Joe C. laid out the parameters nicely in this story. Payroll obligations to Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and co. will eat up a large chunk of 2012 payroll before any fixes are made. They also have a handful of players -- including Francisco Liriano, Alexi Casilla and Glen Perkins -- who are arbitration-eligible and will either cost money to keep or create holes if they leave. So according to Joe, if the Twins are going to keep their payroll around the same $113 million mark as a year ago, they'll have about $30 million to play with in the offseason. With that in mind, here are their five top priorities, in our mind, and in order:
1) Fix the bullpen. The Twins' decision to let four solid relievers go after 2010? Yeah, it backfired. The 'pen was a mess from the start, and the team finished the year with a 4.51 bullpen ERA -- dead last in all of MLB. It is possible to rebuild the bullpen with cheap arms. It is not possible to do so without a plan. While pitching to contact might be a slightly more reasonable goal for starters, it is a terrible way to construct a group of relievers. Twins' relievers had the third-fewest strikeouts in MLB despite working pretty close to the average number of innings (460.2, with the average of 474). We're not opposed to making a run at re-signing Joe Nathan at a modest two-year deal ($7 million or $8 million per), then trusting scouting to find a couple more low-cost free agents who can miss some bats. A healthy Nathan, another solid year from Perkins and a couple of hard-throwing righties who could get a big strikeout in the seventh inning? We would take that. We would also have spent at least $10 million, so keep that in mind.
2) A starting pitcher who can be a top-end guy. Yes, this is VERY hard to find. And no, there is no perfect definition for what a top-end guy is. The way we define it: A guy who CONSISTENTLY, when healthy, is a threat to not just post a quality start but completely shut down any lineup based solely on his stuff. The Twins' best chance at this seems to be a low-cost, medium-risk, high-reward guy. One name we're intrigued by, despite all his injuries: Ben Sheets. He is a possibility to return from a major 2010 arm surgery. If he can come close to returning to old form, he could be a great fit as a incentive-contract guy who has already pitched in a similar market (Milwaukee) and who might enjoy the spaciousness of Target Field. Even so, we have to guess Sheets or another reclamation project would still cost at least $5 million on a one-year deal (and that figure is a complete guess). Bottom line: The Twins can't go into 2012 with the same starting pitching plan as 2011. Carl Pavano, Scott Baker and one more try with Francisco Liriano can be three spots. Everything else should be wide open and available for upgrade.
3) Re-sign Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel. The preference here is Cuddyer. He's more versatile in the field, and he gives the lineup balance with his right-handed bat. Problem is, other teams recognize his relative value as well -- and as good as he's been in the community and clubhouse, he might want a change of scenery from the toxicity that existed in 2011. Kubel might have the higher offensive upside, but he's limited positionally and would be, as always, another left-handed bat in a lineup (when healthy) full of good ones. Without either of these guys, the outfield looks mighty thin. We have Cuddyer pegged at $9/10 million a year for three years, and Kubel at slightly less. If one of the two signs, we've already committed at least $25 million of the available $30 million.
4) Get a back-up catcher who can start 60-80 games and not be a complete liability at the plate. Drew Butera is a nice guy, but he's not a MLB-caliber hitter. His defense doesn't cover that deficiency enough to make him a viable No. 2 option behind a fragile catcher who will play increasing innings away from the position as time goes on. Joe threw out the name Rod Barajas, and it's a good one. That would be about the perfect fit -- righty bat with power, reasonable defense. If the Twins got him or someone like him on a two-year deal for $3 million per, we'd be satisfied.
5) We are of the belief that Alexi Casilla can be a starter. If he was the top of the worry list and everything else was solved, maybe you would look to replace him. Same goes for Danny Valencia. But both guys have at least proven to be reasonable MLBers. So let's leave 2B and 3B alone. Tsuyoshi Nishioka could, we suppose, surprise everyone and rebound in fine fashion in 2012. But the Twins cannot count on that based on what we all saw in 2011. They must get themselves a veteran who can at least catch the ball and not turn the position into a three-ring circus. As much as we like Trevor Plouffe's offensive potential, he does not look like he'll ever be a starting shortstop based on his fielding. If Plouffe gets 400 at bats at a variety of spots, that's fine. But the guy holding down the SS job most nights will likely bat ninth, make the plays and not give Ron Gardenhire ulcers. We might be crazy to say it, but that guy could be 2011 World Champion Nick Punto -- not on a two-year deal at $8.5 million, which was the crazy deal he got in 2009-10, but something for about half that.
There's your $30 million, but it's very optimistically spent, with a lot of things falling into place. More likely, the Twins address at least some of these needs, climb back to .500 next season and continue climbing toward 2013 with more moves next offseason.
Your thoughts on areas of concern, priorities, etc., in the comments.