Is the caller there? Twins let them know their priorities

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 5, 2011 - 10:57 AM

Two of them: finding a shortstop; being tougher on minor leaguers.

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Twins General Manager Bill Smith welcomed Tsuyoshi Nishioka to the team last December, but the infielder struggled mightily. Smith on Tuesday said Nishioka must earn his playing time next year.

Photo: Craig Lassig, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Twins General Manager Bill Smith identified shortstop as one of the team's top offseason priorities Tuesday night, saying Tsuyoshi Nishioka will have a chance to compete for playing time but won't be given anything next year.

It was one of several candid answers Smith and team president Dave St. Peter gave in a conference call with their season-ticket holders.

St. Peter said Target Field's dimensions won't be changing for next year, despite repeated pleas from Twins hitters. Smith said it might be time for the team's minor league managers to start pulling players from games when they throw to the wrong base or don't run out ground balls.

Smith said he expects the big league coaching staff to return and explained why it's unlikely the Twins will re-sign Jim Thome. Smith also said he'd like to see Michael Cuddyer finish his career as a Twin, and said even if Joe Nathan's 2012 option isn't picked up, the team is interested in keeping him.

Asked to name the top offseason priority, Smith said it's tough to pick one after finishing 63-99.

"We're looking for that starting pitcher because we might have a starting pitcher or two that we want to put in the bullpen," he said. "We need to upgrade the bullpen, there's no question. We're looking for that backup catcher that can provide a little bit more offense.

"We've gotta figure out shortstop, and that may involve going out and getting another shortstop. We've got [Alexi] Casilla, we've got [Trevor] Plouffe, we've got [Tsuyoshi] Nishioka -- we've gotta find somebody that can be a stable, starting everyday shortstop."

In another answer about defense, Smith said, "We've gotta give [third baseman Danny Valencia] a little more help from the shortstop position, so his range doesn't get overly exposed over there."

St. Peter said it's important for fans to know how committed the Twins are to correcting what went wrong this year. It was the third time the team has held one of these offseason fan forums -- the first time with St. Peter and Smith answering questions together -- and moderator Dick Bremer said a record 3,500 fans were listening.

"Make no mistake, the expectations I know externally have been high, and we can assure you they're just as high if not higher inside our organization," St. Peter said. "We have an owner, in Jim Pohlad and his family, that's committed to winning, and that's really what we're focused on for 2012."

Smith stressed that getting injured players healthy will be important, especially the returns of Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. He said moving Mauer to first base is Plan B, with Plan A to have Mauer at catcher and Morneau at first base.

Regarding the backup catching plans, Smith said, "We have to have more offense out of that position, especially in a year like this when Joe Mauer missed a lot of time. We can't have our backup catchers hit .150 when they have to catch 100 games."

The Twins might look for a backup catcher who can be the DH in games he's not behind the plate. Smith praised Thome, but said the Twins probably need more versatility on the bench.

St. Peter said the Twins need to get back to playing their brand of baseball -- throwing strikes, playing good defense and taking the extra base -- saying he knows this is how manager Ron Gardenhire feels, too.

Smith said many mistakes came from players who weren't ready for the majors but had to fill in because of injuries.

"It's not acceptable in Triple A, either," Smith said. "... It's not that we're not teaching it. It's that somehow we're not having the success that we've had over time. So what we have to be is less tolerant of those mistakes."

Smith and St. Peter talked about tailoring the team to Target Field with speed in the outfield, noting the team plans to have Span and Ben Revere in center and left, in some combination. As for right field, Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are both free agents.

One woman said she was looking for a new Twins jersey to buy and wondered if it was safe to buy Cuddyer's.

"It will always be safe to buy a Michael Cuddyer jersey because whether he is with the Twins or any other club, Michael Cuddyer's one of the great representatives, certainly, in my 30 years in baseball and my 26 years with the Twins," Smith said. "... We hope to re-sign him. We've had some talks, but again, he's a free agent, and players earn that right. ... Our hope is that Michael Cuddyer finishes his career in the Twins organization."

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