September 9, 2009

An early look into the not-so-distant future.

Several weeks ago, before I lost all of my free time to school, I answered a few questions that Peter Bourgeois sent in to me.

Since then, the Twins have been very busy signing draft picks, upgrading their bullpen and pulling back within manageable distance of the division crown when, at the time, it looked as though they were done for. Unfortunately, the Twins are now sitting five games behind the Tigers with just 29 games remaining, seven of which are against Detroit.

But even with a good month left of baseball to be played, everyone is gearing up for what could be the most exciting off-season in Minnesota Twins history. Despite a fairly weak free agent class, the Twins will have money to spend. But how much is the question. Last week, La Velle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune hosted a live chat, and this caught my eye:
12:15 [Comment From Next Year]
How do the Twins improve the club for next year and will they spend any of that new stadium money?

La Velle:
They better. With raises through long-term deals and arbitration,the payroll should go up. I had a conversation recently with a Twins official who estimated the payroll could top $90 million next year and head toward $95-100M.

I've speculated on this in the past. The Twins have a similar market (actually, if we're getting down to the specifics, it's larger) than that of the St. Louis Cardinals. Obviously just because they spend money doesn't mean we have to, but I've always felt that the Twins could spend at least as much as them. After all, the Twins are going to be moving into a new stadium which will be packed full of Twins fans almost every night, much like the Cardinals and their new stadium.

But La Velle hearing from a 'Twins official' is probably a good indicator that other people feel this way as well. While I'll still be surprised to see the Twins raise their payroll nearly $30 million in just a few months, I do think that over the next three or four years, $90 or even northwards of $100 million isn't completely out of the question.

As for the 2010 season, here's how the roster looks (please note, these are just my calculations and shouldn't be taken as 100% accurate, or for that matter, anywhere near that):
C: Joe Mauer - $12,500,000
C: Jose Morales - $400,000
1B: Justin Morneau - $14,000,000
2B: Alexi Casilla - $460,000
IF: Brendan Harris - $1,250,000 (Arbitration guess)
IF: Nick Punto - $4,000,000
IF: Matt Tolbert - $460,000
IF: Brian Buscher - $460,000
OF: Delmon Young - $1,700,000 (Arbitration guess)
OF: Denard Span - $460,000
OF: Michael Cuddyer - $8,500,000
OF: Carlos Gomez - $460,000
DH: Jason Kubel - $4,100,000

Other possibilities: Jason Pridie - $400,000, Trevor Plouffe - $400,000,
Hitting total: $49,550,000

SP: Scott Baker - $3,000,000
SP: Nick Blackburn - $460,000
SP: Kevin Slowey - $460,000
SP: Francisco Liriano - $1,250,000 (Arbitration guess)
SP: Glen Perkins - $1,250,000 (Arbitration guess)

Other possibilities: Brian Duensing - $400,000, Jeff Manship - $400,000, Anthony Swarzak - $400,000

RP: Joe Nathan - $11,250,000
RP: Jon Rauch - $2,900,000
RP: Matt Guerrier - $2,500,000 (Arbitration guess)
RP: Jesse Crain - $2,250,000 (Arbitration guess)
RP: Jose Mijares - $460,000
RP: Boof Bonser - $1,250,000 (Arbitration guess)
RP: Pat Neshek - $1,250,000 (Arbitration guess)

Other possibilities: Bobby Keppel - $460,000

Pitching total: $29,940,000
Obviously, not all of the serf contracts are quite accurate and the arbitration guesses are in fact just guesses. But as you can see, the Twins are already close to $80,000,000 ($79,490,000), which isn't including any free agent pick ups or taking into factor any extensions they may give to some of their current players. With Joe Mauer expecting to earn a substantial pay raise, it's doubtful that the Twins add any elite players this off-season.

But even if they could afford an elite player, I would be surprised to see the Twins go out and sign one. One thing I've come to expect over the years while following the Twins is that what you think will happen probably won't. Now that's kind of a vague statement, but it is true. When I have figured the Twins would finally splurge in free agency, they have sat back and done nothing. When I expected them to do something (anything) at the trade deadline, they have sat back and done nothing. And when I don't expect them to do anything, they go out and make a run at players that would change the whole dynamic of the ball club. And for that reason, I can't and won't get my hopes up that the Twins will add anything this off-season.

Of course, the Twins could very well trade a few players, which I truly believe they will, but who and what is a complete mystery and something that will be discussed at another time.

And looking early, here are the key areas of concern that the Twins need to address this off-season:
Starting pitching: The Twins' Achilles heal this season has been their failure to execute (both at the plate and on the mound). But the Twins' pitching staff has given up so many runs this season that I really can't blame the offense for not scoring when they are currently ranked 8th in the Major Leagues in runs scored, opposed to the pitching staff having the 24th worst ERA. While they have scored 668 runs this season, the pitching staff has given up 657. Other than in walks, the Twins' pitching staff is below American League average in nearly every category.

Middle infield: It's no surprise to anyone that the biggest question mark regarding the offense is the hitters occupying both second base and shortstop. The Twins' second base play this year has been atrocious. So far, the Twins have fielded a .201/.285/.260 hitting line from their second basemen this season, by far the worst in the Major Leagues. Shortstop hasn't been nearly as bad, but that's not really saying a lot. The Twins have gotten terrible production from their shortstops this season. Both areas should be addressed.

It's easy to point fingers at Bill Smith and co. for not equipping Ron Gardenhire and the coaching staff with the appropriate players to win this season, but his hands are kind of tied. The 2008 Twins were a great story. Nobody expected anything from the team after losing players like Johan Santana, Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva to the ever powerful color of green, but the pitching staff turned out to be outstanding while the offense looked outstanding. I don't blame Smith for not acquiring a big bat or another pitcher last off-season, because really, they didn't look as though they necessarily needed that much help. I thought the acquisition of Joe Crede was more than enough to keep the offense atop of the American League ranks while the pitching staff continued to develop.

Only, the pitching staff and for some part, the offense, got off to an unstable start and the offense was the only thing to finally figure things out. The pitching staff that once looked to be one of the best in the league quickly turned into one of the worst. But nobody can be blamed for that. It's hard to predict pitching, especially young pitching. Smith did help bolster our bullpen, which while it's still rocky at times, it looks set for the future.

But this off-season, while I don't think the Twins will have the means to go out and acquire a top-end free agent, I do expect them to improve each area of weakness this team has. Last off-season was too hard to predict. We had one real weakness at third base which he ultimately (later than we probably would have hoped), found a solution. The rest of the squad looked solid heading into the season. Was it a Championship team? I don't know. It was strong enough to make the playoffs, that's for sure.

So now after another season with the reigns of GM, I expect things to be a little more active this off-season. Again, I honestly don't expect John Lackey or Matt Holiday to be Twins come next Spring, but could they acquire someone like J.J. Hardy or Mark DeRosa? It's at least more realistic.

The Twins are currently hovering around the 15th worst record in baseball, which as a Twins fan, is something we pay close attention to every year. If the Twins have one of the 15th worst records in baseball, their 1st round draft pick would not be surrendered if they chose to sign a Type-A free agent. At this point, that probably wouldn't be a bad thing to be in. The Twins are losing ground in the standings and although they keep holding on, at this point, it's very unlikely that they'll make the playoffs. While I'm not advocating that they throw games for the sole purpose to finish in the bottom-half of the standings, it wouldn't be the worst thing either.

But obviously, it's a pretty safe assumption that nothing will get done until number seven is signed, and while I hope it gets done early, I'm unfortunately expecting it to drag on throughout the off-season which could give the front office plenty of excuses why they're not more aggressive on the market.

I've grown more and more pessimistic over the summer and while I still love the Twins, I don't know if I have full faith in the front office or coaching staff to get this team to where it should be, which is at the top of the standings every year. The Twins might have the best hitting combination in baseball and one of the best overall players that has put on a jersey in this era, yet we have a hard time staying above .500 and play in a division with two deadbeat teams and no team that is stellar by any standards.

Something needs to change, and I truly hope that something happens this off-season to instill some of the faith that I may still have in this franchise.