Winter Meetings and Expectations

I typically take a little business trip to the Tampa/St. Petersburg FL area in December and did so last week.

After years of hearing about how interesting baseball’s Winter Meetings are, this year I found myself within reasonable driving distance of those Meetings when they officially opened up. That being the case, I decided I would check the situation out for myself.

The Dolphin half of the Swan & Dolphin Resort

The Dolphin half of the Swan & Dolphin Resort

I had heard about all the players, agents, front office staff and media folks rubbing elbows and making deals in the hotel lobbies and bars at these Meetings. That sounded very interesting. It also sounded very unbelievable, to me.

I’ve been to more “national conferences” in my life than I care to remember, much less count, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned by attending all those conferences it’s that absolutely nothing noteworthy gets done in the lobbies and bars (well, nothing noteworthy that pertains to the business at hand, anyway).  So, it was hard for me to imagine that anything noteworthy would be going on in the public areas of the Swan & Dolphin Resort on Disney’s Boardwalk either.

But I drove up anyway, just in case I was wrong.

I wasn’t wrong.

I had an enjoyable enough evening. I had a meeting. In fact, you could say I had a couple of “meetings,” but only if you stretched the definition of “meeting” to include having a beverage with some of the Kernels’ staff after their Affiliates Dinner with the Twins. Though, honestly, that’s a meeting I could have had at the Stadium Lounge in Cedar Rapids just as easily.

But the people-watching at the Stadium Lounge wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining as at the Dolphin’s lobby. It was absolutely packed with, from what I could gather, hundreds of 20-somethings in suits who I believe were trying their damnedest to find work in the baseball industry somewhere. The competition for whatever jobs are available must be intense.

I couldn’t help but feel they might have a better chance of standing out and eventually landing a gig if they’d simply start a blog.

Or maybe not.

Anyway, upon my return to the great white north, it occurred to me that, after a similar business trip to Florida a year ago, I posted some thoughts I had concerning the way the Twins’ 2012-13 offseason was shaping up at the time. If that was a good time for mid-offseason reflection a year ago, it probably is now, as well.

A year ago, I wasn’t feeling terribly impressed with the roster reconstruction work Twins General Manager Terry Ryan was doing. While he had added some future pitching, in return for his top two Major League centerfielders, the only additions to his 2013 rotation he’d acquired had been Vance Worley and Kevin Correia.

My take on Correia wasn’t really negative (I wrote, “he could well be better than most of the in-house options the team has,” and added that, “My problem at this point isn’t with signing Correia, it’s with NOT signing other… better… pitchers.”). I think, even with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I’d stand by that opinion now.

Last year’s top starting pitching free agent, Zack Greinke, had signed by this time, as had Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster and others of that ilk, pretty much establishing what the market rates were for starting pitching. This season, the market has been slower to set as pitchers such as Matt Garza wait for the Masahiro Tanaka drama to play out.

But, unlike a year ago, Ryan has already made a legitimate effort to improve his team. Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes aren’t aces, but they are starting pitchers who have been good at times in their careers and there are reasonable cases to be made that they have upsides that could make them valuable additions to the Twins rotation. There were various reports linking both pitchers to multiple teams, but Ryan was aggressive and got them on board before the Winter Meetings.

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his 2013 rehab start in CR

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his 2013 rehab start in CR

The re-signing of Mike Pelfrey has widely been panned by fans, but I’m OK with it. I feel much the way I did about the Correia signing a year ago. The Twins probably overpaid with a two-year deal, but I think he could be better than almost every other in-house option. And since, unlike Correia a year ago, Pelfrey is not the best free agent pitcher signed by the Twins, I’ll give Ryan the benefit of the doubt. If the Twins saw something in Pelfrey toward the end of 2013 that makes them believe he’ll be better in 2014, I’ll trust their judgment for now.

I suspect that we’ll be seeing the Twins trade Sam Deduno, however. He, along with Worley and lefty Scott Diamond, are out of options, so the Twins are likely going to have to part with at least one of them. Deduno, it seems to me, is the only one of the group with any trade value at all right now. That would leave Diamond and Worley left to fight for the final rotation spot, with the loser perhaps getting the long-relief role in the bullpen to start the season.

I won’t be surprised if Ryan makes another splash in the free agent market, however. It sounds like he’s continuing to at least stay in touch with the agents for Garza and Bronson Arroyo. I’m not sure that would change the dynamic significantly, though. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Correia traded if Garza or Arroyo is signed. It would be worth it, to me, if it’s Garza that’s added. I’d be less enthused with Arroyo because it almost feels like you’d just be adding another Correia, but paying more and committing for more years.

What’s more important, to me, is that the Twins add some offense before camp opens. I’m just less optimistic that it will happen.

There simply aren’t logical options, now that the offensive-minded veteran catchers are pretty much off the market.

Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier are locked in on the right side of the Twins infield.

Trevor Plouffe is going to hold down third base until Miguel Sano arrives.

Josh Willingham has no trade value at this point, so he’s likely to be the primary left fielder.

Oswaldo Arcia should open in right field unless the Twins think he needs more AAA time. Even if so, it’s unlikely any replacement would be a significant offensive improvement over Arcia.

That really leaves just center field and shortstop as possible positions where an offensive upgrade would be feasible. The Twins have been linked to Stephen Drew and I think that idea has some merit.

In center field, however, it’s hard for me to imagine any free agent signing with the Twins, knowing that the top prospect in all of baseball is due to arrive within a year or two, at most, to claim that position.

In any event, as the folks at MLBTradeRumors.com point out, there simply aren’t many position players with impact potential still on the free agent market. Just five of the position players originally listed on MLBTR’s “Top 50 free agents” remain on the market. They are Drew, Shin-Soo Choo, Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez. Unless the Twins make a run at Drew, it’s hard to imagine any of those guys wearing a Twins uniform in 2014.

Will Jason Kubel find some old magic in 2014?

Will Jason Kubel find some old magic in 2014?

Maybe the Twins will catch lightning in a bottle and get a boost from one of their returning Jasons (Bartlett and Kubel), but I think the best shot at significant offensive improvement might be if Sano gets off to a hot start and earns a mid-year promotion. Likewise, while it would be unreasonable to expect, it’s fun to consider what could happen if Byron Buxton gets off to a start at AA similar to what he showed a year ago during his time in Cedar Rapids.

Still, there’s a lot of conjecture going on about just how much improved the Twins could be if the roster stands more or less as it currently is constituted. I don’t think it’s post-season competitive yet, but I’m a lot more hopeful than I was a year ago.

Was the Twins rotation so bad that the addition of Nolasco and Hughes could result in as many as 10 more wins for the Twins? I think so.

It’s not that I think those two pitchers will be solely responsible for 10 additional wins, but I could see them accounting for, say, one additional win per month between them from April through August. If the Twins are healthy (read that as saying “if Mauer is healthy”) and not just going through the motions in September while providing cannon fodder for every team on their late-season schedule, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that they add a handful of wins to their 8-20 September record from 2013.

I don’t think Terry Ryan is done making deals that he believes will improve the 2014 roster. Considering that and considering the pitching upgrades already made, I don’t think expecting an improvement of 10 games over 2013 is unrealistic.

That’s not enough to get this team to “good,” but it would signal that things are once again moving in the right direction.

- JC