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Unpopular answers

  • Blog Post by: Nick Nelson
  • November 9, 2010 - 11:46 PM

A week ago, I posted my offseason blueprint, a suggested course of action for the Twins' general manager based on the information laid out in TwinsCentric's Offseason GM Handbook.

My blueprint was mostly savaged in the comments sections both on my blog and here at StarTribune.com. Certainly, there were some valid critiques. Some disagreed with the idea of bringing Jim Thome back at a heightened salary, and that's something I myself have struggled with. Some felt non-tendering Matt Capps, with the uncertainly surrounding Joe Nathan, was an illogical decision. Almost everyone hated the proposed Michael Cuddyer-for-Derek Lowe swap, and in fact the commenters convinced me that this wouldn't be a particularly bright move. In truth, I only included it because I was trying to come with a creative and realistic way to move Cuddyer's salary, illustrating the point that if he was going to be traded the team would almost assuredly have to take on another bad contract in return. Alas, it's a moot point since Cuddyer isn't going anywhere.

Mostly I sensed that readers' dissatisfaction with the blueprint came from the fact that it didn't do very much to shake up the roster. Beyond the additions of Lowe and Grant Balfour, little was done to overhaul a club that was unceremoniously ousted from the playoffs by the Yankees for a second straight year. Commenters bemoaned the lack of major moves -- no blockbuster addition in the form of a frontline ace, middle-of-the-lineup bat, or speedster who could cover ground in the outfield and ramp up the team's aggressiveness on the base paths.

While I certainly sympathize with those takes, I suspect that the people hankering for major changes are setting themselves up for grave disappointment. The front office's main directive this offseason will be holding together the current roster as much as possible, not bringing in new marquee pieces. And that's not necessarily such a bad thing.

A year ago, funding was flush. The Twins were realizing the financial windfall made possible by Target Field in anticipation of the ballpark's inaugural season. Payroll increased by about 50 percent over the Opening Day mark in 2009, which allowed Bill Smith to show unprecedented aggressiveness on the free agent and trade markets. He added salary by dealing Carlos Gomez for J.J. Hardy. He was able to retain Carl Pavano for $7 million. He brought in Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson. He handed Joe Mauer the largest contract in franchise history.

I was thoroughly impressed with Smith's efforts last winter and labeled it an offseason for the ages, suggesting that the GM played his cards to "damn near perfection." The result was an excellent product for fans in the first year at Target Field.

This is a fact that gets lost in the uproar surrounding the team's quick playoff exit. Yes, the Twins lost three straight games to the Yankees, and yes, they happened to be the most important games of the year. But the Twins also won 94 games in the regular season. They were the first team in baseball to clinch a playoff spot. They absolutely demolished the second-place finishers in their division, who were certainly no slouches. They went 7-3 against the eventual American League Champions. The Twins were fantastic this year.

And they accomplished all that without the services of Joe Nathan for the entire year and Justin Morneau for half the year. They accomplished it despite getting worse performances than many had come to expect from the likes of Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and others. With better health and some rebound campaigns next year, the Twins could easily be poised to repeat as division champs and make a deeper run in the postseason if they can keep the current group mostly intact. You can bet that this will be the front office's imperative as the hot stove season gets underway.

It won't be easy. As Joe Christensen noted last week, the Twins have about $105 million committed to their roster for next year even if you don't account for the 10 departing free agents. That leaves them with a lot of spots to fill and not a lot of money to do it. We will probably see them trying to find a way to replace the vital production of Carl Pavano and Orlando Hudson at minimal expense. Signing a big-name free agent is a pipe dream unless payroll leaps in a way that no one foresees.

A lack of significant activity would not be a death sentence, by any means. Ownership held up their end of the bargain by jacking up payroll last year and spending will probably increase again this year, though not by nearly the same percentage. The front office did its job by using these increased funds to build a strong, division-winning club, and while I don't doubt that Smith has a few solid moves up his sleeve for the offseason, it's not reasonable to expect the same kind of drastic upgrades. 
 

The decisive factor in the team's success next season will likely be whether those players who return can stay healthy and produce at a higher level.

People complain about the lack of a team ace, but Francisco Liriano is fully capable of assuming that role. For that matter, Baker has the stuff of a front-line starter -- his strikeout rate this year was better than that of CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, C.J. Wilson and Phil Hughes, to name a few.

There's talk about the need to add power from the right side, but J.J. Hardy -- who went deep only six times this year -- hit 50 home runs between 2007 and 2008 and he's still only 28. Cuddyer hit 32 home runs in 2009 and 14 in 2010. Increased production from these two would go a long way toward balancing this lefty-heavy lineup.

Finally, I think people tend to forget what a powerful force Mauer, Morneau and Kubel are when they're all healthy and productive. In 2009, this was arguably the most fearsome trio of hitters in the league. There's no reason they shouldn't be able to return to that level if they can all come back healthy next season.

The 2010 Twins were great despite not playing up to their full potential. It's not glamorous and it's obviously not real popular with the fan base, but a lack of major changes this offseason could be just what the doctor ordered. The talent is already in place.

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