How to fix the Twins, Part 2: Buy-low trade candidates appear to exist
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As of right now, Scott Diamond is the only starter penciled into the Minnesota Twins' 2013 rotation, which means general manager Terry Ryan and company have a lot of work to do this winter.
The Twins have been hesitant to set an exact payroll budget, but it's likely that figure will fall somewhere between $90 million and $95 million, perhaps a bit more. The Twins are locked in for approximately $74 million heading into free agency.
Earlier this season, Ryan made it clear the Twins weren't planning to lean heavily on free agency. "I'm not banking on free agency, to be honest," he said in July. "If you keep banking on free agency, you'll end up chasing your tail. This is not going to be a free agency approach. This is going to be no shortcuts and doing the job the way it's supposed to be done. And that's usually that's with young, development, scouting and picking the right people."
Ryan has mostly stuck to that sentiment.
That said, below is a list of potential starting pitching options the Twins could, or should look at this winter -- long shots, realistic free agent options and possible trade fits.
Long-shot free agent pitching options
The following lists are based mostly on educated speculation, with sourced information mixed in as well.
RHP Zack Greinke (Last contract: 4 years, $38 million)... Most are estimating Greinke will get a five-year contract, or more, worth at least $20 million per season. The Angels will reportedly attempt to keep him. The Twins have shown no indications they are serious pursuers.
RHP Dan Haren ($15 million team option)... Back discomfort limited Haren to just 176 2/3 innings, the lowest total of his career as a starter, and a career-worst 4.33 ERA and 4.24 FIP. But Haren, 32, remains a strikeout pitcher who rarely issues free passes, and prior to 2012 he had thrown at least 215 innings in seven straight seasons. The Angels aren't expected to pick up his option.
RHP Ryan Dempster (Last contract: 4 years, $52 million)... Dempster, 35, gave up 10 home runs in 69 American League innings after being dealt from the Cubs to the Rangers.
RHP Edwin Jackson (Last contract: 1 year, $11 million)... Jackson and his agent, Scott Boras, weren't satisfied with the multi-year options on the table last winter, so Jackson elected to sign a one-year deal with the Washington Nationals in an effort to boost his value. Jackson, 28, wasn't spectacular, but he was solid, posting a 4.03 ERA with 168 strikeouts in 189 2/3 innings. Jackson has averaged 199 innings per season since 2007. Many people in baseball still think Jackson will ask for, and possibly get, a lot more money than he is worth.
LHP Francisco Liriano (Last contract: 1 year, $5.5 million)... Does anything need to be said?
RHP Kyle Lohse (Last contract: 4 years, $41 million)... Things didn't end particularly well when he was traded from the Twins in 2006. Plus, his agent is Scott Boras, who will undoubtedly milk teams for every cent in what is likely to be Lohse's last big contract.
Free agent pitchers that might make sense
RHP Anibal Sanchez (Last contract: 1 year, $8 million)... Between Miami and Detroit, Sanchez, 28, posted a 3.86 ERA with 167 strikeouts in 195 2/3 innings. Sanchez battled control problems early in his career, but his command has grown increasingly sharper over the past three seasons. He'll be in line for a healthy multi-year deal.
LHP Joe Saunders (Last contract: 1 year, $6 million)... Saunders, 31, pitched extremely well down the stretch for Baltimore, capping off a season in which he posted a 4.07 ERA with only 39 walks issued in 174 2/3 innings between the Orioles and Diamondbacks. Aside from a strained shoulder that sidelined him for a month this summer, Saunders has been relatively healthy over the past few seasons, hurling an average of 195 innings since 2007. Saunders has always given up a lot of home runs, he doesn't strike out many batters, and he relies mostly on mixing speeds. Saunders' career ERA (4.15) is nearly a half run lower than his career FIP (4.56), meaning he pitches like he should have a 4.56 ERA but usually manages to out-perform that projection.
RHP Shaun Marcum (Last contract: 1 year, $7.73 million)... When healthy, Marcum is an appealing mid-rotation option. But he missed two months last season with elbow discomfort, which is a red flag when also considering he missed all of 2009 due to Tommy John surgery. Since undergoing surgery, Marcum owns a 3.62 ERA with 432 strikeouts in 520 innings. According to reports, Marcum doesn't expect to re-sign with Milwaukee, and he does have interest in returning to Toronto.
RHP Jeremy Guthrie (Last contract: 1 year, $8.2 million)... Since becoming a full-time starter in 2008, Guthrie's average season looks like this: 198 innings, 4.31 ERA, 5.3 strikeouts per nine, a lot of home runs. Certainly not overly impressive, but better than most starting pitchers the Twins have trotted out over the last two seasons. Much like Saunders, Guthrie (4.28 career ERA) has consistently outperformed his FIP (4.74).
RHP Joe Blanton (Last contract: 3 years, $24 million)... No pitching staff has walked fewer batters than the Twins' since 2002, and Blanton fits right in. The 31-year-old former first-round pick posted one of the league's best walk rates (1.6 per nine innings) in baseball last season. Problem is, Blanton gives up a ton of home runs, and he posted a 4.55 ERA in 603 1/3 National League innings over the past four seasons. What would his ERA have been if he pitched in the American League over that stretch?
RHP Ervin Santana (Last contract: 4 years, $30 million)... It's unlikely the Angels pick up $13 million team option for Santana, who draws comparisons to Liriano -- dominant at times, bafflingly head-scratching at others. Any team would gladly take the 2010-2011 version of Santana -- 3.65 ERA, 347 strikeouts in 451 1/3 innings. The 2012 version (5.16 ERA despite only a .241 batting average on balls in play, plus an MLB-leading 39 home runs)? Not so much.
Possible non-tenders to watch
RHP Jair Jurrjens, ATL... Jurrjens emerged as one of the best young pitchers in baseball in 2008 and 2009, but knee problems hindered him in 2010 and 2011, and ineffectiveness last season might lead to him being non-tendered. Jurrjens earned $5.5 million last season and will enter his third year of arbitration this fall. Do the Braves want to pay $6 million for a guy who posted a 6.89 ERA in 11 major league appearances and a 4.98 ERA in 14 minor league outings? Perhaps not. Jurrjens is only 26 years old.
RHP Randy Wells, CHC... Heading into second year of arbitration, but could be non-tendered based on poor performance the last two seasons. He had elbow cleanup surgery on July, but in 2009 and 2010 he was one of the more effective pitchers in the National League, posting a collective ERA of 3.70 in 359 2/3 innings.
RHP Jeff Karstens, PIT... Shoulder soreness helped lead to Karstens pitching out of the bullpen at the end of the season. He earned $3.1 million in 2010 and would make more in his final year of arbitration next season, which could lead the Pirates to non-tendering him. Karstens posted a 3.89 ERA in 83 1/3 innings as a starter last season, and his 1.8 walk rate over the last three seasons makes him a prototypical Twin.
Trade candidates that might make sense
Any number of young pitchers from Atlanta or Tampa Bay... The Braves and Rays both have a slew of good, young starting pitching, and both are likely to lose their starting center fielders to free agency. The Twins have two starting center fielders in their lineup -- Ben Revere and Denard Span. It's also worth noting Atlanta had one of their top scouts at several Twins home games in July and August of last season. Keep an eye on Atlanta and Tampa.
LHP Mark Buehrle, MIA (2013 salary: $11 million)... Yes, Buehrle just signed a four-year, $58 million contract with the Marlins last offseason. But according to league sources, Buehrle, 33, is far from off-limits. The left-hander has $48 million remaining on his back-loaded contract, and sources say the Marlins would eat a large chunk of that contract in a potential trade. It's likely a prospect or two would be needed to complete any trade. Buehrle was, well, classic Buehrle in Miami last season, posting a 3.74 ERA in 202 1/3 innings. He has now thrown at least 200 innings in 12 straight seasons. The Marlins had one of the highest payrolls in baseball last season, but attendance fell short of expectations in their new ballpark. So did their win total.
LHP Jason Vargas, SEA (estimated 2013 salary: $6.5 million)... This one is probably a long shot, mostly because Vargas -- entering his final year of arbitration -- is good enough to command a decent player in return via trade, and also because there maybe comparable free agents available for a similar price. That said, any player entering the final year of arbitration is a trade candidate. Vargas is a horse, racking up 418 1/3 innings over the past two seasons while posting a 4.05 ERA. He gives up a lot of home runs (35 in 2012), but he pitches deep into games.
LHP Ricky Romero, TOR (2013 salary: $7.75 million)... Romero is in the middle of a five-year, $30.1 million contract that runs through 2015 with a team option for 2016. He will make $7.5 million in 2014 and again in 2015. As recently as 2011, Romero was one of the best pitchers in baseball, posting a 2.92 ERA with 178 strikeouts in 225 innings. Last season he led the league in walks and posted one of the worst ERAs in baseball (5.77) over 181 innings. Romero's decline and loss of control is odd. His velocity is about the same (91-92 mph), although he did start throwing a cutter more often in 2012. He turns 28 this offseason, so he's just entering the prime of his career. And he still ranks among the league leaders in groundballs induced. Even coming off a dismal season, Romero would likely be difficult to acquire from a pitching-starved Blue Jays team.
RHP Daniel Bard, BOS (estimated 2013 salary: $1.8 million)... After emerging as one of Boston's best relievers in 2010 and 2011, the 27-year-old Bard moved into the starting rotation in 2012, where he mostly struggled before a June demotion to Triple-A Pawtucket. Bard's control went awry in the majors and minors last season, but he obviously has immense talent. There is a sense among league circles the Red Sox could make him available this offseason, rather than pay him upwards of $2 million through arbitration.
LHP John Lannan, WAS (estimated 2013 salary: $5.5 million)... Due to a crowded Nationals rotation, Lannan spent most of the season in Triple-A, where he posted a 4.30 ERA and 4.46 FIP in 148 2/3 innings. He is a soft-tossing lefty who induces a lot of groundballs, but he hardly moves the needle beyond potentially slotting in as an innings-eating No. 5 starter. The Twins have already held previous discussions with the Nationals regarding pitching going back to 2011.
RHP Phil Hughes, NYY (estimated 2013 salary: $5 million)... Hughes wasn't terrible last season (4.23 ERA, 4.56 FIP, 165 strikeouts in 191 1/3 innings, although he did give up 35 home runs). But pretty soon the Yankees, who selected Hughes in the first round of the 2004 draft, will be forced to decide if the 26-year-old right-hander fits into their long-term plans. Chances are Hughes, a fly-ball pitcher, would fit better in a more spacious ballpark with less media scrutiny.
RHP Josh Johnson, MIA (2013 salary: $13.75 million)... Johnson is set to become a free agent after the 2013 season, and the Marlins must decide whether he will be with the team long-term. Per league sources, the Marlins made it known Johnson was available for the right price at the trade deadline in July, but they were looking for top prospects in return. Teams were rightfully skeptical based on Johnson's history of shoulder inflammation, and because Johnson (3.81 ERA, 7.8 strikeouts per nine in 191 1/3 innings) is no longer regarded as one of the top pitchers in the National League like he was in 2009 and 2010. Johnson, born in Minneapolis, turns 29 in January.
RHP Jeff Niemann, TB (estimated 2013 salary: $3.2 million)... Niemann missed more than three months this past season after a line drive fractured his right fibula. When he came back, Niemann experienced rotator cuff discomfort. According to reports out of Tampa, Niemann was throwing again as of early October, and he is "one hundred percent" confident he'll be ready to go for spring training. Niemann enters his second year of arbitration this offseason, and the Rays, winners of 90 games, have seemingly proven they don't really need Niemann in the rotation anymore. The 6-9 right-hander owns a 4.08 career ERA and 4.23 FIP while striking out 6.76 batters per nine innings. A deal between the Rays and Twins could make sense because the Rays need bats and the Twins need arms.
In Part 3 we'll explain how a last-place team can get back to relevancy