LIVE › 4-5 a.m. Mike Tirico's Weekend Blitz College
NEXT › 5:05 a.m. Race Day
6:05 a.m. Financial Fortitude
6:05 a.m. The Sporting Life
7:05 a.m. Minnesota Home Talk
8:05 a.m. Cover Your Assets
9:05 a.m. Tee Time
Updated: October 4th, 2011 8:28pm
How to fix the Twins, Part 3: Getting back to .500 takes creativity

How to fix the Twins, Part 3: Getting back to .500 takes creativity

SportsWire Daily

Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports

Signup!
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 -- Among the six division titles won under the watch of manager Ron Gardenhire, the thinnest run differential for the Minnesota Twins was +53 in 2009 when the team scored 817 runs and allowed 765.

In 2011, the Twins scored 619 and allowed 804.

In it's simplest form, for the Twins to get back into contention they must somehow find a way to turn a -185 run differential into a positive.

That is, the Twins must take what they had in 2011 and mold it into a roster that scores more runs than it allows -- an extremely difficult task that if accomplished before opening day next season requires creativity and the acknowledgement that injuries weren't the only hindrance in 2011.

And once again, as mentioned in Part 1, as long as Joe Mauer ($23 million) and Justin Morneau ($14 million) are on the roster, as long as the payroll hovers around $100 million, and as long as 35,000-plus fans keep showing up to Target Field, the Twins are all-in.

There is no rebuilding. Only reloading.

The setup

The Twins' pitching staff and defense allowed 804 runs in 2011, which was the second-highest total in baseball. On the surface, it's easy to place full blame on set of pitchers that posted a collective ERA of 4.60 while striking out the fewest number of hitters, and a bullpen that posted a league-worst 4.51 ERA.

Yes, the pitching staff needs work.

But according to scouting data at Baseball Info Solutions, the Twins' defense was worth 27 runs below average collectively, ranking it the fifth-worst unit in baseball. The Twins' infield defense rated particularly horribly; -27 at shortstop, -13 at third base and -12 at second base.

On top of it all, the Twins' injury-plagued offense posted the third-lowest OPS (.666 -- no joke) in the majors while also hitting the third-fewest homers (103). That combination added up to only 619 runs -- the sixth-lowest total in baseball.

A three-phase debacle.

As explained earlier this week, the Twins are tied up for approximately $83 million heading into next season. Let's assume ownership would rather see the payroll hover between $100 and 105 million instead of $115 million.

That leaves about $20 million to fix a team that lost 99 games.

Not much wiggle room.

It may seem as if the Twins need to load up on bats in an effort to get back to the 800-run plateau offensively. But based on the current roster construction and the players potentially available, it likely makes sense to close the run-differential gap from the other direction.

Disclaimer: If you are hoping the Twins sign Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins this offseason, stop reading immediately.

The moves I'd make

• If there is no trade interest, non-tender Kevin Slowey. The Twins will need that extra $2.7 million, and even though Slowey has plenty of upside, both sides would benefit from a fresh start. If Slowey could be relied upon for 200 innings of solid production, he'd be worth keeping. But at no point has he shown the ability to be durable.

• Buy out Nathan's contract for $2 million, then offer him a two-year deal worth $12 million (~ $6 million annually). Nathan's increased velocity and production in the second half of the season (3.13 ERA, 28 strikeouts, five walks) showed he has plenty of gas left in the tank. With Nathan, Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing -- who should also move to the bullpen -- the Twins' bullpen would have solid framework.

• Go hard after free-agent starter Mark Buehrle, who will likely command three years and $36 million (~ $12m annually). Buerhle won't fix the Twins' shortage of strikeouts, but he's a 3.5-WAR pitcher who has been one of the most consistent starters over the past decade. And based on his style and history of endurance, there's no reason to think that Buehrle, 33, won't continue to be the same pitcher for at least a few more seasons.

• If a Buehrle deal doesn't work out during the Winter Meetings in December, turn attention toward potential trade options -- Marlins' starter Ricky Nolasco, in particular. Nolasco is owed $20.5m over the next two years ($9m in 2012), and the Marlins have reportedly soured on his underachieving. This move would come with some risk, but Florida's poor infield defense played a large role in Nolasco's inflated ERAs over the past couple seasons.

• Re-sign outfielder Michael Cuddyer, if possible, to a three-year, $24 million deal (~ $8m annually). This is also a risk -- and probably not popular with some fans -- but the Twins already lack right-handed pop, and the only other reasonably-priced right-handed outfield bat on the market is Josh Willingham, who would also be intriguing. Although this signing is more out of necessity and lack of options, Cuddyer has been a +2.5 WAR player or better in four of the last six seasons, so $8 million per year is not a bad number.

• Let outfielder Jason Kubel walk and collect draft-pick compensation, as he is a Type-B free agent. If Kubel was right-handed, there'd be more incentive to re-sign him. Of course, for the Twins to receive compensation Kubel would have to reject their arbitration offer. Assuming he can get a two-year deal somewhere, it's probably worth offering the arb.

• Sign free-agent shortstop Clint Barmes to a two-year, $8 million deal (~ $4m annually). Barmes is a strong defensive shortstop, which is exactly what a pitch-to-contact staff needs. It's time to stop messing around with Trevor Plouffe and Tsuyoshi Nishioka and put a reliable glove at the most important position in the infield. Barmes also has enough pop to produce some runs offensively.

And for anyone wondering about Barmes coming over from a hitter's ballpark in Houston, he actually hit .259/.323/.409 away from home and .229/.301/.360 at Minute Maid Park.

• Sign catcher Kelly Shoppach to a one-year, $2 million deal (~ $2m annually) with a team option for a second year. Shoppach strikes out a lot, and his batting average is low, but he has enough power and draws enough walks to be a much more reliable offensive threat than Drew Butera and Rene Rivera if Mauer can't catch. Shoppach also threw out 44% of potential base stealers this season, which is an improvement from his respectable 29% career average. Plus, he holds his own when it comes to framing pitches.

Adding Nathan, Cuddyer, Barmes, Shoppach and Nolasco while shedding Slowey's salary would bump the payroll to about $107 million.

C Joe Mauer ... $23 million
1B Justin Morneau ... $14 million
2B Alexi Casilla ... $1.5 million
SS Clint Barmes ... $4 million
3B Danny Valencia ... $440,000
OF Ben Revere ... $420,000
OF Denard Span ... $3 million
OF Michael Cuddyer ... $8 million
DH Chris Parmelee ... $415,000
B Trevor Plouffe ... $420,000
B Kelly Shoppach ... $2 million
B Luke Hughes ... $420,000
B Rene Tosoni ... $415,000
SP Carl Pavano ... $8.5 million
SP Ricky Nolasco ... $9 million
SP Scott Baker ... $6.5 million
SP Francisco Liriano ... $5 million
SP Nick Blackburn ... $4.75 million
RHP Joe Nathan ... $8 million (including $2 million buyout)
LHP Glen Perkins ... $1.6 million
LHP Brian Duensing ... $470,000
RHP Alex Burnett ... $440,000
RHP Kyle Waldrop ... $415,000
RHP Anthony Swarzak ... $420,000
LHP Jose Mijares ... $650,000

SS Tsuyoshi Nishioka ... $3 million

• If more money is needed, offer Nishioka a $1.5 million buyout to head back to Japan. If he accepts, this would save $1.5 million in 2011 and $3 million in 2012.

Explanation

• With a full season (or at least 145-plus games) of Denard Span, Ben Revere, Alexi Casilla and Barmes -- a strong defensive shortstop -- playing defense behind those same sub-par 2011 pitching performances, according to scouting data from Baseball Info Solutions the Twins likely would have allowed approximately 730 runs instead of 804.

That's an extra (approximately) 75 runs saved simply by improving the defense.

Danny Valencia was rated at -11 runs, so there's plenty of room to improve there too.

• It's safe to say the Twins' starters and bullpen collectively can't be much worse than they were last year. If a guy like Nolasco replaces Duensing in the rotation, if Liriano can bounce back at all (think 3.5 or 4 BB/9 instead of 5), and if the Twins receive a full season of the healthy Nathan we saw in the second half, the pitching staff would prevent even more runs.

Buehrle would be a coup, but that's probably a long shot.

With those improvements to strikeouts, groundballs induced, walks and/or home runs allowed factored in, it's realistic to shave another 30 runs off that hideous 804-run total.

That brings us to approximately 700 runs allowed -- give or take -- when accounting for realistic defensive and pitching upgrades.

• Offensively, let's pretend hell freezes over and the Twins put out a healthy lineup for the majority of next season.

After all, if that doesn't happen, none of this matters anyways.

Using somewhat optimistic projections, especially for playing time -- and you can judge for yourselves -- here's what the offensive production might look like (adding up to the league average of about 6,200 plate appearances):

Of course, the following projections don't factor in the players who will inevitably steal at-bats as bench players, so keep that in mind. Those players could drag down production. Or they could help it, as Chris Parmelee did. Brian Dozier, for instance, could subtract playing time from Luke Hughes or Plouffe, but he isn't included in these projections.

LF Denard Span (650 plate appearances): .274/.353/.367, 3 HR, 21 SB
2B Alexi Casilla (500): .271/.333/.368, 3 HR, 18 SB
C/1B Joe Mauer (590): .323/.399/.451, 9 HR
RF Michael Cuddyer (615): .276/.345/.448, 19 HRs
1B/DH Justin Morneau (560): .282/.366/.507, 24 HR
1B/DH Chris Parmelee (400): .274/.351/.436, 12 HR
3B Danny Valencia (590): .281/.332/.434, 16 HR
SS Clint Barmes (550): .240/.310/.376, 11 HR
CF Ben Revere (600): .282/.328/.338, 1 HR, 48 SB

C Kelly Shoppach (300): .200/.314/.345, 8 HR
INF Trevor Plouffe (450): .253/.320/.416, 13 HR
INF Luke Hughes (200): .249/.315/.401, 6 HR
OF Rene Tosoni (200): .251/.320/.420, 7 HR

Those 6,205 plate appearances -- assuming league-average baserunning and a projected 111 stolen bases in 147 attempts -- produce an estimated 710 runs and a team batting line of .240/.309/.373 with 125 homers.

Run estimations according to the Base Runs formula, which takes a team's projected counting stats -- hits, home runs, doubles, walks, stolen bases, etc. -- and estimates how many runs it will score. The Twins' 2011 counting stats were estimated to spit out 615 runs according to Base Runs, which is close enough to their actual total of 619 to call it accurate.

Again, the player projections are probably optimistic to some extent, especially with Morneau, Mauer and Span's playing time. Decide for yourselves if you'd like.

Final thoughts

Under the outlined scenarios above, 710 runs scored is a reasonable estimate.

And with an improved defense and pitching staff, as outlined above, the Twins could realistically shave this year's 804 runs allowed down to 700. That's not far-fetched, as 700 runs allowed would put the Twins right in the middle of the pack.

Scoring 710 and allowing 700 projects as an 82-80 record.

Obviously projecting playing time and production is extremely fluid. Plus, it's all predicated on health. And it's also likely that somebody from the Dozier, Joe Benson and Rene Tosoni group will emerge midseason.

But with a payroll of $107 million or so, it is feasible to get back to .500.

Getting back to 90 wins, however, will either take more money, more luck, or a few more young players having breakout seasons.

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
3173