Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Off-Season That Could Be

The Twins enter tonight's opening salvos in the free agent market in a surprisingly good position. Unlike last year, the team doesn't have any glaring free agents set to leave, threatening to leave, or pushing the limits of "what should we do with this guy?" (see Carlos Silva).

If all of the Twins free agents left the team for other pastures, it wouldn't break or much hurt this team. Left-handed aging relief pitchers Dennys Reyes and Eddie Guardado are easily replaceable. Middle infielders Nick Punto and Adam Everett represent a glutton of utility infielders the Twins are currently rostering.

Of the group, the only real loss would be Punto, a defensive gem at every position he fields. Punto is a true utility man, able to sub at most positions with clean fundamentals. He also is gritty, scrappy and seemingly well-liked by his teammates. So long as Punto isn't a set starter at one position, he's a cornerstone of the Twins manner of playing baseball.

The major part of the roster is set except for the left side of the infield. Add to this reliever Pat Neshek's pending surgery (he will probably miss the 2009 season) and the roster is ripe for a few helpful fresh faces and possibly a trade. The Twins budget even allows for some roster additions.

No the Twins won't be mentioned anywhere in the bidding for superstar free agents Manny Ramirez, Bobby Abreau, Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, Francisco Rodriguez, A.J. Burnett or Trevor Hoffman. Based on previous history and the uncertainty of Twins fans with the Twins-Rays trade of last season, I'd estimate a small trade from the team and an auditioning of second-tier free agents again. Still, here are a few of the legitimate possibilities of this off-season:

The Twins might be named a bit in the news surrounding the courting of third basemen Joe Crede (Chicago White Sox) and Casey Blake (L.A. Dodgers). According to Minneapolis Star-Tribune beat writer Joe Christensen, the Twins are one of seven teams interested in Blake, a former Twin. Those aren't good odds for the Twins, who don't like to get into bidding wars.

Crede leaves Chicago because the White Sox are going to put Josh Fields back at third base and are heavily favored to win free agent bidding for 19-year-old Cuban phenom third baseman Dayan Viciedos (the Chisox are close to becoming a Cuban landing point with Alexei Rodriguez and Jose Contreras already on the roster).

Fans will recall Crede's 2003-2006 seasons, during which he averaged .260, 23 home runs, 75 RBI a season). But Crede is a poor option, having suffered two straight injury-plagued seasons (he played 97 games last year, mostly due to a bad back), his dimishing defensive skills (20 errors in 2008) and his sagging career on-base percentage of .306. Add to that, the unspoken: Crede's numbers seemed to drop and his injuries increased the same year MLB began it's steriod/HGH crackdown (for further evidence see Luis Gonzalez, Todd Helton, Brian Roberts, Randy Johnson, Jason Giambi, et al). I'm sure the Twins would do some vetting on Crede's past to find out if the un-talked about is true, but his depreciation as a fielder might be too much for the team to take.

The Twins could make a trade, given its plethora of outfielders and starting pitchers. A dearth of adequate third base, shortstop and relief pitching makes for obvious speculation. Many names and teams are being bandied about with Colorado Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins and Milwaukee Brewers shortstop J.J. Hardy the most interesting possibilities.

The Rockies just traded away star outfielder Matt Holliday so they might be in the market for a trade option the likes of Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Delmon Young or Denard Span. The Rockies would need much more, though. It would cost the Twins something like a package of Cuddyer, Boof Bonser and Nick Blackburn.

The Brewers, on the other hand, are moments from losing C.C. Sabathia to free agency. They would want a starter like Kevin Slowey or Nick Blackburn. In addition, they would land either Boof or Phil Humber (both are out of options) and a prospect the likes of minor league LHP phenom Tyler Robertson.

The Twins just don't seem to pull these deals very often and when new GM Bill Smith did last season, it looked like the Tampa Bay Rays laughed him all the way to the World Series.

When pressed, Bullpen Catcher would offer this advice to the Twins: make both the aforementioned trades, but only if they can be done losing just one starter from the current rotation of Baker/Slowey/Blackburn/Liriano/Perkins. The Brewers just had their sometime closer Solomon Torres retire, so offer Bobby Korecky and/or Jesse Crain in the mix.

With a solid four-man rotation, Atkins at third and Hardy at shortstop, this team could make a legitimate run for the AL title. Lefties Craig Breslow and Jose Mijares can fill the left-handed relief roles and there are other arms in the minors waiting to be promoted. The core of the Twins would remain intact and the batting lineup would significantly improve.

Soon, we'll find out where this speculation leaves us. Stay tuned ...

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