Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Twins Wrap-up: Offseason Plans

As the Rangers and Giants prepare to battle it out for baseball supremacy, the Twins brain trust has a difficult task ahead of them.  After a season that featured a $100 million payroll, a fantastic inaugural season at a beautiful new ballpark, and a brief flirtation with the playoffs (again), it is time to make some tough decisions before reporting to spring training in February. 

Note: This is the first of a three part discussion looking at my thoughts on the 2011 Twins (and beyond).

There has been plenty of solid analysis into the state of the Twins escalating payroll.  Whether you believe that the Pohlad family should break the bank for a championship or understand that they are running a business, it should be clear that some adjustments need to be made for 2011 and beyond.  The team made a number of high profile moves last winter due to the increased revenue from Target Field and because the big contracts for their core players hadn’t fully kicked in yet.  In addition, the injury to Joe Nathan actually gave the team more flexibility to spend, since much of his contract (~$9 million) was recouped in insurance payments. 

Instead of looking at this problem as purely a budgeting exercise, the team needs to develop a longer term strategy to ensure the continued success of this team.  I believe that this may require some bold (and potentially unpopular) moves this winter in order to give us the best chance at continuing a winning tradition at Target Field. 

Part I will take a look at the team’s assets and liabilities going into next year:

Team Strengths:
  • Target Field: After years of struggling to get by in the ‘Dome, the Twins finally have a 1st class ballpark to play with.  As long as the team stays competitive and weather patterns don’t change dramatically, we can expect revenues to hold steady and potentially increase slightly in the next few years.  This should allow the club to spend between $100 - $120 million in payroll each year. 
  • Strong nucleus: Assuming a healthy Justin Morneau, the Twins have a great young core to build upon that also includes Joe Mauer, Denard Span, Delmon Young, Danny Valencia and Francisco Liriano. 
  • Pitching Depth: In addition to Liriano, the club has control over Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing from last year’s rotation, as well as a number of others knocking at the door.  In the bullpen, the team is equally deep, though there are a number of decisions that must be made starting this winter.
  • Solid and stable coaching: In addition to AL manager of the year Ron Gardenhire, the Twins have perhaps the best pitching coach in baseball in Rick Anderson.  Equally impressive has been the work of Joe Vavra, who has quietly helped the Twins become one of the better hitting teams in baseball (at least in the regular season). 
  • Minor league prospects:  Many people point to the Twins lack of star power in the minor leagues, but they are currently ranked in the top half of baseball in terms of overall talent.  What is very clear is the depth of the system, which can be attributed to the front office’s reluctance to part with top prospects in trades (Wilson Ramos being a clear exception).  In any case, players like Span, Valencia, Trevor Plouffe, Luke Hughes, Deunsing, and Burnett have shown in recent years that, given the chance, they can be productive players in the big leagues, despite the lack of eye-popping minor leagues statistics. 
Team Needs:
  • Starting Pitching: While the lack of a dominant “ace” starter was apparent in the playoffs, I tend to agree that Liriano has the potential to fill that role.  Beyond Liriano, most other pitchers in the rotation are basically the same guy.  We have a number of solid, mid-rotation, low strikeout guys who throw the ball over the plate and depend on good defense.  In my opinion, good teams tend to get too comfortable facing this rotation over a long series (or season).  This becomes especially true in the playoffs.  Quite simply, we need to shake things up a bit.
  • Outfield Defense: Overall, the outfield defense has degraded significantly over the last few years, starting with the departure of Torii Hunter via free agency.  Denard Span, while a slightly above-average center fielder by the numbers, clearly is not the best long term solution in the role. Our current trio of corner options (Young, Cuddyer and Kubel) are well below average defensively by any available measure.  When combined with a starting staff that gives up a high percentage of fly balls, this should be a major concern for the club. 
  • Hitting Depth: The Twins bench players have traditionally been good fielding utility players and offensive liabilities.  This makes it harder to justify late inning defensive substitutions, especially on nights when Joe Mauer is given a day off, as it further weakens an already suspect lineup.

Stay tuned for my next posting, when I pretend to be Bill Smith for a day.

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