twins.

For much of the time, Cabrera was hitting as well as he did all season. He hit for power in a way he hadn't in Oakland, and got on base at a solid clip ahead of Mauer, Kubel, and Cuddyer, producing an overall line of .289/.313/.430.

However, he was quite limited in the field and he showed that a few times, though nowhere near the weakness he had shown in Oakland.

In the end, he was worth a full win to the Twins because his offensive contribution was enough to outweigh below average defense.

Even in just 260 ABs, we saw the best and worst of O-Cab. Was he better than Casilla? Without question, he was.

Over the course of a full season would he be as valuable as he seemed to be in his late season cameo? I highly doubt it.

Put another way, while he was worth one full win to the Twins, Cabrera actually cost the A's .4 wins; he was below replacement level.

Adding another player like Cabrera or even someone like Akinori Iwamura (thoughts forthcoming) would seem to improve the team, but only since the other options are less than ideal.

There's still a chance that Alexi Casilla can hit .285/.320/.330 and if he does, how many of the decent veteran Free Agents are actually an improvement? Not many. 

As I noted above, I'm pretty comfortable with the Twins making a move to fill either second or short.

Punto was a little better at second last year, and I suspect as he ages his range will diminish, so in that sense moving him to second and going after a shortstop would be my course of action, but I don't think it will be a critical difference in the short term.

Having this number of really good options available is rare and the Twins should take advantage of it.

If they prove to be too expensive, sure, adding Orlando Hudson is probably a step up, but he's just another player that will continue the cycle of needing to find free agent options to carry the load on a yearly or biyearly cycle.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but since the Twins don't have any major infield prospects coming in the next 3-4 years, going out and getting a young player who can bring it on both sides of the ball is going to be worth a reasonably high cost.

Obviously there is a limit to how much the Twins can and will add in terms of payroll, and much of that increase will be handed to Joe Mauer (which is completely fine, just a limiting factor).

Speculation has the Twins' 2010 payroll between $85 million-90 million and they've already got $62 million committed to players, plus arbitration raises to as many as nine players, so there won't be a ton of money floating around, but there should be enough to add at least one impact player (either a pitcher or an infielder) and then patch the other holes as needs arise.

This is a general outline of what the Twins should be looking to do, in order of importance. I'd really like to see them go after Rich Harden and a few other players, but I'll hold off on the specific names for the time being.

It's hard to lose baseball for a time, but the Hot Stove League has an allure all it's own. Be sure to bookmark TwinsMVB.com and check back often, as there will be plenty to talk about as we wait for pitchers and catchers to report.

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