They never have been major players in free agency, but that might have to change soon.
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.
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
The Twins’ problems run deeper than fixing the pitching.
“I’m not going to pretend to tell you that all of our numbers [of potential pitchers] are going to solve all of our problems on the mound,” Ryan said. “We are going to have to continue to look and continue to add, but we also have offensive concerns now which, coming into the year, I thought might be one of our stronger suits. We have certainly not hit well enough with people out there [on base]. And we haven’t really manufactured runs enough.”
To address all the shortcomings, Ryan might have to get creative. His one area of strength is his farm system. The Twins can covet their prospects all they want, but no team has seen all its top 10 prospects thrive in the majors. Is Ryan willing to trade prospects for established talent? For the right deal, is he willing to move one of the mega prospects such as Buxton or Sano for pitching?
Look no further than the Tigers to see the benefits of pulling the trigger on a deal involving prospects. GM Dave Dombrowski traded six prospects to the Marlins in 2007 for Miguel Cabrera (although they also had to take on Dontrelle Willis at the time). Two years ago, he packaged four prospects to the Mariners for Doug Fister.
Dombrowski also has traded away veterans to land prospects as well, dealing Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson away four years ago as part of a three-team trade to land Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson.
“Depending on who you are talking about and the situation and all that, if something comes up like that where someone presents something like that, we will take it all under consideration and see what the ramifications are,” Ryan said.
Another talent source
More teams are becoming heavily involved on the international market. The league has established some spending restrictions, but teams still have to pay posting fees for Japanese players and Cubans who are declared free agents, and those players still fetch huge deals.
In 2009, the Twins took the plunge with Sano, from the Dominican Republic, signing him for $3.15 million and watching him develop into one of baseball’s top prospects.
But the Twins have been reluctant to go after the top worldwide talent since, Nishioka notwithstanding. Ryan confirmed that they did submit a bid on Japanese righthander Hisashi Iwakuma (now an All-Star with the Mariners) and South Korean lefthander Hyun-Jin Ryu (Dodgers) but fell short. But they never were linked to top Japanese righthander Yu Darvish when he became available before the 2012 season (the Rangers’ posting fee for Darvish was $51.7 million). And the Twins have not been involved heavily with any of the top Cuban players — such as Dodgers young star Yasiel Puig — who have hit the market in recent years.
The Twins have been linked to Cuban shortstop Alexander Guerrero, who still is available. The Twins even have had conversations with Scott Boras, Guerrero’s agent, according to a person familiar with the talks. But the Twins have indicated they are unlikely to get into a bidding war for Guerrero.
There’s another Japanese pitcher who might be ready to come abroad next season. Masahiro Tanaka is 22-0 — no typo — with a 1.23 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. The Twins have scouted Tanaka, 24, whose fastball sits in the low-90-miles-per-hour range to go with a slider and splitter. Are they willing to submit a competitive bid? It only cost the Twins a $5 million bid to land Nishioka. Tanaka will be different.
“We’re not afraid,” Ryan said. “Sometimes you’ll get that bid, like we did with Nishioka, and sometimes you’ll come up short. That’s another situation where you have to be aware and do your scouting and check on makeup. If a guy does become available from the other league, are we going to get in or out?”
This might the offseason in which the Twins need to “get in” more often.
“We are not as staid and conservative as you make us out to be,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins vice president in charge of player personnel. “There is some free thinking going on, and we are not afraid to get outside the box.”
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