Twins in free agency: Anyone's guess

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2011 - 9:03 AM

When the Twins have spent at this time of year, it's usually been to keep their own players. Will that change?

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Michael Cuddyer

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Baseball's free-agent market opens late Wednesday night, and there are several tantalizing names available this year, including Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes.

The Twins have about $30 million to spend toward next year's Opening Day payroll, assuming they keep it close to this year's $113 million mark, and it'll be interesting to see where their free agents -- Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Joe Nathan and Matt Capps -- eventually land.

But for all the excitement the annual Hot Stove League creates, teams really should heed this advice when it comes to free agency: Buyer beware.

As Boston general manager, Theo Epstein won two World Series before departing for the Cubs, but his Red Sox legacy also includes some big free-agent busts, including Carl Crawford ($142 million), John Lackey ($82.5 million) and Bobby Jenks ($12 million).

"We are skeptical about free agency, given the recent experience we and so many other clubs have had," Red Sox President Larry Lucchino told Boston sports station WEEI last week. "But we will never turn off that possibility. You have to examine that every year."

Few teams have skimped on free agency over the years more than the Twins. The biggest two free-agent contracts they have signed in four years under General Manager Bill Smith is the two-year, $16.5 million deal they gave Carl Pavano last January and the two-year, $8.5 million deal they did with Nick Punto in 2008.

In both cases, the players already had been with the Twins for a while, so the team pretty much knew what it was getting. Under Smith, the most money the Twins have paid to acquire a major league free agent was the $6.6 million they gave infielder Mike Lamb in December 2007. They also spent $14.25 million to bring infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka from Japan last offseason.

"For many years, we weren't involved in any big-ticket free agents, primarily because of the environment we were playing in [at the Metrodome], the revenues and our market size," Smith said. "The last couple years, we've obviously invested heavily in keeping our own players."

Indeed, the Twins gave Joe Mauer an eight-year, $184 million contract in 2010 to keep him from becoming a free agent that fall, and Justin Morneau got his six-year, $80 million contract in 2008, two seasons before he could have hit the open market.

Once free agency hits, all bets are off. The Twins barely called Torii Hunter before the outfielder signed with the Angels after hitting the market in 2007. And the Twins traded Johan Santana to the Mets that winter, figuring they would have lost their two-time Cy Young Award winner to free agency after one more season.

Last winter, they re-signed Pavano and Jim Thome but let four key relievers walk: Jesse Crain (White Sox), Matt Guerrier (Dodgers), Jon Rauch (Blue Jays) and Brian Fuentes (Athletics).

But when the Twins have spent at this time of year, it's usually been to keep their own players.

"It obviously helps having known the player," Smith said. "You know not only his competitiveness and his skills and abilities, you also have all of his medical records. You know exactly what you're getting, and yes, that certainly makes it easier."

Smith said the best example is Pavano, who had to settle for a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Indians in 2009, after four injury-marred seasons with the Yankees. The Twins have since traded for Pavano and re-signed him twice. Pavano has appeared in 79 games for them, counting the postseason, without missing a start.

If the Twins decide to splurge this offseason, it would likely be for Cuddyer, Nathan and/or Kubel. Cuddyer, who turns 33 in March, appears to be the Twins' first priority, but he turned down a two-year, $16 million offer this July. With the Red Sox, Giants and Rockies among the teams expected to bid, Cuddyer should easily command a three-year deal and might even get something in the four-year, $40 million range.

The Twins might turn their attention to Kubel, and if they don't re-sign Nathan, don't be surprised if they retain Capps, knowing as they do that he kept pitching without complaint last year, even while battling right wrist tendinitis.

While fans fixate on the next destination for Pujols, Fielder, Reyes and C.J. Wilson, this is probably a good time to recap all the big signings the World Series champion Cardinals made last offseason.

Their big splurge was a two-year, $16.5 million contract to keep Jake Westbrook, who wound up pitching two postseason innings. They were widely ridiculed for signing Lance Berkman to a one-year, $8 million contract. They also added Punto, Gerald Laird and Brian Tallet for a combined $3 million.

No wonder most prognosticators ignored the Cardinals this spring, especially after Adam Wainwright hurt his elbow.

One year earlier, the eventual World Series champion Giants spent just $19.5 million on free agency, barely making a ripple as they signed Bengie Molina, Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa.

Of course, in 2009 the Yankees won the World Series after signing CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett to combined deals worth $324 million. But few teams can buy championships like that. The Twins aren't about to try.

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