Suddenly the Cute Little Franchise That Could is facing that same challenge. They don't need to worry about fielding a competetive core of ballplayers - their farm system produced a bumper crop of talent last year. Instead, they need to worry about pulling the right levers to propel that team into the postseason, and hopefully beyond.
And this offseason, the Twins have something else in common with the Yankees - they have a bunch of money. With up to $35 million worth of payroll room and just two lineup positions to fill, the Twins could actually be players for the best free agent at both positions. And still have $10 million to spend on washed up veterans that they can release mid-year. (1)
Of course, the Twins had the same payroll room last year, and their biggest offseason acquisition was Mike Lamb. (2) This is where they differ from the Yankees. They might have the money to spend this year, but top free agents also tend to have the longest guaranteed contracts, and the Twins aren't willing to commit to the length of contracts for these players. When you're only willing to offer one or two year deals, you tend to wind up with lots of fairly replaceable players.
This year might be different. The top free agent 3B, Casey Blake, is 35 years old and won't get a deal longer than 3 years guaranteed, and the Twins can do that. Ditto Orlando Cabrera, who is 33 years old, though he'll cost quite a bit more. Both of these guys are right-handed, too.
But instead of making a play for either of them, I explore trades and I explore them right away, so I can look at either of these as a backup plan. To me, the prize acquisition is Brewers shortstop JJ Hardy, because he's such a good fit. He's young, just turning 26 years old in August. He's a right-handed bat who hits fifth in the Brewers lineup, hit 24 HR with 74 RBI last year, and he absolutely mashed left-handed pitching. He won't turn into a free agent until 2011, and the Twins might well be able to use some of that extra cash to buy out some of his early free agent years beforehand.
And the Twins and Brewers are good fits for a possible trade. Besides needing young pitchers, it's worth noting that the Brewers have a one-year $10 million option on 35-year-old center fielder Mike Cameron, who hit .243 last year with 142 K and declining defense. Offering them either Denard Span or Carlos Gomez clears a glut in the Twins OF next year, upgrades the Brewers outfield defense, and gives them $10 million they can spend on re-signing Ben Sheets or CC Sabathia.
As for third base, I love the idea of trading for Beltre in a contract year, and I'd certainly be willing to part with Glen Perkins or Nick Blackburn, and possibly another minor league asset, to do so. But I can't part with Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano or Kevin Slowey, or at least not stright up. I also like Blackburn and Perkins, but I also have faith that the farm system and Rick Anderson will produce another arm. Plus, when the Twins sign their annual veteran starting pitcher, it will mean he won't have to bump one of them from the rotation.
If the Mariners want more than that, I probably stick with the Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris platoon. I don't trust Garret Atkins and I really don't trust Kevin Kouzmanoff. Instead, I'll continue to look at other solutions, because I'm not buying that Danny Valencia is going to fill the gap at third base long-term. He's 24 years old, played in AA, and struck out 70 times in 246 at-bats (compared to just 18 walks).(3) And I'm supposed to believe that he's the future? I'm puzzled by this.
And that's a good enough first draft for day two of the offseason. We'll continue to explore possibilities, analyze players and participate in destructive rumor-mongering throughout the offseason, so stop by often. See you on Monday.