Talent, not money, the biggest offseason acquisition obstacle

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 4, 2012 - 7:40 AM

The Twins' payroll is expected to remain at about $100 million, plenty to get the job done.

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Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham

Photo: Mark Duncan, Associated Press

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The Twins won four American League Central titles last decade under General Manager Terry Ryan with an average payroll of $53 million, so he hardly views their current financial situation as a crisis.

This year, the payroll was $100 million, down from a franchise record $113 million in 2011, and they currently have eight players under contract for next year at $65 million. Filling out the rest of their roster, as currently constructed, would put the payroll at $76 million.

"It won't be an issue," Ryan said. "I don't know what the [2013 payroll] number will be, but I do know in this business, that 90-100-113 million's plenty -- where we've been for the last three or four years. All you've got to do is look at the teams that are qualifying for the postseason."

Oakland clinched a spot with a $55 million payroll. Baltimore, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Atlanta are in with payrolls of about $82 million. So it can be done, but the Twins have some painful decisions ahead.

From Ryan to manager Ron Gardenhire, the Twins sound resigned to the fact they will have to trade from their core -- perhaps Justin Morneau and Denard Span -- to get the starting pitching help they need.

"When you lose 90-plus games two years in a row, there shouldn't be too many untouchables on the club," Ryan said. "You've got to find a way to get better."

This year's free-agent starting pitching class could include Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Jake Peavy, Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster and Kyle Lohse.

"It's not deep," Ryan said. "But that doesn't mean you can't find somebody that's going to help you."

If history is a guide, the Twins probably will pass on the first few tiers of free-agent starting pitchers, letting other teams gamble on pitchers who cost $10 million or more per year.

A more likely target group for the Twins would include lefthanders Joe Saunders and Paul Maholm, or perhaps a converted reliever such as Blue Jays righthander Carlos Villanueva.

After the Twins fired then-GM Bill Smith last fall, Ryan took over again and made some shrewd investments. Josh Willingham's three-year, $21 million deal looks like a steal, and Ryan Doumit and Jamey Carroll were solid additions to the lineup.

The Twins also signed some pitchers to minor league deals that paid dividends, including Jared Burton, Samuel Deduno and P.J. Walters.

But Ryan's biggest mistake was the one-year, $3 million deal for starting pitcher Jason Marquis. The righthander went 2-4 with an 8.47 ERA before getting released, then landed in San Diego, going 6-7 with a 4.04 ERA before breaking a bone in his left hand.

What ifs?

Starting pitching wasn't a main priority for the Twins last fall because they had Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano. Still, Marquis wasn't their only free-agent starting pitching target. They quietly pursued Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and Maholm, a trio that eventually succeeded elsewhere:

• Capuano signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Dodgers and went 12-11 with a 3.69 ERA.

• Harang signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers and went 10-10 with a 3.61 ERA.

• Maholm signed a one-year, $4.75 million deal with the Cubs that includes a $6.5 million option for 2013. He was traded to Atlanta at midseason, but overall this year, he is 13-11 with a 3.67 ERA.

Like Marquis, those three might be more suited for the National League. But in each case, it appears the Twins were on the right track.

"Well, they're not here," Ryan said, dismissively. "Nobody wants to hear about who you didn't get. It's what did you get? We got Marquis. It wasn't happening, man.

"Those are excuses. We took a run at a bunch of people last winter and didn't get them, and we took a run at a bunch of people we did get. But the fact of the matter is we're 66-and-something. That isn't good enough."

Ryan said pitching isn't his only concern, as the Twins also will look to improve their defense, base running and basic fundamentals, such as bunting. But their main problem has been a starting pitching staff that entered Tuesday ranked last in the American League with a 5.40 ERA.

One or two modest free-agent signings could help, but the Twins will see what teams will give them for Morneau and Span, among others.

"You have to have starting pitching, and I'm not just talking a few decent arms," Gardenhire said. "I'm talking about some quality pitching.

"We have to have some people give us a chance, because once you start getting your brains beat out, then it kind of rolls over. You need one or two guys that whenever they step up, you have a chance to end a streak or get a streak going."

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