When we last left off, we had concluded that the Twins would have about $28MM to spend to find 8 players:
Now, with Chris Parmelee hitting well in September (.355/.443/.592 in 21 games after hitting .287/.366/.436 in 142 games in AA) the team doesn't necessarily need to find starters in RF, LF and at DH. However, Parmelee's minor league track record would suggest that the Twins should plan to use him off the bench at 3 or 4 different positions (1B, LF, RF, DH) and get him somewhere close to 300 at bats barring injury rather than a full season's worth of at bats. Obviously he won't continue to hit .355/.443/.592 for the rest of his career, but his hot September is certainly worthy of a bench spot and depending on the budget he may be forced to start.
If we can fill these 8 needs and still have some budget room leftover, replacing Drew Butera with a catcher that has some offensive upside is also important, in the event Joe Mauer suffers another injury or can't catch as often as he has in the past.
My first suggestion is for the team to re-sign Joe Nathan. He shouldn't be too expensive because of his age (37 in November) and production last season (4.84 ERA, 45 innings). However, he looked improved as the season wore on, and he's probably the best bet the team has to find a marquee closer on their current budget.
**Sign Joe Nathan for $3.75MM per year/2 years.**
That would give the team $24MM to fill 3 relief spots, and possibly find 4 offensive starters.
Shortstop is obviously a huge need, and while Nishioka was terrible in his debut season he could end up as a very good utility player. So finding a starting shortstop hopefully would allow the Twins to move Nishioka into a utility role and keep Matt Tolbert as far away from this team as possible.
Therefore, my second suggestion is for the team to try to sign shortstop Ramon Santiago. Santiago hit just .260/.311/.384, but the average American League shortstop hit .266/.321/.386. That means Santiago is about average offensively, if he hits like he did in 2011, but since 2008 he's averaged a .266/.335/.374 line which would put him exactly average. His value, however, comes from his defense. He was slightly above average this past season playing most of his games at second base, posting a UZR/150 of 3.8. The real value would come from playing him at shortstop, though, where his UZR/150 was 10.6 this past season in limited duty. The small sample size isn't a worry, though, because the year before he played almost exclusively at shortstop and posted an even better UZR/150 of 16.1.
Detroit may want to re-sign him, but if the money is too high I think the Tigers will back away. Santiago has a chance to be an above-average shortstop for the next two to three seasons, so it's worth the risk to give him a solid contract.
**Sign SS Ramon Santiago for $3.5MM per year/3 years**
Giving $10.5MM to Ramon Santiago may seem like a mistake, but the team could possibly work that third year into a vesting option or a team option with a smaller buyout. Even if it was strictly $10.5MM over three years, though, it would give the Twins immediate help up the middle defensively and his offensive isn't bad enough to negate his defensive value.
That would leave the team with $20.5MM for the remaining six spots.
It's worth mentioning that the Twins will have in-house options for the bullpen slots as well, between Jeff Manship, Anthony Slama, Carlos Gutierrez and possibly a few others. However, it's nice to have depth, and outside of Gutierrez none of the other in-house options bring really any upside. It'd be wise to just sign a few veterans with recent success to fill out the bullpen, if possible. Also, it's possible the team could draft a reliever or two in the Rule V draft, but most Rule V picks have little to no impact for the teams that draft them so that's probably not a great tool to use to improve a weak bullpen.
My third suggestion is for the team to sign Mike Gonzalez. He's a fairly big name as far as relievers go, so there's at least a chance his price tag could be exorbitant, but after posting ERA's of 4.01 in 2009 and 4.39 this year, the days of a huge payday are probably gone. That said, he's not going to be dirt cheap either, but he's an established left-hander that allows the Twins to avoid using Jose Mijares in every single lefty-lefty late inning situation.
**Sign Mike Gonzalez for $3MM per year/2 years**
That would leave the team with about $17.5MM to spend while needing to find two outfielders, a DH and two relievers. The Twins likely will plan on Ben Revere starting alongside Denard Span if both are healthy, although I think that's a mistake, and since this is what I would do, the goal is to find a starting LF and starting RF, relegating Revere and Parmelee to bench spots.
Juan Cruz was once a top starting pitching prospect, and a few years back he was one of the premiere set up men in the game. Injuries and ineffectiveness have hurt him some over the last few years, but this past season he posted a 3.88 ERA in just under 50 innings. If he can cut down on his high amount of walks (28) he could be even better next season. He shouldn't be too costly, either.
**Sign Juan Cruz for $2.5MM per year/2 years**
This would leave the team $15MM under budget. $15MM to find 3 offensive starters and one more reliever is going to be difficult, but we'll try.
David DeJesus was, for years, the player most recognizable with the Kansas City Royals. During an extremely tough stretch for Royals fans, DeJesus had been really one of the few consistent bright spots. From 2003-2010, while in Kansas City, DeJesus hit .289/.360/.427 while playing gold-glove caliber defense most years. This past season in Oakland, DeJesus bat basically disappeared. He hit just .240/.323/.376, but his defense remained stellar. He spent most of his time in right field, and his UZR/150 was a very good 14.6.
DeJesus is only one year removed from his best offensive season, when he hit .318/.384/.443, so it seems a bit premature to say he's for sure past his prime. If he can find a middle ground between his 2010 and 2011 seasons while keeping his elite defense, he could be one of the best signings of the off-season. Also, because he's coming off of such a poor offensive season, he'll likely be looking to sign a one-year deal to re-establish himself before hitting the market again in 2012.
**Sign David DeJesus for $5MM per year/1 year**
That leaves us with $10MM to spend. I'd still prefer to leave about $2MM to find a solid backup catcher, so it'd be nice to fill the final 3 spots (MR, DH, LF) with $8MM or so in spending. We'll see.
With Ben Revere and Parmelee both being young players that need at-bats, it's not imperative to bring in a clear cut starter to pair with DeJesus and Span. A revolving door between Parmelee, Revere and a free agent outfielder that can mash left-handed pitching (because both Revere and Parmelee bat left-handed) would likely be fairly productive.
**Sign Juan Rivera for $1.5MM/1 year**
Rivera is a career .289/.335/.495 hitter against left-handed pitching and hit .289/.349/.456 against them this past season. He also has rated well above-average in the past as a defensive left-fielder, and he was above average this past season in limited time in both right and left field. He shouldn't cost too much money and he's the perfect compliment that the Twins should have to an otherwise lefty-heavy outfield.
That leaves the budget at $8.5MM to sign a DH, a MR and possibly a backup catcher.
I realize Bill Smith said earlier this week that it was "unlikely" the team would bring back Jim Thome, but that doesn't mean it would be a mistake. It's unfortunate, because the team likely won't be able to find the same bang for their buck from other free agents, and if Thome does indeed play another season he'd almost certainly be open to a return to Minnesota.
**Sign DH Jim Thome for $3MM/1 year**
Now, clearly, the team would have enough money to fill their final bullpen spot as well as find an upgrade over Drew Butera behind the plate when Mauer is unavailable. With $5.5MM to spend, money won't be a major issue. However, convincing a solid veteran catcher to sign in Minnesota over other places will probably be difficult, because most catching situations in baseball are less settled than the Twins. Sure, Mauer has injury concerns, but there's also a chance he could remain healthy all year. If that were to happen, the backup would likely play 40 games at most.
For that reason, the team is going to have to target a catcher with some offensive upside but hasn't done much in the last few years to deserve a starting spot. For me, that guy is Kelly Shoppach. He hasn't hit well in a few years. Over his last two seasons, he's played 150 games and has a rather putrid .185/.285/.340 line. He has managed to hit 16 home runs over that time, but he's struck out 150 times compared to just 39 walks, which explains the sub-.200 average. He was a much better hitter while still in Cleveland, and there's at least a chance he could see that production return in the future. He did throw out 41% of base stealers this year, and he'd still be an upgrade over Butera even if he matched his .185/.285/.340 line from the last two years. That's how bad Butera is.
**Sign Kelly Shoppach for $1.5MM/1 year**
So, with just one roster spot left, and about $4MM to spend on a reliever, there's really no issue with the budget. I'd suggest the team sign Todd Coffey to fill the last bullpen role. He had one bad season in 2010 sandwiched between an impressive 2009 and solid 2011, so he might get some decent money. However, it shouldn't be anything outrageous, so it should be within our budget. The only concern is giving another multi-year deal to a veteran reliever, but he should be solid for at least two seasons.
**Sign Todd Coffey for $2.5MM per year/3 years**
If the team were to make all of these signings, here's how the roster would look as well as the payroll:
The $5.75MM for Nathan includes the $2MM buyout. Keep in mind that Casilla, Liriano, Slowey, Perkins and Mijares are all arbitration eligible, so there's a chance the payroll could be a tad higher, but if the budget is indeed between $105-$108MM I can't imagine my guesses being off on those five players by more than $3MM total. The team should come in under $108MM regardless with this roster.
While the team would still lack an elite starting pitcher, the fact is it's difficult to acquire very good starting pitchers. CJ Wilson is a free agent and would certainly be the team's best starter, but he's going to get $17-$20MM a year and that's just too far out of the Twins budget at this point. Even as a fairly high spending team, they still have their limitations. Improving the infield and outfield defense, as I've suggested above, will improve the starting pitching because of the "pitch-to-contact" mantra the Twins love. Also, there's at least a chance that the Francisco Liriano of 2010 comes back, and if that happens he's going to be better than any player the Twins could acquire anyways.
I'm not sure that my proposed roster would give this team a certain AL Central division championship, but I do believe that team is in a lot better shape than the current one, and with a few breaks that team could definitely contend again, as soon as 2012. Also, watching Cuddyer and Kubel sign elsewhere will give the Twins three high draft picks to go along with #2 overall, which could make a solid farm system spectacular. Despite a poor 2011, the future doesn't look too bleak. As Twins fans, we've been spoiled over the years with how often the team is in contention, and it can be easy to forget that most teams don't turn things around in one season. Let's hope our Twinkies can.