Minnesota Twins: Hot Stove Heat Up—12 Questions Facing The Twins.
Baseball's winter meetings begin this week in Florida.
This can be a time when those hot stoves really get fired up.
Twins' General Manager Bill Smith has needs to be addressed as the team heads into its second season at Target Field.
No longer playing small-market ball, the team's payroll is projected to be around $102 to $120 million for the 2011 season.
If Minnesota is going to successfully defend the American League Central Title and make that step to the next level, then Smith will have to make some moves.
Here are 12 points to ponder as Twins' fans look forward to the 2011 season.
The official start of winter may still be a little over two weeks away, but keep in mind that pitchers and catchers report in only 74 days!
No. 12: Can Joe Mauer Play a Whole Season?
Can Joe Mauer handle the grind of playing the most physically demanding position in baseball?
Excluding his rookie season in which he only played in 32 games before knee surgery cut his debut short, Mauer has averaged 133.5 games a year, catching 114.5 of them.
The start of his MVP season in 2009 was delayed by a month due to inflammation in the sacroiliac joint.
In 2010, he was held out of the lineup to rest his sore throwing shoulder as the season was winding down, and the Twins were still in contention for the best record in baseball.
Was the time off before the playoffs the reason for his poor performance in the ALDS? Mauer was only three of 12 with no RBIs.
There has been a lot of talk about moving Mauer to another position, one where the team can take full advantage of his hitting prowess and keep him in the lineup for most of the season.
No. 11 Can Delmon Young Backup His Breakout Year?
Delmon Young led the Twins with 112 RBI last season.
His name was even getting tossed around for MVP consideration. He did get some votes, finishing 10th in the final poll with 11 percent of the total scoring.
For Young, 2010 was the best season in his five-year career.
He played in 153 games last season, the most since he played in all 162 for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2007, Young's second season in the majors.
Young seems to thrive when he plays everyday. His numbers for 2010 were all improved over 2009, when he played in only 108 games.
The biggest improvement might be his strikeouts. In 2010, he struck out 11 fewer times with 175 more at bats compared to his 2009 season.
Twins' fans are hoping the improvement continues and perhaps there could be a third league MVP on the roster.
No. 10: Sophomore Slump For Danny Valencia?
After several years of auditioning journeymen and utility platoon players for the hot corner, the Twins have finally found their third baseman.
Danny Valencia joined the team midway through the season and played 85 games at third base.
His .311 batting average was third best on the team behind Justin Morneau (.345), and Joe Mauer (.327).
His seven home runs were one more than the combined total of Nick Punto (1), Brendan Harris (1), Alexi Casilla (1), Matt Tolbert (1), and Trevor Plouffe (2).
Valencia averaged a home run once every 42.7 at bats, while the players mentioned above required 106.7 at bats per home run.
Valencia seems to be the answer at third the Twins have been looking for since Corey Koskie played 118 games in 2004.
No 9: Is Denard Span Better Suited As a Platoon Player?
Is the grind of a 162 game season too much for the Twins' center fielder?
In his first two seasons with the Twins, Denard Span was the ultimate platoon outfielder.
In 2009, Manager Ron Gardenhire was able to pencil Span in as any one of the outfield positions. He hit .311 with 10 home runs playing in 145 games.
After trading Carlos Gomez to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy, the expectations were raised for the new full-time center fielder.
Leading off for the Twins, Span's numbers dropped. With 51 more at bats in 2010, his batting average fell to a career worst .264, while his runs scored, a good measure of a lead off hitter, fell from 97 in 2009 to 85 in 2010.
Perhaps he needs to get used to hitting in Target Field, and he will bounce back strong in 2011.
No. 8: Where Will The Backup Come From?
With a rising payroll and the need to spend wisely, there's no way Nick Punto makes the 2011 roster at the same $4 million salary he made in 2010. Currently a free agent, Punto will have to take a significant pay cut if he wishes to continue to be a part of the Twins organization.
Comparing his numbers to third-year player Matt Tolbert, the Twins can get the same contribution at a fraction of the cost.
In 2010, Punto hit .238 with one home run in 252 at bats and had a .302 slugging percentage.
Tolbert hit .230 with one home run in 87 at-bats. His slugging percentage was .379.
Both players are switch hitters and can play anywhere on the diamond.
At four years younger, the Twins will be able to pay Tolbert about a third to a fourth less than what Punto cost them in 2010.
No. 7: Will It Be Another Year Of Closer By Committee?
After missing the entire 2010 season after having Tommy John surgery, Joe Nathan will be making his return to the Twins in 2011.
For many pitchers, the recovery from this surgery can take a full season, or longer, before they return to their old form. The Twins don't have to look any further than to Francisco Liriano.
Liriano was dominating hitters in 2006 with a 12-6 record and a 2.16 ERA before he was lost for the season, requiring Tommy John surgery.
Upon his return in 2008, Liriano only pitched in 14 games. In 2009, he was shuttling back and forth between triple A Rochester and the Twins when he pitched to a 5-13 record and a 5.80 ERA.
In 2010, Liriano appeared to be back to form with a 14-10 record and a 3.62 ERA.
For Nathan, it will be less than a full year when pitchers and catchers report on February 17, 2011.
At least the Twins can count on Matt Capps to anchor the closer role until they can assess Nathan's effectiveness.
No. 6: Will Justin Morneau Be Back In Full Force In 2011?
After going down with a concussion on July 7th last season, there were multiple estimates as to the return of Justin Morneau to the lineup.
Repeatedly the date would be pushed back. There were even some hopes of Morneau being able to play in the ALDS against the Yankees.
That never happened.
With a series of concussions in his career, there is no guarantee that Morneau will be able to produce to the level he was during the first half of 2010, when he was leading the Twins in home runs, batting average and slugging percent.
The Twins organization handled Morneau with extremely kit gloves following his concussion. Hopefully Morneau will be fully recovered and ready to go for the 2011 season.
No. 5: Who Is Backing Up First Base?
In the last two seasons, Michael Cuddyer has done a tremendous job taking over at first base when Justin Morneau was lost due to injury.
In 2010, he led the Twins playing in 157 games as Minnesota essentially went without a backup first baseman the second half of the season.
If there are any lingering effects from the concussion Morneau suffered last July, the question is who will play first base?
Cuddyer is better suited to play right field and the Twins would be better served with him playing regularly in the outfield.
There are some potential free agents available that could fill this role. Looking over the list, and having a Twins' mindset to spend reasonably, the following could be candidates:
Troy Glaus played 114 games at first base for Atlanta. In 2009, his salary was $12 million playing for the Cardinals. In 2010, Atlanta paid him $1.75 million, which makes him reasonably priced. He only batted .240, but he hit 16 home runs. He brings a little bit of power from the right side of the plate, and at 34 years old, he could be a serviceable player for next season.
Nick Johnson was mainly used as a designated hitter by the Yankees in 2010. The nine-year veteran is two years younger than Glaus and has a .270 career batting average and a .992 fielding percent at first base. Johnson was paid $5.5 million last season, a price that may be a little steep for the Twins.
Another candidate might be Adam LaRoche, who played 146 games at first base for Arizona last season. The left-handed LaRoche hit .261 with 25 home runs and 100 RBI. Not only would he be a decent back up for first base, but if the Twins cannot sign Jim Thome, he might serve as the DH. The problem is LaRoche would be looking to start, and there could be a lot of competition for his serves. He was paid $4.5 million last season.
No. 4: Can You Give Me a Second?
Now that the Twins have found their third baseman, the question shifts to who's on second?
The revolving door that has been turning at second needs to come to a stop.
Since 2004, no one has played back to back seasons with at least 100 games at second. Luis Rivas, Nick Punto, Luis Castillo, Alexi Casilla and Orlando Hudson have been there.
The Twins have won the right to negotiate with Tsyuoshi Nishioka, who played with the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Japanese Pacific League. The 26 year old Nishioka led the league with a .346 average and can play either shortstop of second base.
The Twins have 30 days from the date their offer was accepted to sign the Japanese star to a contract.
No. 3: Minnesota Cannot Afford a Power Shortage.
Jim Thome was supposed to be a part-time player and late inning pinch hitter when the 2010 season opened.
Instead, he became the everyday designated hitter and led the Twins with 25 home runs.
For most Twins hitters, Target Field was a park where home runs went to become long fly balls.
Thome was the exception, hitting some of the longest home runs in the inaugural season of Target Field.
At $1.5 million, Thome was a steal for the Twins. If they wish to keep Thome around, that figure may have to double or triple. Thome has indicated that he would like to play perhaps two more seasons.
Currently with 589 home runs, Thome is only 20 away from catching Sammy Sosa for seventh all time on the career home run list.
No. 2: How Do You Spell Relief?
Jesse Crain had a strong finish to the 2010 season.
Along with fellow free agents Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch, there could be some huge holes to fill in the Twins' bullpen.
Guerrier led the bullpen with 74 appearances and 71.0 innings pitched with a 3.17 ERA. His salary in 2010 was $3.25 million.
Crain started the season a little shaky, but finished strong, pitching 68 innings in 71 games with a 3.04 ERA. He was paid $2.0 million last season.
Rauch started the season as the closer, converting his first eight save opportunities on his way to pitching 57.2 innings with 21 saves and a 3.12 ERA. He made $2.9 million in 2010.
There's no way the Twins will be able to afford all three. Look for them to try and sign Crain and look to their farm system for bullpen help.
No. 1: It All Starts With Pitching
Carl Pavano led the majors with seven complete games in 2010, going 17-11 with 3.75 ERA.
His veteran presence was invaluable for the young pitching staff of the Twins.
Pavano may be the second most attractive free agent pitcher on the market after Cliff Lee.
His 17 wins and 3.75 ERA were the best in his career since pitching for the Marlins in 2004 when he won 18 games and had a 3.00 ERA.
The Twins paid Pavano $7 million in 2010. Look for that number to double in 2011.
With the re-emergence of Francisco Liriano in the Twins' rotation, Minnesota will not be looking to sign a free agent pitcher to become their ace for 2011.
Liriano had the lowest ERA in the rotation at 3.62.
At 26 years old, Liriano would be the youngest pitcher in the starting rotation.
If the Twins do not add another pitcher, the rotation would look like Liriano, Scott Baker, Brian Duensing, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn with an average age of 28 years old.
The expectations will be even greater for the Twins to not only win the AL Central, but finally get past the Yankees in the divisional round of the playoffs.
What's The Prediction?
I see the Twins trying to strike deals with Jim Thome, Jesse Crain and attempt to sign or trade for another starting pitcher.
They will make Matt Tolbert the utility infielder and cut ties with Nick Punto.
If they can sign Tsyushi Nishioka to a contract, it could be a three-way competition for the shortstop and second base between Nishioka, J.J. Hardy and Alexi Casilla.
However, I would not be surprised if the Twins do sign Nishioka and deal J.J. Hardy and his $5.1 million salary.
Of course, I have been wrong before!