Tuesday, July 10, 2007

One Man's Vision: A 4 Step Plan For A Great 08...And Beyond

The Minnesota Twins are not going to make the playoffs this year. I know, I know, this comes off like a knee-jerk reaction in light of the events over the last few days. Realistically though, this is the stance that the organization needs to adopt sooner rather than later. We made an amazing run last year to our fourth division title in five years. It was probably the greatest regular season I have ever personally witnessed. But that type of run is not happening this year. This team needs to begin building for next few years. There is a very good chance that the Twins could be a top tier team next year; with some minor adjustments. This team is not that far off right now, despite what most local, pessimistic columnists will tell you. Are there some flaws in the pitching staff? Sure. Do they need more consistent run production? Absolutely. Can all of this be solved with a couple of minor moves and some experience? In my opinion, yes. We don’t need to pursue too much in extra payroll or take a major risk in a high profile trade or free agent signing either. I have devised a four step process that will set us up to be a very good team for a number of years to come.

Let’s start with the pitching staff. Going into next season, you will have the following players either in the starting rotation or vying to be in it: Santana, Bonser, Silva, Baker, Garza, Slowey, Perkins, and Liriano (with an outside chance of a guy like Blackburn making a late charge this fall and putting together an impressive spring). That’s at least seven candidates for four spots (Santana’s spot is obviously locked up). If there’s one thing every major league team is looking for, it’s young starting pitching. I’m not suggesting that you sell the farm either. An organization needs to have options in case a prospect doesn’t pan out or there are injuries. But when you are going to have upwards of nine guys that could be starting pitchers in this league, you can afford to take a risk with one or two of them. So you take one of those pitchers and move him for a young, potential-laden third baseman; someone such as Ty Wigginton in Tampa Bay or Edwin Encarnacion in Cincinnati (and we all know that Terry Ryan could very easily fleece Wayne Krivisky—who loves former Twins).

That would be step one. It is an important one because it affects both sides of the ball. Not only does it clear up the pitching situation a little bit, but it also gives you a real major league player at third base (hopefully). As an added bonus, it gives you a chance to rid your roster of one of the six utility players that currently occupy a spot on the team (Punto, Cirillo, Tyner, Rodriguez, Ford, and White, though some will debate that last guy). This is a fact that gets overlooked by too many Twins fans. You can’t fill your roster, especially your bench, with light hitting, speed guys. Do you players with these skills? Of course. Do you need five or six of them? No way. The career years that many of these guys had last year—which fueled their run to a division title—allowed many fans (and possibly management) to overlook this roster flaw. This move alone will likely bolster an extremely streaky (at best) lineup.

Step two also involves the pitching staff. The Twins need to continue to give as many starts as possible to guys like Baker, Garza, and Slowey (possibly Perkins as well once he returns from his shoulder injury) so that we can deduce, as accurately as possible, their value and potential to be in the rotation for the future. If that means rotating them between AAA Rochester and the big league club (something that I think could work), then so be it. Just make sure that you sit these guys down together right now and tell them that this is your plan. That way no one gets their feelings hurt, and it could potentially bring out the competitor in them with the sense that they are auditioning for their future. If it also means that a guy like Silva has to occasionally miss a start because of “back problems”, I think most fans could live with it.

Step three goes back to addressing the offense. The Twins need to acquire a veteran bat to come off the bench (with the possibility of spot starts at the DH and/or other positions) and at least have the potential of providing a little pop. As it stands now, there are no options to pinch hit late in the game and drive in a run or possibly put one out. Guys like Kubel and White could be that guy (though Jason is far from a veteran, hasn’t proven himself, and the organization still believes that he’s going to be their everyday left fielder), but injuries and streaky hitting have prevented it from coming true. Many fans believe that the team should have taken a chance on either Piazza or Thomas two years ago. Some of the more unrealistic ones think we should go after guys like Adam Dunn, Mark Texeria, or even Junior Griffey to be our everyday DH. But we don’t have the money to do that, nor do we need to go after such high profile players. There are guys such as Kevin Mench or Mike Sweeney who could be had at a much cheaper price and fill this void nicely. The Twins could also look at a guy like former Gopher Rob Quinlan, an ideal candidate who could not only DH/pinch hit, but also spell Morneau at first occasionally and possibly play third base as well.

The final and trickiest step involves money, something that has been an issue with this team for a couple of decades. It is well known that the team has to do something with high profile/high salary players Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, and Justin Morneau. Hunter is a free agent at the end of this season, Morneau is up on arbitration once again, and Santana’s deal is up after next season. While admittedly not having much knowledge about the long term monetary ramifications, it is my belief that all three of these guys need to be on your opening day roster in 2010. After years and years of trying, the Twins were finally successful in getting a new stadium. It is crucial that, especially in the early years of this new building, that you put out a quality team with recognizable names; show your dedication to the future of the organization. Otherwise, once the novelty of a new ballpark wears out, the fans will refuse to show up. Take a look at Milwaukee. They have a beautiful, relatively new stadium. The first couple of years saw nothing but sell outs and a lot of fan interest. When they failed to produce a quality product on the field, everyone left. Only recently (with a very good, young team I might add) have people returned to Miller Park. Santana is the best pitcher in baseball, so I don’t need to sing his praises or give a long list of reasons why he needs to be here. And while his MVP award may have been controversial, Morneau is the big bat in the middle of the lineup that the Twins have been missing for years. The biggest question mark is going to be Hunter. He is putting up excellent numbers in a contract year. This is surely going to garner him a very large contract this winter. So why pony up for him? Because the other options void all other improvements that were mentioned earlier. The Twins have no backup plan; no prospect waiting in the wings (as opposed having Alexi Casilla ready and waiting to be our everyday second baseman). Bringing up someone such as Denard Span just adds another slap hitting, utility type of player to your roster. The exact thing you’re trying to pare down. Plus, compared to the average major league centerfielder, even Torii’s yearly averages without this extraordinarily start to 07 have him on par with their numbers offensively. And even though he’s clearly lost a step, his defensive prowess places him a step above most of his compatriots. So reward him for his years of entertaining baseball fans in Minnesota and pay the man (even if it is too much).

Now, the pessimist or devil’s advocate will say that there is no guarantee that a Wigginton or Encarnacion will pan out. That the prospects we trade will flourish while the ones we keep will not live up to the hype. They say that Hunter’s numbers will diminish greatly once he gets paid and that his, along with Johan and Justin’s contracts will cripple the team financially. All are viable question/concerns that I am well aware of. This is just one man’s plan. My only hope is that someone in the higher ranks of the organization has a plan that is somewhat similar to mine so that we don’t waste the prime years of high quality baseball players like Santana, Mauer, and Morneau. So that we don’t end up with an aesthetically beautiful, albeit empty new stadium by 2012. In hopes that this state can celebrate, once again, the only professional sports team that has given us a world title.

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