One Twins deal is down; any more to come?

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2012 - 9:02 AM

Twins GM Terry Ryan will not rule out anything after back-to-back last-place finishes.

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Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham

Photo: Mark Duncan, Associated Press

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The Twins aren't calling this a rebuilding project, but after trading Denard Span for a Class A pitching prospect Thursday, it's clear they're not afraid to weaken their 2013 squad to strengthen their future.

Why stop there?

With the winter meetings opening Monday, the Twins say they are open to entertaining offers for anyone on their roster, including Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham and, yes, Joe Mauer.

After finishing 66-96 last season -- their second straight year with the American League's worst record -- their chances of contending next year seem remote, especially considering the state of their starting rotation.

So maybe their energy should be focused on 2014 or 2015, when several highly touted prospects could be settled in at Target Field, a group including Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Alex Meyer, the pitcher acquired from the Nationals for Span.

Twins President Dave St. Peter said the team does hope to contend in 2013, calling it a critical year to rebuild the fans' faith. But if the right offer comes along, the organization won't hesitate to move another fan favorite.

"I think our fans want to see us get better, and I think they recognize there should be no sacred cows," St. Peter said. "And if there's a vision for how we get better, how we ultimately position ourselves for long-term success, I think the fans in this marketplace are very open to that."

Last week, reports surfaced that the Twins had rebuffed Boston's attempts to trade for Mauer, who is still owed $138 million over the next six years. But without getting into specifics, Ryan insisted every option is on the table.

"I've said this a couple times: We don't have any untouchables," Ryan said. "That's as plain an answer as I can give you. If somebody has some interest in one of our guys, we'll listen.

"It's easy to say, 'Oh well, somebody ought to have interest in Willingham and Morneau and Mauer.' OK, no kidding. We've got interest in all kinds of players in the industry, but unfortunately it's going to take quite a bit to get them."

Would Twins listen?

The chances of a Morneau trade are slim. He is under contract for one more season, at $14 million, but his wrist issues and concussion history make it risky to take on that salary. Insiders believe the Twins would have to eat at least half of the first baseman's salary to get a good prospect, though his value could rise toward the July 31 trade deadline if he stays healthy.

In Willingham, the Twins have a chance to sell high. In the first year of his three-year, $21 million contract, the left fielder had career highs with 35 home runs and 110 RBI. But he turns 34 in February and has a history of back problems, so his trade value might never be higher.

Then there's Mauer. At the end of the 2011 season, his eight-year, $184 million contract looked like a major albatross after injuries limited him to 82 games. But he rebounded last season to play a career-high 147 games and posted a major league-best .416 on-base percentage.

Still, he's a part-time catcher who has managed 22 home runs over the past three seasons after slugging 28 in 2009. It's uncertain how much the Twins could get for him without eating some salary.

But baseball owners get impulsive this time of year. The Yankees just lost free agent catcher Russell Martin to the Pirates. The Rangers might lose Josh Hamilton to free agency and could need a catcher to replace Mike Napoli. The Red Sox need to appease their fans after clearing $261 million in salary from their books by trading Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.

Mauer has a full no-trade clause, so he would have final say. He's a St. Paul kid, but he spends his winters in Fort Myers, Fla., the spring training home of the Twins and Red Sox. As a hitter in the Wade Boggs mold, maybe he would welcome the chance to spray opposite-field doubles off the Green Monster.

What if Boston or another team offers to absorb Mauer's entire contract, while giving the Twins another Grade A pitching prospect? The Twins might be tempted, especially knowing only one team in modern history has won a World Series with a player absorbing at least 20 percent of his team's payroll -- the 2003 Marlins with catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

Public relations job

Of course, if the Twins trade Mauer or Willingham, they will risk further alienating their fans. Dave Mona, the Minneapolis chairman for the Weber Shandwick public relations firm, said one key to any rebuilding plan would be skillfully articulating the rationale to fans.

"It's a difficult challenge, but how much more difficult would it be than continuing the course they're on right now where they've disappointed their fan base in consecutive years?" Mona said.

Mona noted that the Twins have a history of building around young talent. They did it with Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti and Tom Brunansky leading up to the 1987 World Series, and again with Torii Hunter's group in the early 2000s.

But the Twins aren't in the Metrodome anymore. They are three seasons into the Target Field era, which would make a rebuilding project "infinitely harder" to sell, Mona said.

"I think a lot of people felt that once Target Field was built, those days would be behind us," Mona said.

To be clear, the Twins haven't signaled that they are about to abandon hope for 2013. More likely, they will sign some veteran free-agent pitchers, such as Brett Myers and Francisco Liriano, and give it another try with Mauer, Willingham and Morneau at the heart of their order.

But the Twins know they need to weigh every option, always keeping an eye on the future.

Baseball America co-editor John Manuel recently said their farm system ranks with the game's best in terms of hitting prospects, with Sano, Buxton, Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia and Eddie Rosario. But their starting pitching talent lags behind, even with Meyer in the fold and Kyle Gibson coming back from elbow surgery.

"I think you can do both [compete now and build for the future]," St. Peter said. "It isn't like in order to ensure greater success in the future that we have to sacrifice today. It's my hope we can continue to put a team on the field in 2013 that not only has a chance to be better than last year but hopefully contend for the postseason."

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