The Minnesota Twins are looking to erase the bad taste in their mouth. After a 99 loss season, the Twins had to make several changes to their roster. Many people had thought that Bill Smith would be assuming the controls as the Twins dive into free agency head-first, but Jim Pohlad had other ideas as he fired Smith and brought back Terry Ryan as the new interim general manager.
Ryan was the architect of the Twins teams in the early 2000's that made it on grit and determination. They had a mean streak to them on the field and financial savvy off the field. Most of those teams ranked in the bottom third of payroll in baseball but always competed for the American League Central division title.
In his second stint, Ryan will have more financial assets to work with. The biggest reason for this is the opening of Target Field. The 2 year-old ballpark continues to pour in amounts of revenue the franchise has never seen before. However, Ryan will be in charge of using these assets with more responsibility than his predecessor.
Ryan also has to find ways to plug several holes in the current Twins roster. That includes shoring up a below average defense, pitching rotation, and adding major league players to provide depth in case of injuries. This is where the Twins adventure into free agency starts.
There are 15 potential targets that the Twins could look at in free agency. I have ranked those prospective targets in terms of talent, ways they can help the Twins and the importance of signing the player.
Twins fans won't want to hear this, but there is a decent chance that Punto comes back to Minnesota. I have the feeling he will be targeted by the Twins for multiple reasons.
First, Punto is an above-average defender. With a team that committed 119 errors last season, the Twins need to make defense a priority. Tsyoshi Nishioka can't get it done at shortstop so Punto may be able to fill in and give the Twins a guy who can get the ball to first without bouncing it in the dirt.
Second, Punto can play multiple positions and provide depth. The Twins have increasingly become an injury prone team. Punto is at his best when he is not entrenched at a position as a starter. Punto could play all around the infield and not only fill in for injured guys, but provide a breather around the infield as well.
Finally, Ron Gardenhire loves him. It's already been reported by the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Gardenhire has approached the team's front office about bringing Punto back. Gardenhire begged Bill Smith to do the same last year, but concerns about his groin stopped it from happening. With Punto healthy, it could set up a reunion between the Twins and one of it's most polarizing figures.
One of the most vivid memories of the 2011 season for the Minnesota Twins was closer Matt Capps walking off the field sweating like a fat kid who just got his cake taken away for poor behavior.
Capps was supposed to be one of the positives for the Twins last year. Ron Gardenhire preached that he had a "double barrel shotgun" at the back end of his bullpen with Capps becoming the 8th inning set-up reliever and Joe Nathan being the closer. Yet, all the shotgun could do was misfire time after time.
There are plenty of warning signs that Capps' all-star season in 2010 (42 saves with a 2.47 ERA between Washington and Minnesota) was a fluke. In 2011, most of his stats resembled his 2009 season where Capps posted a 5.80 ERA and just 27 saves with Pittsburgh.Even more alarming is how Capps' HR/9 rate skyrocketed from 0.7 in 2010 (including 0.3 with the Twins), to 1.4 in 2011. That marks Capps second highest rate since he gave up 1.7 bombs per nine innings in...you guessed it...2009.
Despite all of this Terry Ryan has not ruled out bringing Capps back to be the closer. Ryan's previous tenure was filled with numerous washed-up veterans getting one last chance with the Twins, so it could be possible that Capps will get one more chance to become the their closer in 2011.
UPDATE: Capps signed a one-year, $4.75 million contract with the Twins on December 5.
The Twins will look to anything to try and solidify their rotation. Even if that means going back to Japan to find a starter. While the Twins won the rights to Tsuyoshi Nishioka last offseason, there was another Japanese player that caught the team's eye.
Hishashi Iwakuma was one of the stars for Japan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic as he outpitched his more beheralded teammate, Yu Darvish. Iwakuma was posted by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2010 and the Twins bid on him in the posting process. However, it was the Oakland Athletics that had won the rights to Iwakuma. Some say that Iwakuma didn't want to play in Oakland so the deal never got done and Iwakuma returned to Japan.
This year, Iwakuma will be a free agent. Since the Twins expressed interest in the 30 year-old right-hander last offseason it can be assumed they'll try again.
There are two problems with this. First, Iwakuma has been projected by scouts as a number four starter that pitches to contact. While Terry Ryan loves guys like this, this is not what the Twins need right now. They need a guy that can miss some bats while giving them innings.
Also, the Twins already failed once in Japan with Nishioka. The Twins may be a bit gun shy to try another player from across the ocean. They may make a bid for Iwakuma, but is he what the Twins need?
Another frustrating storyline for Twins fans in 2011 was the loss of J.J. Hardy to the Baltimore Orioles. Hardy was traded last offseason for Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson. It was baseball's equivalent of getting an old ham sandwich, a half-eaten bag of chips, and some Diet Coke for a decent player.
Hardy never put up good numbers with the Twins, but he was also injured most of his time in Minnesota. When Hardy tried to get back on the field he wound up in Ron Gardenhire's doghouse because he was lying about being 100 percent. Hence, Hardy went to Baltimore and cranked 24 home runs.
I mention Hardy because he's very similar to Kelly Johnson. Like Hardy, Johnson is an infielder that can hit for power (26 home runs in 2010), play average defense (fielding percentage of .984 was on par with the league average of .985), and give the Twins a good player at a position they've struggled to have good players at.
The problem with Johnson, like Hardy, is that he can go on massive cold streaks. Last year, Johnson hit just .222 with 21 home runs and 56 runs batted in between the Toronto Blue Jays and Arizona Diamondbacks. A slumping season like that could make him a perfect "buy low" candidate for the Twins.
When you take into consideration that Johnson's Type A status will no longer cost the signing team a first round draft pick next year due to the new collective bargaining agreement, the Twins may be wise to give Johnson a look.
The Philadelphia Phillies came into the 2011 season claiming that they had four aces in their rotation. While Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay lived up to their part of the bargain, Roy Oswalt was a bit of a disappointment.
Back issues hampered Oswalt all year as he posted a 9-10 record with a 3.69 ERA for the Phillies. As a result, Roy Oswalt will hit the free agent market that doesn't have a definitive top option for starting pitching.
This is where the Twins could swoop in and sign Oswalt to a one year deal. It would be a bit of a risk for a 34 year-old pitcher, but the Twins really want to get some quality pitchers in their rotation. A bounce back year by Oswalt would make Terry Ryan look like a genius and he could tutor some of the Twins young starters.
A signing of Oswalt could not only affect the present, but could help the future of the Twins pitching staff as well.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are not in a position to spend big money on guys who aren't worth it. For example, Matt Kemp is an example of a player who is worth it. Jonathan Broxton is not.
Broxton has been considered to be a good closer in the National League, but his days may be numbered. Broxton has made save opportunities more interesting in recent years, and his ERA has gone up faster than his waistline.
The Dodgers are going to go cheap due to the Frank McCourt saga, so Broxton will hit the free agent market. Will the Twins, who need a replacement for Joe Nathan, sign a guy that has only topped 30 saves just once in his career?
Odds are that the Twins will look elsewhere in their search for a closer.
UPDATE: Broxton signed a one year, $4 million contract with the Kansas City Royals on November 30.
I believe that if Jason Kubel was a right handed hitter, he would be the top priority for the Minnesota Twins this winter. However, Kubel finds himself as a left handed hitter on a team that is loaded with quality left handed hitters.
The Twins want their lineup to become more ambidextrious and more challenging for bullpens to match up with. With Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer in the lineup (We hope...), the Twins would almost contradict themselves by signing Kubel to pair with two other lefties.
Kubel has also had problems in the field. His range is sub-par for Twins standards, and even with a projected outfield of Ben Revere and Denard Span, Kubel continues to be a liability in right field.
Mix in Ryan Doumit, who can play the outfield as well, and it appears that Jason Kubel's days are numbered.
Brad Lidge is something of an enigma in Major League Baseball. One season, he can be an unstoppable force that can slam the door on tight games effortlessly. The next season, you're left wondering what the heck happened to the guy.
Lidge had a pretty good stay in Philadelphia overall as he won a World Series in 2008 thanks to being 41 for 41 in save opportunities. However, he struggled mightily in 2009, and after a solid 2010, he found himself sitting out most of 2011 with a shoulder injury.
Those seem to be the only question marks with Lidge as he looks for a new home. That home could wind up in Minnesota if the Twins think he can match his 2008 campaign.
Even if the Twins didn't want to give Lidge the closer job, they could use the hard-throwing Lidge in a setup role along with Glen Perkins.
The Twins bullpen needs all the help it can get, and Lidge could be a sneaky good option to help the unit improve.
Josh Willingham can be considered Plan B if Michael Cuddyer leaves for greener pastures.
Willingham is coming off a career season where he hit .244 with 29 home runs and 98 runs batted in for the Oakland Athletics. With Michael Cuddyer possibly leaving, it seems like Willingham could provide most of the things that Cuddyer gives at a much cheaper price.
The only knock in this scenario is that Willingham isn't much of a utility guy, but that's what makes the signing of Ryan Doumit so good for the Twins. If Cuddyer leaves, and Willingham signs, Willingham could play right field, with Doumit being able to sub in at first base, which Cuddyer did so often.
If the Twins lose Michael Cuddyer, Josh Willingham could be the answer in right field.
Edwin Jackson is the high-risk high-reward player the Twins usually don't target. Jackson has had an interesting career so far as he has played for 6 teams in his 8 seasons in the major leagues. Jackson is 60-60 with a 4.80 earned run average, but is capable of having an above average season (12-9, 3.79 ERA between the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals in 2011). The Twins could be the next team to gamble on Jackson as they continue to try to construct a better pitching rotation.
The reason Jackson may not fit is that the Twins already have an inconsistent starter in Francisco Liriano. Liriano is very similar to Jackson as a strikeout pitcher who doesn't always have his best stuff. Interestingly enough, Liriano's numbers (47-42, 4.09 ERA in his career) are slightly better than Jackson's, but not by much.
Jackson will also be overvalued in a weak starting pitching market, which may bump him out of the Twins price range. He can help, but I don't see him joining the team next season.
Mark Buehrle has pitched very well against the Twins in his career. That may be enough motivation for them to snatch Buehrle from the Chicago White Sox and insert him into his rotation.
Buehrle is not an ace and shouldn't be confused with one. However, Buehrle gives the Twins two things that they didn't have in their rotation last season.
Mark Buehrle is an innings eater. In all 11 full seasons in the major leagues, Buehrle has pitched at least 200 innings. If Buehrle can get to that number for the Twins they would be able to mask the weakness that is their bullpen.
Buehrle is also an effective "pitch-to-contact" pitcher. The Twins love guys like this because their defense is usually one of the best in the major leagues. It's the reason Carlos Silva looked so good with the Twins and then was horrendous with the Seattle Mariners and Chicago Cubs.
If the defense can improve on a horrendous 2011 season, Buehrle would fit right in with the Minnesota Twins.
The Minnesota Twins really need an ace. Since the Johan Santana trade in 2008, the Twins have not been able to fill the void for a bulldog starter that can carry a team if need be. The guy on the market who has that potential is C.J. Wilson, but is he really an ace?
In his two seasons as a starter, Wilson has compiled a record of 31-15 and an earned run average of 3.14. Those are pretty good numbers, but remember that Wilson has been a starter for just two years. There is still a chance that teams will figure Wilson out in the near future and his numbers may skyrocket as a result.
Wilson is also 31 years old and is said to be commanding ace money. First, the Twins can't afford to give ace money because it's wrapped up in their oft-injured catcher (We won't name names...). Second, it's not a wise idea to give ANY pitcher a six or seven year deal let alone one who is north of 30.
To me, Wilson seems like a modern day Carl Pavano. Pavano turned his 2004 season with the Florida Marlins (18-8, 3.00 ERA) into a huge payday with the New York Yankees. Like Wilson, Pavano was near the ripe age of 30 when he signed for ace money. Finally, Pavano proceeded to bomb in New York and be ran out of town.
Could C.J. Wilson be looking at the same fate? I'm willing to guess the Twins aren't willing to find that out.
This could be another player out of the Twins price range (a reoccurring theme at the top of the list), but with a need to replace Joe Nathan, they may spend the money to get one of the best closers in baseball over the past couple of years.
Heath Bell's name has been mentioned in plenty of trades as the San Diego Padres continue to slash payroll. At the trade deadline last July it was rumored that Bell had really wanted to stay in San Diego. The Padres front office granted that wish, but will it result in a contract for Bell when he hits the free agent market.
Bell would be a good fit for the back end of the Twins bullpen. In each of his his three seasons as the closer in San Diego Bell earned 40 saves. He also registered a 2.36 earned run average to go with a 1.15 WHIP. A closer that can keep guys off base and slam the door in the 9th is always a good option.
If the Twins are willing to pay for a closer, Heath Bell should be at the top of their list.
UPDATE: Bell signed a three year, $27 million contract with the Miami Marlins on December 1.
Francisco Rodriguez may be the most talented closer on the market, as he has racked up 291 saves in his major league career. He still has electric stuff, and even helped the Milwaukee Brewers get to the NLCS as a set-up man. However, Rodriguez's next gig will be as a closer and it's hard to imagine he'll get the money with the off-the-field baggage he carries.
In 2010, he assaulted his girlfriends' father after the New York Mets lost to the Colorado Rockies at Citi Field. Rodriguez tore a thumb ligament during the fight and could not pitch over the final month of the season. Needless to say, the Mets weren't happy about it. It got to the point that K-Rod was traded to Milwaukee for cash in a straight salary dump.
Once he got to Milwaukee, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said that Rodriguez and current closer John Axeford would split save opportunities. It didn't work out that way, and while the Brewers were marching toward their first division title since 1982, Rodriguez criticized Roenicke for his handling of the situation.
When Rodriguez doesn't let his baggage get in the way, he's one of the best closers in baseball. If the Twins think the baggage is a thing of the past, they'll make an offer for K-Rod.
If we were ranking the Twins' targets on strictly talent alone, Cuddyer would be much lower on the list. However, since we're looking at guys that can also help the team, Cuddyer is the number one target for the Minnesota Twins.
It's not that Cuddyer is an elite player by any means. Before this season, you could say that Cuddyer was shockingly overpaid. His all-star appearance in 2011 might have been deserved, but it likely was a bi-product of Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau, and Joe Mauer all struggling as well.
The reason Cuddyer helps the team is his leadership in the clubhouse. Face it, the Twins do not have another guy in the clubhouse that leads more than Michael Cuddyer. The younger players on the team look up to him and he's a guy that will get into the face of a teammate if he's doing something wrong. It's what the Twins sorely need.
The biggest example of why Cuddyer should be back is a game late in the season where Joe Mauer couldn't play because of a sore neck. Cuddyer, who's wrist had swollen to the size of a grapefruit after being hit by a pitch the previous game, walked into Ron Gardenhire's office and demanded he be inserted into the lineup. Gardenhire agreed and praised Cuddy for his toughness, which prompted another firestorm about Mauer's willingness to play through injury.
The problem is that Cuddyer, like everyone else towards the top of the list, will be in high demand and cost the Twins lots of money to add them to the team. What the Twins have to decide is whether or not Cuddyer's clubhouse presence is worth the money to keep him.