Part 2: Making an offseason splash not exactly Twins' style

  • Article by: LA VELLE E. NEAL III , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 26, 2013 - 6:05 AM

They never have been major players in free agency, but that might have to change soon.

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The Twins’ most expensive international acquisition came two years ago in the form of Japanese batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka, whose two-year career in North America became notable for its ineptitude.

Photo: File photo by MARLIN LEVISON • mlevison@startribune.com,

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The Twins say they are willing to use any means necessary to bring in talented players — trades, free agency or the international route. But their recent history doesn’t generate much optimism.

They haven’t spent more than $21 million on a multiyear free-agent contract; they have failed to land an impact player through recent trades; and their most high-profile effort in the global baseball market yielded Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

As the Twins wrap up their third consecutive season of 90-plus losses, General Manager Terry Ryan is facing what might be his biggest challenge.

There’s optimism for the long term, because of a highly regarded farm system led by prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. But the near future looks frightening with holes in the rotation and in the field. And the only way to fix the immediate problems might require a bold move or two.

Ryan maintains he is willing to take risks.

“There are many different ways to go about accumulating talent,” Ryan said. “You have to be prepared to pursue all of them.”

Ryan contends that the signing of Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract before the 2012 season — a record deal for a Twins free agent — is evidence that he will take a plunge into the rich end of the free-agent pool.

“I think you are mistaken when you don’t think $21 million is huge,” Ryan said.

The Twins’ signing of Willingham, however, is modest compared to their division rivals. Detroit’s record price tag for a free agent is more than 10 times that of the Twins’ — $214 million over nine years for Prince Fielder in January 2012.

Cleveland signed Nick Swisher last offseason for four years and $56 million; the White Sox signed Adam Dunn for the same contract before the 2011 season. Kansas City even signed Gil Meche for five years and $55 million in 2006 then added Jose Guillen for three years and $36 million the next year.

Although Ryan maintains he is willing to spend, it’s clear he would prefer building a contender through other means.

“Free agents aren’t the answer to everyone’s troubles,” he said. “Not the Minnesota Twins organization, or are they with any team. You might be able to plug a hole for a while, but ultimately just going out and spending on free agents is not the answer. We have a lot of concerns, and it’s not just one player or one pitcher.”

Ryan prefers the club develop most of its talent and then lock up deserving players to long-term deals. They have done so with several players through the years. But there are holes throughout the roster because the farm system hasn’t kept up in recent years.

“I just know [Ryan] is going to be involved,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He knows this is not working right now, and he knows we have kids who are pretty good players coming. Trying to add to our pitching staff is not risky, it is a must. We have to have it. That has been sitting right in front of us.”

Last offseason, Ryan attempted short- and long-term fixes to the starting rotation, trading two starting outfielders, Denard Span and Ben Revere, for pitching prospects. Span was dealt to Washington for righthander Alex Meyer, who projects to be the front-of-the-rotation starter the Twins sorely need. The Revere trade netted them Vance Worley, who became the Opening Day starter but was demoted to the minors in May, and prospect Trevor May, who has very good stuff but is working on his control.

But trading away Span and Revere left a void in center field. The Twins promoted Aaron Hicks from Class AA to the majors this spring, and he took his lumps. Hicks finished the season in the minors, and the Twins still have huge pitching problems.

In 2011, the Twins ranked 26th in the majors with a 4.64 starters ERA. In 2012, they dropped to 29th (5.40). This year, they rank dead last in baseball with a starters ERA of 5.21.

More than pitching

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