MLB free agency starts in the wee hours Wednesday. The Twins likely won't make an immediate splash. That said, it is already time to start fixating on what the team needs to do this offseason to fix itself. If the Twins have roughly $30 million to spend, as beat writer Joe Christensen suggests, here is a priority wish list, in order:
1. Fix the bullpen. Losing four reasonably solid relievers after 2010 haunted the team. The Twins had a 4.51 bullpen ERA -- dead last in all of MLB. While pitching to contact might be a reasonable goal for starters, it is a terrible way to construct a group of relievers. Twins' relievers had the third-fewest strikeouts in MLB. We're not opposed to making a run at re-signing Joe Nathan at a modest two-year deal ($7 million or $8 million per). A fully healthy Nathan, another solid year from Glen Perkins and a finding a couple of modestly priced, hard-throwing righties who could get a big strikeout in the seventh inning would be a big upgrade. Estimated total 2012 cost: $10 million.
2. Finding a starting pitcher who can be a top-end guy, defined as one who is consistently a threat to not just post a quality start but completely shut down a lineup based solely on his stuff. The Twins' best chance at this seems to be a low-cost, medium-risk, high-reward guy. One name we're intrigued by: Ben Sheets, who is a possibility to return from a major 2010 arm surgery. Someone needs to move ahead of Carl Pavano, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano. Estimated 2012 cost: $5 million.
3. Fix shortstop. If Alexi Casilla was the top of the worry list and everything else was solved, maybe you would look to replace him. But let's say second base is accounted for. Tsuyoshi Nishioka could, we suppose, surprise everyone and rebound in 2012. But the Twins cannot count on that. They need a veteran who can avoid giving Ron Gardenhire an ulcer by at least catching the ball and not turning the position into a three-ring circus. Someone, dare we say, like 2011 World Champion Nick Punto -- or at least a less-injury-prone version of him? Estimated 2012 cost: $2.5 million.
4. Re-sign Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel. The preference here is Cuddyer. He's versatile, and he gives the lineup balance with his righthanded bat. But he might be too expensive and/or want a change of scenery. Kubel might have the higher offensive upside, but he's another lefthanded bat in a lineup full of good ones (when healthy). A third option is signing a veteran corner OF on a short-term deal. That's not unreasonable, but it's not the preference here. Estimated 2012 cost: $10 million.
5. Get a backup catcher who can start 60-80 games and not be a liability at the plate. Drew Butera is a nice guy, but he's not a MLB-caliber hitter. He is not a viable No. 2 option behind a fragile catcher who will play increasing innings away from the position as time goes on. Christensen threw out the name Rod Barajas, and it's a good one. He's a righty with power and plays reasonable defense. If the Twins got someone like him on a two-year deal for $3 million per, it would be a big boost. Estimated 2012 cost: $2.5 million. Optimistic total cost for all five categories: $30 million.