One of the difficult things for me to get accustomed to, as a fan of the Twins in this relatively new era that has the organization no longer at or near the bottom of the MLB payroll list, is that the Twins are not completely on the outside looking in when it comes to shopping for free agent talent during the off-season.
True, the Twins are still not likely to compete for any free agent the Yankees (or Red Sox… or probably even the Angels) really want. And yes, the $23.5 million per year that the Twins are shelling out for Joe Mauer means they still have to shop wisely. But there’s really no reason any player’s agent should laugh every time Bill Smith’s phone number comes up on the caller ID.
Shouldn’t a team that sells out virtually every home game, drawing over 3 million fans, at least be considered a likely landing spot for a few of the top 50 or so free agents on the market? Not according to SI.com’s Ben Reiter, who posted his ranking of this year’s Top 50 Free Agents along with the teams he feels constitute each player’s “best fit”. If you’re thinking of clicking the link to see who he sees being the FAs best fitting with the Twins, let me save you the time. There are two. We know them well. Carl Pavano (#12) and Jim Thome (#20).
Granted, that’s two in his top 20 and it’s two more than writers likely would have matched up with the Twins over the course of a couple of decades prior to Target Field opening. I wouldn’t be at all disappointed if Smith finds a way to keep those two guys (though I really can’t see Pavano as likely at this point), but still, why wouldn’t the Twins be considered likely to land a couple of the Top 50 who DIDN’T wear a Twins uniform in 2010?
Turns out there are a couple of reasons.
First, the Twins have to have a critical need at a position where there are good free agents available. Most people see the Twins needs, going in to next season, as being an “ace” (I hate using that term… is there a more overused and misused term thrown around among Twins fans this month than “ace”? I don’t think so) pitcher, a restocking of their bullpen, and a right-handed bat with power. Right there, you can see why the Twins may not be major players in this year’s FA market.
The number of true, top of the rotation, starting pitchers in this market total exactly… one (unless you want to bet on the Rockies’ Jorge de la Rosa (#9) being an ace… which I’m not willing to do at this point). I’m not saying the Twins couldn’t out bid the Yankees and Rangers for Cliff Lee, but let’s just say the odds are remote (and that’s being unrealistically optimistic). The third ranked starting pitcher among Reiter’s Top 50 FAs is Carl Pavano and you don’t improve your starting rotation simply by re-signing one of the guys you had last season. So if the Twins do pick up a top of the rotation arm, it will have to be via trade.
In the bullpen, the Twins have Matt Capps and Joe Nathan on board already making “closer money”, so they’re not going to buy any of the relief pitchers on that Top 50 list. We can hope they find a way to retain one or two of the middle/set up relievers they stand to lose via free agency (Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch), but anyone else they add will come from internal options or out of the lower tier of the FA market. That’s really just a reflection of the lesser value the league places on the position.
So that leaves the right handed bat. Surely there must be a few guys who could pump a few balls in to Target Field’s bullpen on that Top 50 list, right? Of course there are. But you really have to ask yourself what position(s) you have open before you go shopping. Cross catchers and corner infielders off your list… you’re not going to bring in someone with the intent of replacing Mauer, Morneau or Danny Valencia. Let’s also forget about center fielders and middle infielders… there simply aren’t many of them that fit the “RH bat with power” description in the Top 50 FA rankings. Juan Uribe falls in to that category. And maybe Derek Jeter, if you want to feel generous toward him and say he has some power.
So if you want that RH power bat, it’s going to have to be a corner outfielder and/or DH. Since your two likely starting corner outfielders are already RH hitters with some power, Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer, you’re really looking for either someone to be the right handed half of a DH platoon or someone significantly enough better than Young/Cuddyer that you use one of them in that part time DH role. It’s fine with me if the Twins make a run at guys like Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford, but the chances of that happening are perhaps only slightly better than seeing them compete for Cliff Lee.
So if you want someone on that Top 50 list, the question becomes, “how many of them would accept a part time role?” Would Vlad Guerrero? It might be fun to have a Thome/Vlad platoon, but it sounds like the Rangers, after not picking up his option, are trying to re-sign him anyway.
That said, there are a lot of aging DH-type players on the market. I doubt the Twins will jump in to the free agent DH market ahead of everyone else (other than perhaps to re-sign Thome), but after the Winter Meetings are over and after we’ve all recovered from our New Years Eve hangovers, it will be interesting to see which DHs still haven’t found a team. That strategy netted the Twins a sweet deal on Thome last year and I see no reason why they shouldn’t try it again this year. Specifically, I’ll keep my eyes on what kind of offers Lance Berkman, Ty Wigginton, Pat Burrell and even Miguel Tejada are getting. Each of them could fill a right handed DH/PH role and also back up various positions around the field.
In the end, any acquisition of a top pitcher will have to come through trade and ideally we’ll see many familiar faces in the bullpen. But I believe there will be affordable, productive right handed bats available out of that Top 50 FA list even if the Twins wait for the post-Holiday discount sales.
At least I sure hope so. – JC