This winter has been one of the hardest I can remember for the good state of Minnesota. I don't think I'm alone in saying I've been cooped up in the house far more often than I'd have liked over these past several months, unwilling to brave the multi-foot snowfalls and subzero temperatures that have comprised most of our days. A winter that began with a Twins sweep at the hands of the Yankees gave way to miserable seasons from the Vikings and Timberwolves, sprinkled with the stunning success of every team in Wisconsin. It's enough to make a lifelong local sports fan raise his eyebrows while driving past the "Are You Depressed?" billboard.
Yesterday, I woke up, walked to the window, opened up the blinds and looked outside. Suddenly, everything changed. My eyes were instantly drawn to the gushing sunlight and the water dripping from the roof. I didn't even need to step outside to realize that finally, after this maddening and forgettable winter, we were getting our first thaw. The days are getting longer. Summer is quickly approaching.
Like so many seemingly unrelated things, it got me thinking about baseball.
Baseball is, of course, one of the best parts of summer. My excitement this offseason has been tempered by what I view as a baffling course of action from my favorite team's front office, but -- much like this hellish winter -- I feel ready to put it firmly in the rear view mirror. I'm just ready for the boys to start playing some games.
So I was struck hard by this bombshell dropped by Joe Christensen last week, which hits like a blizzard after the melt. While the Twins have weakened themselves over the past few months, one big reason they've still got a shot at a title is Francisco Liriano. He's one of the league's most dominant pitchers, he was their Game 1 starter in the ALDS (delivering a far more impressive performance than Carl Pavano or Brian Duensing) and for now he's exceedingly cheap.
The Twins have a window for winning a championship, with a number of talented players currently on the roster -- most importantly a prime-aged Joe Mauer. What I loved about last season was that every move the team made, whether trading for J.J. Hardy or signing Jim Thome or trading for Matt Capps, was geared toward maximizing their chance at taking advantage of this window.
By trading Liriano right now for a package of prospects, which Christensen presents as a possibility in drawing comparisons to the Zack Greinke and Matt Garza trades, the Twins would effectively be slamming the window shut on themselves. Hypothetically, they could still compete for a division title, but contending teams just don't trade their best pitcher away.
I'm reminded of the situation that took place four years ago, in Bill Smith's first winter at the reigns. The Twins had turned in a sub-.500 record for the first time in seven years and seemed to be bracing for a bit of a rebuilding period. In an offseason where they'd watched Torii Hunter walk away as a free agent, the front office elected to trade away Johan Santana to the Mets for four prospects, and Matt Garza to the Rays for a package that centered on Delmon Young.
Over the next two years, the Twins surprised. The offense churned and young pitchers stepped up. The Twins came just a game short of a playoff berth in 2008 and sneaked in with an incredible late-season run in '09 before being swept by the Yankees. It's fair to say both those clubs were surprisingly good, but a bit short of greatness.
Two of the biggest flaws on both teams were a lack of front-line pitching and the lack of a passable regular shortstop. Instead of one year of Santana and two years of Garza and Jason Bartlett (who'd have fit those billings incredibly well), the Twins were forced to endure the growing pains of Young and Carlos Gomez, products of the trades. The two young outfielders provided more negative value than positive in those two years, and that swing of production may have been the difference between the Twins taking advantage of their window and failing to do so.
One could argue that dropping hints they're shopping Liriano is the responsible thing to do for the Twins' organization, ensuring that they'll avoid becoming out-leveraged by waiting until the lefty's last year before free agency to talk trade. Some see it as an indication that Smith learned his lesson from the Santana debacle that took place in his first months on the job.
The thing is, if Smith had learned his lesson, he wouldn't be discussing a Liriano trade at all. The southpaw is quite probably the only chance this team has at a truly elite starting pitcher in the next two years, making him one of the organization's most irreplaceable commodities and one of their best hopes for bringing home a championship with Mauer, Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Carl Pavano, Jim Thome and others all helping contribute.
I'm not saying I would never trade Liriano. Every player has a price. But I find it impossible to believe that any general manager in baseball would give up enough for a pitcher with his track record to make losing him worthwhile. Even as one of the Liriano's most adamant supporters, I was taken aback by rumors that his camp was looking for a three-year, $39 million extension. It shocks me that his agent wouldn't bring a more reasonable offer to the table in order to secure some up-front money for the next few years to insure his client's somewhat fragile arm.
But any pitcher can get hurt, so unless the Twins have specific reason to believe his arm is going to fall off this year (and if that were the case Liriano, who knows his body better than anyone, would be rushing to a long-term contract), there's no reason to even entertain the notion of trading him right now. Maybe in a year, if he inflates his value and holds unreasonable contract demands, but not right now. He's far too important.
When I actually stepped outside yesterday, I was reminded that it was in fact still decidedly chilly, and six-foot piles of snow stretched in every direction. It was a beautiful day, in its own right, but also a reminder that we'll have to keep waiting before the snow is gone and spring is here.
By trading Liriano before the 2011 season even starts, that's the message the Twins' front office would be sending championship-hungry fans.