Twins seek right fit among free-agent starting pitchers

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2012 - 6:51 AM

The Twins never have spent much to land pitchers on the open market.

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Twins General Manager Terry Ryan

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune file

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The Twins appear to have abundant free-agent options for their anticipated starting pitching overhaul, but with the market set to open at 11 p.m. Friday, General Manager Terry Ryan still sounds underwhelmed.

"There certainly are some very talented people available," Ryan said Thursday. "But overall, when you look at the group, I would say it's a little thin."

It's certainly not 2007 thin. That year, Carlos Silva signed the offseason's richest free-agent starting pitching contract, leaving the Twins to take $48 million over four years with Seattle. This market isn't top-heavy, but it boasts one ace in his prime in Zack Greinke and far more middle-tier options than last year.

Last fall, there was a huge gap between C.J. Wilson, Yu Darvish and Mark Buehrle -- who each topped $57 million -- and Aaron Harang, who got $12 million.

This year's expanded middle tier -- a group including Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse and Ryan Dempster -- would seem to fit Ryan's undisclosed budget. The Twins have about $76 million in payroll commitments for next season, and their payroll isn't expected to surpass last season's mark of $100 million.

Of course, they could free up more money if they trade Justin Morneau ($14 million next year) or Denard Span ($4.75 million). With Scott Diamond the only pitcher penciled into next year's rotation, the Twins are exploring trades, but they know they need to bid more aggressively on free agents than they have in the past.

Since 2007, the biggest deal the Twins have given another team's free-agent starting pitcher was the one-year, $5 million deal they gave Livan Hernandez in 2008. Two years ago, they thought they went out on a limb by their standards when they gave Carl Pavano a two-year, $16.5 million deal to stay in Minnesota.

Asked if the Twins would consider a deal of at least three years for a free-agent pitcher this time, Ryan said, "Sure, that would be a possibility, but we've never really relied on free agents."

The Twins also used to shy away from free-agent position players -- until last fall, when they made three strategic signings. They gave left fielder Josh Willingham three years for $21 million, infielder Jamey Carroll two years for $6.5 million, and catcher Ryan Doumit one year for $3 million.

All three signees were fairly successful, especially Willingham, who had 35 home runs and 110 RBI. Doumit signed a two-year, $7 million extension during the season.

"This year, we're going to be looking at pitching, not so much position players, although we certainly won't turn our back on somebody we like," Ryan said. "Hopefully we'll have some of the success we had filling holes on position players last year."

The Twins, as usual, aren't expected to win a bidding sweepstakes for the likes of Greinke or Sanchez. But using last year's template, they could give a three-year deal to the likes of Dempster, Joe Saunders or Hisashi Iwakuma. They could give a two-year deal to Jeremy Guthrie, Joe Blanton or Shaun Marcum. And they could give a one-year deal to a pitcher looking to establish himself as a full-time starter, such as Carlos Villanueva or Scott Feldman.

Target Field still is considered a good pitcher's park, even though there were 167 home runs hit there last year, compared to 116 and 126 in the ballpark's first two years. But after finishing with the American League's worst record for the second year in a row, the Twins probably won't be the first choice for pitchers determined to sign with a winner.

In fact, the Twins might need to overpay to get the pitchers they want.

"I think everybody knows this is a pretty good place to pitch," Ryan said. "I think everybody knows this is a pretty good market. We draw. We've got a beautiful stadium, so it still would come down to dollars and years."

Notes

• The Twins named Brad Steil their new minor league director, removing the interim tag they gave him after Jim Rantz announced his retirement last month. Steil was the team's director of baseball operations for the previous five seasons.

• The Twins also filled their head trainer position, promoting longtime assistant Dave Pruemer into the lead role. Pruemer replaces Rick McWane, who was fired after eight years on the job. Tony Leo was named assistant athletic trainer, and Lanning Tucker was named assistant athletic trainer and rehabilitation coordinator.

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