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Updated: December 5th, 2010 10:51pm
Winter meetings notebook: Nishioka, Hardy, bullpen are top priorities

Winter meetings notebook: Nishioka, Hardy, bullpen are top priorities

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Major League Baseball's annual winter meetings officially begin on Monday.

But Minnesota Twins general manager Bill Smith was already holding court on Sunday in front of a massive group of reporters at Disney's Swan and Dolphin Resort.

Japanese reporters.

Smith, who arrived to Florida on Saturday for meetings, was bombarded with questions about infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who the Twins hope to sign after they won the rights to negotiate 10 days ago.

The general manager politely entertained the mob of reporters for a moment before sidestepping away toward the elevator.

While the Twins may be under the watchful eye of the Japanese media this week, Smith and company are by no means in the national spotlight -- that belongs to Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and others.

That said, the Twins do have business to hash out before the meetings adjourn on Thursday.

1.) Make progress and/or reach an agreement with Nishioka

Smith and assistant general manager Rob Antony are expected to meet with Nishioka's representatives this week to hash out terms of a contract. Or, at least, to pave some ground.

The two sides have until December 26 to reach an agreement.

Those who have scouted him say Nishioka's weak throwing arm will not translate will to shortstop in the major leagues. A move from shortstop to second base actually decreases Nishioka's value, which is something the Twins are likely considering during the negotiation process.

2.) Figure out what to do with shortstop J.J. Hardy

The Twins tendered a contract to Hardy prior to the December 2 deadline, but with Nishioka in the mix and with the team seemingly committed to giving Alexi Casilla a starting job, things are a bit crowded up the middle.

Several teams are reportedly interested in Hardy, including the Pittsburgh Pirates, who according to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal attempted to land the shortstop late last week.

But trading Hardy just for the sake of trading from a surplus doesn't make a ton of sense, considering Casilla's past struggles as an every-day player.

When healthy, Hardy was one of the most productive shortstops in the American League -- which, in all honesty, really isn't saying much -- and his estimated $6 million price tag isn't gaudy on a payroll that will likely sniff or surpass $120 million.

If it's speed the Twins are looking for, Casilla certainly fits the mold more than Hardy. But inserting speed while potentially sacrificing in multiple other areas could be counterproductive.

Then again, if the Twins doubt Hardy's ability to stay healthy, that's a whole new topic.

A market for Hardy exists. We're likely to find out more about it this week.

3.) Find bullpen help

With Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch hitting the open market, the Twins have some gaping holes in a bullpen that, for the most part, was a major strength for the club in 2010.

Last week, MLB Network's Peter Gammons reported that Crain could be the hottest reliever available on the market after Joaquin Benoit signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal with Detroit. Gammons cited nine teams as having interest in Crain. 

A major-league source indicated on Friday that Crain and Guerrier are both interested in returning to Minnesota, but they understand that the money could be more plentiful elsewhere.

As it stands, the Twins' 2011 bullpen would probably comprise of Matt Capps, Jose Mijares, Joe Nathan, Pat Neshek, Alex Burnett and Glen Perkins. And possibly Anthony Slama.

Nathan is coming off Tommy John surgery, so he is unlikely to be anywhere near dominant, and Neshek must prove he can return to dominance in his second year following the same surgery.

Can the Twins find bullpen help in a Hardy trade?

4.) Monitor the status of starting pitcher Carl Pavano

Pavano's agent, Tom O'Connell, passed through the Dolphin lobby on Sunday, and he's likely to burn a path to and from various team suites this week as well.

Pavano, who turns 35 in January, is one of the best available free-agent starting pitchers on the market, and it's possible he could command Ted-Lilly money -- three years, $33 million.

Are the Twins serious players at this point? We're certain to find out in the coming days.

If the Twins decide to let Pavano walk, they would gain the first-round draft pick of whichever team signs him, plus a compensatory 'sandwich' pick between rounds 1 and 2.

In the rotation, the Twins would be left with Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing and Kevin Slowey. Among those five, only Baker has thrown more than 191 innings in a major-league season.

Pavano's 221 innings ranked sixth in the AL last year, and he would have eaten more had the Twins not shuffled their rotation in the final three weeks of the regular season.

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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