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Updated: November 1st, 2011 9:15pm
Mackey: What to watch for as Twins gear for free agency period to open

Mackey: What to watch for as Twins gear for free agency period to open

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

With Major League Baseball's free agent flood gates set to open on Thursday, the Minnesota Twins find themselves staring at a vast number of possibilities for fixing a 99-loss team.

Here's what people should know:

• Sources close to free agent right-hander Joe Nathan say the 36-year-old's top priority is to pitch for a winning team next season, preferably as the closer. That doesn't mean money won't be an issue, but money won't be the driving force. Nathan does have a strong interest in remaining in Minnesota, but several things must fall into place for that to happen.

• The general feeling earlier in the year was that if the Twins made a competitive offer, free agent outfielder Michael Cuddyer would definitely return. But that may not be the case anymore. Indications are Cuddyer, 32, will listen attentively to all interested parties, even if the Twins do make the best offer.

• The Twins do have interest in bringing back Jason Kubel. But because Cuddyer remains in the mix, and because Kubel is left-handed and plays positions (right field, left field, DH) that could be filled with younger and/or cheaper options if needed, it's unlikely the Twins or any team will break the bank for him.

• Sources with close knowledge of the Twins' clubhouse dynamic have described the atmosphere as negative last season, especially after the All-Star break. Manager Ron Gardenhire repeatedly voiced his desire for the younger players to be more accountable and to be more open-minded about constructive criticism, but there is a feeling behind closed doors that accountability issues linger with some veteran players as well -- issues that did not exist when the Twins were winning division titles.

Of course, winning can cure a lot of these issues, but in many cases they tend to go hand-in-hand. Improving the clubhouse chemistry and culture will (or at least should) be a priority for the Twins.

• Even if Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau both bounce back to have full productive and healthy seasons, the Twins still run the risk of losing 85 or 90 games if they don't upgrade the defense and pitching staff. Relying on better health in 2012 is key, but it certainly won't cure everything.

• This is just a hunch at the moment, but keep a close eye on free agent shortstop Clint Barmes, who likely won't be returning to the Astros, and free agent catchers Kelly Shoppach and Ryan Doumit, whose options were not picked up this week. The Twins are in the market for both positions.

Important dates:

Nov. 3: Beginning at midnight Thursday, free agent players are free to sign with any team. Until then, free agents are only allowed to re-sign with their former teams.

Nov. 23: The deadline for teams to offer salary arbitration to Type-A and B free agents. The Twins have three ranked free agents -- Michael Cuddyer (A), Matt Capps (A) and Jason Kubel (B). Capps is unlikely to be offered arbitration, as he would almost certainly accept it.

Dec. 5-8: Winter meetings at the Hotel Anatole in Dallas. The Rule 5 draft will take place on Dec. 8.

Dec. 7: The deadline for Type-A and B free agents to accept arbitration.

Dec. 12: The deadline for teams to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players. The Twins have five arbitration-eligible players this season -- Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Alexi Casilla, Glen Perkins and Jose Mijares.

Notable examples of past key decisions in this department include J.J. Hardy, who -- according to MLB sources -- likely would have been non-tendered last winter had the Twins not found a trade partner in Baltimore. Sources also indicate that Delmon Young likely would have been non-tendered this offseason had the Twins not shipped him to Detroit. With a Dec. 12 deadline for deciding on these arbitration-eligible players, teams have the opportunity to discuss trades at the winter meetings.

Twins' notable recent free agent signings

The Twins have completed offseason trades in recent years, adding Hardy last winter, Carlos Gomez in the Johan Santana deal from 2008 and Delmon Young and Craig Monroe in 2007.

But other than those deals, the Twins have avoided any other blockbusters over the past few seasons.

Here are significant free agent signings they've made:

2011: Carl Pavano (2 years, $16.5 million), Jim Thome (1 year, $3 million)

2010: Orlando Hudson (1 year, $5 million), Jim Thome (1 year, $1.5 million), Carl Pavano (1 year, $7 million)

2009: Nick Punto (2 years, $8.5 million), Joe Crede (1 year, $2.5 million), Luis Ayala (1 year, $1.3 million), R.A. Dickey ($525,000)

2008: Livan Hernandez (1 year, $5 million), Mike Lamb (2 years, $6.6 million), Adam Everett (1 year, $2.8 million)

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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