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Updated: October 2nd, 2011 8:13pm
How to fix the Twins, Part 1: Health, contact, defense are main issues

How to fix the Twins, Part 1: Health, contact, defense are main issues

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Part 1: Outlining the key issues that need to be addressed
Part 2: Identifying potential free agents and trade candidates
Part 3: How a team that lost 99 games can get back to relevancy

MINNEAPOLIS -- No team has ever won their division the year after losing 98 games or more.

That's the mountain the Minnesota Twins stand in front of as they head into perhaps the most important offseason in team history.

Normally it would be irresponsible to mention the word playoffs in the same sentence with a Twins team that went 63-99, but with a $100 million payroll and two former MVPs on the roster, there's an obligation to compete for division titles.

In other words, with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau on the roster, and with a new stadium that still draws 35,000-plus every night, there is no rebuilding. Only reloading.

Key issues

Better health: The Twins had seven regulars miss at least 50 days due to injury this season, and several others missed at least 30 days. With that low level of attrition it's next to impossible to be competitive. The Twins need their stars to be healthy -- that especially includes Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Denard Span and Scott Baker. Without health, nothing else matters.

But it's more complicated than just crossing fingers and hoping guys stay healthy. Admittedly behind the times with certain training aspects, the Twins need to look into how they can do a better job keeping players on the field -- whether it's players tweaking offseason workouts, or team staff members doing more injury-prevention work.

Concussions and broken legs are one thing, but Alexi Casilla missing more than two months with a hamstring pull and Jason Kubel missing three months with a sprained foot are issues that might be preventable.

One National League team, for instance, strongly recommends that each of its players sees the team's deep-tissue massage therapist a few hours before each game. The focus on hitters centers on obliques, hamstrings and back. The focus on pitchers centers on shoulders, upper arms, forearms and trunk -- all for injury prevention.

Less contact: Twins pitchers allow more contact (83.4%) than any staff in baseball.

Problem is, when major league hitters make contact, they hit .331 with a .517 slugging percentage collectively. Do the math.

Too much contact generally leads to bad things, but to make matters worse, when Twins pitchers do allow contact they rank only 20th in groundballs induced. Pitchers can get away with high contact rates as long as they are inducing large quantities of groundballs. The Twins don't do that.

This pitch-to-contact philosophy worked better when the Twins led the league in fewest walks issued and when the infielders tracked down more grounders.

The philosophy shouldn't be "pitch to contact." It should be "induce more groundballs and mix in a few more strikeouts."

Or something like that.

Improve defense: According to the video scouts at Baseball Info Solutions, the Twins' defense was worth 27 runs below average in 2011 on batted balls.

The infield was particularly bad, as Twins shortstops allowed 27 runs below average, third basemen (mostly Danny Valencia) allowed 13 runs below average and second basemen 12 runs below average. Too much contact + poor defense = fundamental disaster.

Compare this to the Rays' defense, for instance, which rated 72 runs above average.

In a spacious ballpark like Target Field with a pitch-to-contact staff, the Twins would be best-served to build the roster around speedy outfielders and sure-handed infielders -- two things they lacked for most of the season with Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Trevor Plouffe, Delmon Young and even Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, who have strong arms but lack foot speed.

Put it this way: If Nishioka or Plouffe play significant innings at shortstop next season -- barring drastic turnarounds by both -- the Twins will continue to leak runs.

Start with Span and Revere: A large part of this hinges on health, as the Twins will be monitoring Span's status all offseason. But if Span returns healthy, and if saving runs on defense is a top priority, the Twins must build around Span and Ben Revere in the outfield -- preferably Revere (+10 runs) in center field, if you ask this scribe -- and form the rest of the roster around that.

By using Span and Revere in the same outfield, the Twins will sacrifice power offensively in one of the corner spots, but that's OK. They'll make up for it by turning doubles into outs on a regular basis.

Don't trade Liriano yet: Francisco Liriano had a terrible season. His walk rate went up from 2.72 BB/9 in 2010 to 5.02 BB/9 this past season, and his strikeouts fell from 9.44 per nine to 7.5 per nine. Not good. Liriano battled shoulder discomfort in spring training and it flared up again later in the season, causing him to be sidelined after only 134 1/3 innings. Still, Liriano has only one year left of arbitration (~ $5 million), which means it's affordable to keep him around for one more season. Trading him now would mean trading him at his lowest value. If he pitches well early next season, the Twins can still trade him before July 31.

Talk to Nishioka: Even if Nishioka does find a way to turn things around in 2012, he'd have a mountain to climb before he can become even a league-average shortstop. The experiment simply doesn't work.

Problem is, the Twins owe Nishioka $6 million over the next two seasons. But rather than wasting time with a giant question mark -- and 'question mark' might be generous -- at a position as important as shortstop, make it clear to Nishioka and his agent that he's likely to spend a large chunk of the 2012 season in Rochester.

If that doesn't sound appealing to Nishioka, offer him a buyout -- maybe $1.5 million? -- to make the rest of that $6 million contract go away.

Move Duensing to the bullpen: This will help minimize the left-hander's exposure to right-handed hitters, who hit an absurd .330/.387/.560 with 64 extra-base hits against Brian Duensing. The move will also help shore up bullpen question marks.

Duensing held left-handed hitters to a .217/.242/.280 batting line last year, so it makes sense to use him primarily against lefties and selectively against righties.

Maintain DH flexibility: Due to question marks surrounding Morneau and Mauer, the Twins would be best served to maintain some semblance of flexibility at the DH spot. This would also allow them to give more at-bats to a guy like Chris Parmelee, who made his case to crack the 25-man roster out of spring training by hitting .355/.443/.592 in 88 September plate appearances.

Decide fate of backup infielders: Plouffe, Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert are all out of minor league options, but only Plouffe should be guaranteed a spot on the opening-day roster for next year. Although he has shown he doesn't cut it as an every-day shortstop, Plouffe is able to play almost every position on the field, and his bat showed enough promise at Triple-A and in the big leagues that he's worthy of a super-utility role.

With a .257/.319/.440 career Triple-A batting line combined with average (at best) defense, Hughes has limited upside, but he still provides some value off the bench. Tolbert is more reliable on defense than Hughes and Plouffe, but his bat (.608 career OPS) relegates him almost strictly to a late-inning defensive replacement role.

Payroll obligations

With Michael Cuddyer ($10.5 million), Jason Kubel ($5.2m), Delmon Young ($5.3m), Jim Thome ($3m) and Matt Capps ($7.1m) all coming off the books, the Twins are tied up for approximately $83 million heading into 2012.

That figure includes Joe Nathan's buyout ($2m), Tsuyoshi Nishioka's salary ($3m) and estimated arbitration numbers for Francisco Liriano ($5m), Kevin Slowey ($2.7m), Alexi Casilla ($1.5m) and Glen Perkins ($1.6m). Matt Tolbert and Jose Mijares will also be arbitration-eligible, with both likely earning $650,000 if the Twins retain them.

Also keep in mind the Twins have the No. 2 overall draft pick -- a slot that cost at least $8.5 million for the Seattle Mariners last season.

The Twins entered 2011 with a payroll right around $115 million, and most people with knowledge believe that number will drop closer to $100 million.

If the payroll does drop, that leaves about $20 million to fix a team that lost 99 games last season.

In-house free agent decisions

• RHP Joe Nathan isn't officially a free agent, as the Twins still have the right to exercise his $12.5 million option for 2012, but that almost certainly will not happen. Instead, the Twins will probably buy out Nathan's contract for $2 million, allowing the 37-year-old to test the free agent market. Nathan, who is very interested in returning, said last week, "I've always said the luxury I've had of being a closer lets me know if a club is interested in me and is interested in signing me back they have to have the intention that the team is going to win and they are going to put a team out there that is going to be competitive.

"I feel like I'm in kind of a good position with that. If the Twins do show some interest I know they are going to do their best to field a team that has a chance to win."

In the final three months of the season, Nathan posted a 3.13 ERA with 28 strikeouts and only five walks in 28 1/3 innings. He also showed increased fastball velocity and sharper breaking pitches.

• OF Michael Cuddyer is the most difficult decision for the Twins for a number of reasons: He was the team's most reliable hitter last year (.284/.346/.459, 20 HR), he was one of only two position players from the opening day roster that didn't land on the disabled list, he is the clear leader of a clubhouse that lacks leaders, and he's one of the only legitimate right-handed bats on the roster.

Because Cuddyer is projected to be a Type-A free agent, teams might be reluctant to give up a high draft pick (see: Carl Pavano last offseason), and if that's the case Cuddyer's chances of returning to the Twins are higher.

A major league source with knowledge of the Twins' clubhouse dynamic said last month that Cuddyer might need some convincing from the Twins' front office that another debacle like 2011 won't take place.

• OF Jason Kubel started the season as one of the hottest hitters in baseball, but a sprained foot sustained in June hindered him for the rest of the season. He limped to a .273/.332/.434 batting line with only 12 home runs in 401 plate appearances. Looking back at his time in Minnesota, Kubel's only monster season came in 2009 when he hit .300/.369/.539 with 28 home runs.

If Kubel was right-handed the Twins would almost certainly re-sign him. His status likely also hinges on the team's ability or inability to re-sign Cuddyer. Kubel is projected as a Type-B free agent.

• RHP Matt Capps: There's almost zero chance Capps returns. Unless the Washington Nationals are willing to accept the Twins' mulligan for Wilson Ramos. Capps struck out only 4.66 batters per nine innings last season, and he blew nine saves.

In Part 2 we'll identify potential free agents and trade candidates.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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