How to fix the Twins, Part 2: Looking at realistic free agents, trades
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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 -- As detailed in Part 1, the Minnesota Twins are locked up for approximately $83 million heading into next season, which doesn't leave a lot of spending money, assuming the payroll will sit between $100 and $105 million.
Manager Ron Gardenhire has hinted strongly that he'd like to see some upgrades to his pitching staff, but he understands the Twins are unlikely to be in the running for a guy like C.J. Wilson, who projects to be the most sought-after free-agent starting pitcher.
"That'll all be told," Gardenhire said last week. "I mean, you've got the whole winter and free agents and whatever's out there, but I think we're all smart enough to figure out that free agents out there, as far as pitchers go, if they're really good they're probably going to require a little bit more money than we're willing to pay them. All the big shooters. And there's going to be a market for the rest of them."
If the Twins were to step up and sign a top-echelon free agent -- think Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins or Brandon Phillips, who has a team option with the Reds -- the impact could be great, but the cost high.
Don't bet on it.
After the top-echelon free agents come off the board there are some realistic names worth looking at.
Beyond that, if the Twins can get creative, there are also some intriguing potential trade candidates floating around as well.
Realistic free agent targets:
• LHP Mark Buehrle -- age 33 -- Estimated contract: 3 years, $36 million
Projected Wins Above Replacement (WAR): Between +3 and +4
Mark Buehrle told Chicago reporters last week that he's willing to sign with any team in either league. He's thrown at least 200 innings in every season since 2001, he rarely walks anybody (2.05 BB/9), induces grounders (46%), pitched in a bandbox for 11 years and has posted a 3.4 WAR or higher in all but one season. Even at age 33, Buehrle is likely worth every penny he'll get.
• SS Clint Barmes -- age 33 -- Estimated contract: 2 years, $7-8 million
Projected WAR: Between +2.5 and +3.5 as a shortstop
Barmes' low on-base percentage (.312 last year with Houston) and low batting average (.244) won't turn heads, but he does have some pop -- Barmes has 73 career home runs, albeit he spent most of his time in Colorado before heading to Houston this year. Barmes separates himself from the pack because of his strong defense and ability to play shortstop, among other positions. According to scouts at Baseball Info Solutions, Barmes was the fifth-best fielding shortstop in baseball, saving +10 runs more than his average peer. Considering the Twins are in need of a massive defensive upgrade, Barmes could be a steal of a deal, and he wouldn't even cost them a draft pick.
To put Barmes' defense into context, a full season of Barmes likely would have saved about 40 extra runs compared to the collection of shortstops the Twins used.
MLB.com reported last month that the Astros would like to re-sign Barmes, but that doesn't mean he won't test the waters.
• C Kelly Shoppach -- age 32 -- Estimated contract: 1 year, $2 million
Projected WAR: Between +1 and +2
Shoppach does have a $3.2 million club option should the Rays choose to re-sign him, but they are taking a hard look at 26-year-old Jose Lobaton, who could factor into their 2012 plans. If the Twins go after Shoppach, he'd have to accept limited playing time assuming Joe Mauer still catches from time to time. Shoppach threw out 44% of potential base stealers this season, which is an improvement from his respectable 29% career average. Shoppach also holds his own when it comes to framing pitches. His .196 and .181 batting averages over the last two years leave plenty to be desired, but Shoppach does draw a fair share of walks (8.6% for his career) and hits for some power (20 HR per 500 plate appearances) when he's not striking out (33% career rate).
• C Jose Molina -- age 36 -- Estimated contract: 1 year, $1.5 million
Projected WAR: +1
For his career, Molina throws out more than 50% of base stealers, but he might not hit well enough (.241/.286/.344 career line) to be anything more than a backup catcher. In other words, if the Twins need a catcher they feel comfortable with as a starter, Molina might not be the right fit. But he'd be an extremely solid spot-starter.
• RHP Edwin Jackson -- age 28 -- Estimated contract: 3 years, $27 million
Projected WAR: Between +3 and +4
Behind Wilson, Jackson will probably be the most sought-after free agent starting pitcher on the market, which likely takes the Twins out of the running. Having thrown 214, 209 1/3 and 199 2/3 innings over the past three seasons, Jackson is a horse, and his FIPs of 4.28, 3.86 and 3.55 over the past three years make him even more valuable. Among the entire pool of major league starters, Jackson is probably underrated, but in this year's free-agent market, he might be overrated. If that makes sense.
• RHP Joel Pineiro -- age 33 -- Estimated contract: 1 year, $5 million
Projected WAR: Between +1.5 and +3
This could be a chance for the Twins to buy low on a guy coming off one of the worst seasons of his career -- a 5.13 ERA and 4.43 FIP in 145 2/3 innings for the Angels. Of course, if the Twins are looking to improve team strikeout totals, Pineiro certainly isn't the guy. Only once in the past four seasons has Pineiro struck out more than five batters per nine innings, but he generally ranks among the league leaders in groundballs induced. Pineiro started this season on the disabled list due to shoulder tightness, and he missed two months last season with a strained oblique. Still, there could be some value here, and if Pineiro can go back to the way he was pitching in 2009 (3.49 ERA, 3.27 FIP with St. Louis) and 2010 (3.84 ERA, 3.84 FIP for the Angels), he'd be an affordable upgrade.
• 2B Kelly Johnson -- age 30 -- Estimated contract: 3 years, $18 million
Projected WAR: Between +2 and +4
The Blue Jays traded for Johnson this season with the possible intention of re-signing him this offseason, but in the event he hits the open market it's possible the Twins would have some interest. Johnson's upside shined through in 2010 when he hit .284/.370/.496 with 26 homers for the Diamondbacks, but in two of the last three seasons he has been mediocre offensively. Even though he hit 21 home runs this year, Johnson's batting line was only .222/.304/.413, and his defense at second base is generally a notch below average.
• INF Nick Punto -- age 34 -- Estimated contract: 1 year, $600,000
Projected WAR: Between +1 and +2
Don't laugh. The Twins were torn internally about the decision to let Punto walk after last season, so it only makes sense there'd be some interest heading into a year where improving the infield defense is a top priority. Problem is, the Twins let Punto go because he couldn't stay healthy, and he followed up by missing 89 games due to injury with the Cardinals this season. When healthy, Punto remains an elite defender at third base, second base and shortstop. He also draws enough walks (10.2% career, 15.3% this year) to be respectable offensively.
Possible realistic trade candidates (including contract status):
• RHP Ricky Nolasco (FLA) -- age 29 -- 2012: $9m, 2013: $11.5m
Projected WAR: Between +2 and +4
The Florida Sun-Sentinel reported last week that the Marlins "will give serious thought to trading (Nolasco) this offseason," and manager Jack McKeon has openly expressed his bewilderment as to how Nolasco, with his strong repertoire of pitches, can toil with ERAs of 5.06, 4.51 and 4.67 the last three seasons. Not that Nolasco deserves an alibi for his struggles, but part of the problem could be connected to the Marlins' weak infield defense. According to UZR, shortstops Hanley Ramirez and Emilio Bonafacio rated well below average, and so did the large platoon of third basemen used by Florida.
The statistical evidence is glaring too, as opponents hit .281 against Nolasco on groundballs -- well above the league average of .237.
Nolasco has seen his strikeouts go down from 9.49 per nine innings in 2009 to 6.47 this season, albeit he is inducing more groundballs now (45%) than before (38%). Nolasco's FIP marks of 3.35, 3.86 and 3.53 over the last three years suggest there is a ton of untapped potential here. A change of scenery could do him well.
• INF Jed Lowrie (BOS) -- age 28 -- 2012: ~ $700,000, 2013: arb, 2014: arb
Projected WAR: Between +1 and +3
With Dustin Pedroia locked in at second base, and assuming the Red Sox pick up shortstop Marco Scutaro's 2012 option, Lowrie remains without a starting position. As a shortstop, scouting reports suggest he lacks range, but Lowrie has shown promise offensively in only 915 major league plate appearances with a .252/.324/.408 batting line. If the Twins were to trade for Lowrie and use him as a starter, he'd likely be a better option at second base than shortstop, meaning Casilla would slide to the other side of the diamond.
• SS Brendan Ryan (SEA) -- age 30 -- 2012: $1.75m, 2013: arb
Projected WAR: +2.5
Ryan's career .256/.313/.339 batting line is pretty atrocious. But his glove rates +10.3 runs per 150 games according to Ultimate Zone Rating, which makes him one of the best-fielding shortstops in baseball. From a distance, based on Ryan's weak bat, it might appear as if he'd be easy to acquire. But the Mariners' front office has placed extra importance on defense over the past few seasons. That said, one of Seattle's top prospects, shortstop Nick Franklin, might be ready to make the leap in 2012, meaning the team would need to clear an opening.
• LHP Jonathan Sanchez (SF) -- age 29 -- 2012: ~ $5.5m, 2013: free agent
Projected WAR: +2
Seemingly always rumored to be on the trade block, Sanchez would likely be dealt for a bat if the Giants elected to pull the trigger. The left-hander would immediately provide a boost in strikeouts to the Twins' staff with his career mark of 9.4 K/9, but he also walks five batters per nine innings as well.
• LHP Wandy Rodriguez (HOU) -- age 33 -- 2012: $10m, 2013: $13m
Projected WAR: Between +2 and +4
Rodriguez is an obvious trade candidate simply because the Astros made it clear at the deadline this summer that the right-hander is available. Problem is, any team that trades for Rodriguez must guarantee him an extra year on that contract -- $13 million in 2014. Rodriguez does not have overpowering stuff, but he's been able to consistently post solid numbers in the National League. A move to the American League would likely do some damage to his ERA, but he strikes enough batters out (8 per nine innings) and induces enough groundballs (45%) to remain effective. But considering his age and contract, Rodriguez comes with a lot of risk.
• RHP Edinson Volquez (CIN) -- age 28 -- 2012: ~ $2.3m, 2013: arb
Projected WAR: Anywhere from +0.5 to +4
There have been no official rumblings of Volquez being on the trade block, but considering he was sent to Triple-A Louisville for 13 starts this season due to ineffectiveness, the Reds would likely listen to a phone call. Volquez still has electric stuff even after 2009 Tommy John surgery, and 2012 could be the year he regains his form. That said, Volquez's main problem throughout his young career has been control -- 5.67 BB/9 this year, and no fewer than 4.27 BB/9 in any year as a full-time starter. He showed progress in that department by walking only 29 in 87 1/3 innings at Triple-A this year. Depending on the asking price -- if there is one -- Volquez is definitely worth a flier.
In Part 3 we'll explain how a team that lost 99 games can get back to (near) relevancy.