Any More Signings?

The annual TwinsFest this past weekend was interesting to follow from afar via Twitter, blog posts, beat reporters columns and the FSN two-hour TV special with two panels of Twins dignitaries. There was certainly no shortage of Twins related items to savor.

Because of all the festivities, it is no surprise there were no official moves to improve the roster, but that does not mean we are not still hoping for more. Terry Ryan again indicated the Twins still had interested in some players yet available, but obviously would not divulge any names or timetable.

Normally at this time of year one would expect few signings in the offing throughout MLB, but this year there are still several high-profile free agents as well as a long list of decent players still waiting to latch on to a team for the year. Some recent signings to minor league contracts have been surprising enough to set the bloggers ranting again about the Twins being too quick to sign Matt Capps as such a high price tag. I agree he is still overpaid, but believe his age and his fit in the clubhouse are important positives not to be ignored. He should have a better year this year that 2011.

For my part, I think the Twins could still benefit from one or two more veteran relief pitcher(s) in the mix to be sorted out in spring training. I was beginning to run out of patience until I reviewed the list of free agents and remembered this is an abnormally slow year for off-season signings.

The Twins still have 19 more days before pitchers and catchers report and that is plenty of time to wait out the market and see who is available for a bargain price or minor league contract so no immediate change will not need to be made to the 40 man roster.

That means the waiting game continues.

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The Forgotten Man?

In all of the off-season discussions and speculation about who is going to play where, and who will fill the shoes of Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Jim Thome, Delmon Young, and Joe Nathan, one man has been virtually ignored by almost everyone. When there is a mention of his name, it tends to be an after-thought. The player I am talking about? Luke Hughes.

He has made splashes in the past – hitting a home run in his first major league at bat April 28, 2010, and leading the Twins in home runs in 2011 spring training – but last season, when he had a chance to grab and take over second base with Nishioka out, he did not rise to the occasion. Nevertheless, I think he deserves some more consideration.

This year will be his make or break year with the Twins mostly because he is out of options and will either be on the active roster when the Twins break camp or he will have to pass through waivers without being claimed, an unlikely scenario. In my earlier projections, I have him as a bench player filling in at third base, second base and first base as needed to spell players or as a replacement if someone is on the DL.

I see him in that role because the Twins have more or less given all four infield starting positions to other players and because I don’t think the Twins are willing to risk losing him by designating him for assignment. I therefore think it is much more likely that they send Nishioka to Rochester to begin the season than Hughes, if the infield gets too crowded.

As I think more about Luke Hughes, I think it is also possible that 2012 is his breakout year. That may be a long shot, but there are two scenarios that make that worth considering. He has the ability to hit the ball and has demonstrated that he can hit for power at the major league level, and the Twins are going to need every bat they can get this year.

Here are what I believe to be the two possible door openers to more playing time for Hughes. One is more of a long shot than the other, and that is if Justin Morneau’s not able to return to form. The other is if Danny Valencia either sustains a serious injury that puts him out for a month or more, or continues to be mediocre in the field while struggling at the plate as he did most of last year.

In the first case, timing will be everything. If Morneau is determined not able to play anymore sometime during spring training, the Twins will either sign a free agent or trade for a veteran to replace him and Hughes will not get a chance to show his ability. If, on the other hand, Morneau starts the year and for whatever reason fails to make a go of it, Hughes may get a few games at first base as his replacement. That will be more likely if Joe Mauer or Ryan Doumit are also struggling, but Hughes may get a look under any circumstance. If he plays well defensively and hits well, especially for power, he may win the position and be off and running on his breakout year. One serious fly in the ointment with this scenario is if the Twins deem Chris Parmelee ready and call him up to replace Morneau.

The more likely possibility is at third base replacing Valencia for whatever reason. Hughes has played more at third base and will no doubt feel more comfortable in the field there. Again, he will have to grab the opportunity, play strong defense and hit well to win the position, but that is not an unthinkable possibility. Sean Burroughs is the potential foil in this scenario, especially if Burroughs is on the opening day roster with Nishioka at Rochester.

I like what I have seen of Luke Hughes. He appears to have a good attitude and his personality seems to fit in the clubhouse. I’d love to see him get one more chance to play regularly to see if he can rise to the level of being a major contributor. Even so, the probability is high that he will end up this year being a utility man and relegated to the role of decent bat off the bench.

Bullpen Update

The bullpen picture for 2012 has changed for the better this week as Joel Zumaya signed a one-year, very affordable contract. He is reported to be guaranteed $400,000 and will make a minimum of $850,000 if he makes the opening day roster. In addition he can make up to $1.7 million total based on incentives.

I like this acquisition because if he is healthy, he will be a major improvement over what other options the Twins have, and even if he does not make the roster, the cost is negligible in the grand scheme of things, a risk definitely worth taking.

So, with Zumaya added, the Twins’ revamped bullpen for 2012 is closer to being settled.

Matt Capps is the closer going into spring training and Glen Perkins is returning as the left-handed set-up man. As of today, they appear to be the only two guys from the 2011 opening day bullpen who will be back this year.

Let’s do a quick review. 2011 began with the following seven pitchers in the bullpen.

  • Joe Nathan, closer
  • Matt Capps, set-up man
  • Jose Mijares, LHP
  • Glen Perkins, LHP
  • Kevin Slowey, RHP
  • Dusty Hughes, LHP
  • Jeff Manship, RHP long man

As the 2011 season progressed, many others were used due to injuries and ineffectiveness, but for comparison purposes I will use the opening day bullpen.

The 2012 bullpen seems to be taking shape as follows:

  • Matt Capps, closer
  • Glen Perkins, LH set-up man
  • Joel Zumaya, RH set-up man
  • Anthony Swarzak, RHP, long relief, spot starter
  • Brian Duensing, LHP, middle innings and left specialist
  • Alex Burnett, RHP, middle innings
  • Lester Oliveros, RHP, middle innings

I would prefer that Burnett and Oliveros compete for one spot because I think the Twins really need to pick up at least one more experienced right-handed reliever to solidify the bullpen before spring training opens. Actually, both Burnett and Oliveros would benefit from some time at Rochester to hone their skills and gain experience before being expected to produce at a high level.

Ideally, the Twins would sign one more reliever and one more starter. That would allow Nick Blackburn to move to the bullpen giving Burnett and Oliveros the time they need at AAA. With now a little less than a month to the date for pitchers and catchers to report, there is still time to find the bargain pitchers needed.

Even if the bullpen ends up being as I’ve outlined above, I believe it is much more solid than last year’s. A healthy Capps should be better than he was last year and adequate if he returns to 2010 form. Hopefully Perkins will build upon his good year to become truly elite and stand ready to step in as closer if needed. The others are all steps up from the group a year ago. Overall, I am now cautiously optimistic that this group will perform well enough to compete.

Two Out of Three So Far

As the deadline for submitting expectations and offers approached Tuesday, the Twins settled two slots in the pitching ranks by signing one-year deals with Glen Perkins ($1.55 million) and Francisco Liriano ($5.5 million).

That leaves just one arbitration possibility in Alexi Casilla. The Twins and Casilla’s agent exchanged numbers ($1.065 million vs. $1.75 million) and we now wait to see if they can meet somewhere in the middle before a hearing.

It is not surprising that the Twins have come to these agreements. Perkins is a bargain at that rate if he pitches as well as he did last year, and at this point there is no reason to believe he won’t. If he continues to pitch with the confidence and velocity he did last year, he will again get a few opportunities to pick up a few saves while serving mostly as a setup man. We might even see him take over the closer role if Matt Capps falters, although the reported pending agreement with Joel Zumaya would add a real flame thrower to the mix presuming he is able to recover from his injuries. How ever it works out, Perkins is a good signing.

Liriano is a risky investment at that price, but one the Twins had little choice in accepting. This is the final year for him before he becomes eligible to be a free agent and after the bad year, in spite of throwing a no-hitter in 2011, his value is down, so trading him was not going to bring what the Twins would need in replacement. Likewise, releasing him to save money would have almost certainly meant losing him to another team that would be more than willing to take a chance that he would rebound to be the dominant ace he was projected to be in 2006. We are left to hope that return to excellence comes for the Twins.

I must say that Liriano is an example of how the arbitration system is less than optimally structured. If it worked the way it should, he would not get a raise and might even be looking at a cut due to poor overall performance. Instead he gets a raise larger than Perkins’. With a new collective bargaining agreement just approved, the system is not going to change anytime soon, so we will just have to live with it even if it doesn’t make much sense.

I look for Casilla and the Twins to settle at around $1.3 million or so before any hearing is commenced. They are not far enough apart to risk all the potential ill will that comes from taking it all the way to an arbitrator’s decision.

Interesting Week Ahead

After a dry spell on Twins news, this week promises some action that will fuel significant chatter in the Twins blogosphere.

Today a brief story first appeared on MLB.com reporting the Twins have agreed to sign Joel Zumaya to an incentive laden non-guaranteed major league contract. According to the report, it will be Thursday or Friday that he will have his required physical, so official confirmation from the Twins will not come until after that.

A persistent rumor linking the Twins to Roy Oswalt also is likely to be clarified or confirmed in some form this week. Lindsay Guenzel was the first to report the Twins were talking with Oswalt on her Twitter feed. Apparently Oswalt’s first choice is to sign with the Texas Rangers, but if they sign Yu Darvish, he will sign with the Twins. This week is the deadline for Darvish and Texas to complete a deal, so we should know relatively soon if Oswalt is a realistic option for the Twins.

More activity is in the works this week with the arbitration deadline approaching. The Twins have three players left who are eligible for arbitration this year – Alexi Casilla, Glen Perkins and Francisco Liriano. Seth Stohs has a post detailing what he expects to happen. It will be very interesting to see whether or not the Twins sign any of these players to extensions.

Already there has been a good deal of discussion on Twitter about Zumaya and Oswalt. Both would be risks because of their recent history with injuries, but both have what everyone calls significant “upsides”. Right now we all presume that Zumaya will fill the final slot on the 40-man roster. So far no one is talking much about or speculating on which current roster member will be designated for assignment, released or traded to open up a slot if Oswalt is also signed.

By the end of the week we will all know a lot more about the Twins, their roster and payroll level. I’ll have more to say if and when signings are confirmed.

Rebuilding the Red Wings

One of the stated goals of the Twins organization for the off-season is to rebuild their AAA franchise in Rochester, NY. After two consecutive years of 90+ losses the Red Wings faithful are more than restless. Beyond fan reactions, the franchise agreement expires at the end of 2012 and the management there has made it clear that they are not happy with what the Twins have provided in recent years and have threatened not to renew the agreement.

I am no expert in minor league baseball management (most of my information about the Red Wings comes from following Jim Mandelaro’s blog), so I am wondering just how serious the situation is or might become. Do the Red Wings and Rochester have good alternatives for attracting another MLB organization to take the Twins’ place? If they decide to move on, what alternatives do the Twins have for another location for their AAA affiliate?

As I contemplate these and other questions, I can think of at least one good reason that the Twins might benefit from a change. Rochester is not an easily accessible place for travel to and from the Twin Cities. That sometimes delays the call ups from getting to the Twins in a timely fashion. Even the time zone difference is less than ideal.

I would think the most daunting obstacle to change for the Twins is finding a city that has or is willing to build a stadium to serve a AAA team. The closest current AAA cities are Omaha and Des Moines and both are entrenched with their parent clubs.

The closest team affiliated with the Twins is the Beloit (WI) Snappers and presumably one could consider them as possible partners, but the stadium there seats only 3,500 currently, one of the smallest in the class A Midwest League. The city is also not large enough to realistically consider expansion.

Ultimately, it appears the Twins must mend fences and work out a new agreement with the Rochester Red Wings. That begins with a more competitive team on the field in 2012.

With all the minor league signings in the past couple of months, the Twins have added several players who should be able to make a difference this year. In addition, some highly touted prospects are likely to be promoted from AA to Rochester. Look for Chris Parmelee, Joe Benson, and Brian Frazier to give the offense a boost and Liam Hendriks is expected to play a prominent role in their starting rotation.

A fresh outlook from the point of view of a new manager, Gene Glynn, and the addition of Tom Brunanski as the new hitting coach should also help.

In all, there is good reason to be hopeful in Rochester in 2012, especially if the parent club can remain healthy and if relatively few players the Red Wings are counting on for an improved record get called up before the end of the AAA season.

Any Future Hall of Famers on 2012 Roster?

No news on the Twins’ front in recent days, so to pass the time I’m going to shift into pure speculation mode.

This week the Hall of Fame vote was announced with only Barry Larkin receiving enough votes to make it in. Most writers are considering it a down year and that may have been one reason only one rose to the level of acceptance.  That may also be why Jack Morris did significantly better than last year’s vote totals, but not enough to be elected.

With all the Hall of Fame talk, I got to wondering if there are any future Hall of Famers on the current Twins roster.

The past couple of years one could have answered that rather quickly with the almost certainty that Jim Thome will be elected eventually, if not on the first ballot when he becomes eligible.

This year is a different story. Almost every player can be dismissed immediately as not having the tools or record thus far in their career to warrant even consideration. The only exceptions are the two MVP’s, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer.

Morneau has had a couple of bad years following the rough end to his 2009 season and he seems very unlikely to rebound to MVP level again. He therefore is a highly improbable candidate.

Mauer has had some remarkable years topped off by his MVP season in 2009 and he still has enough years of potential to continue to rack up the stats and playing time to be considered when he retires. My sense is he will have his best shot if he is able to continue to play as a catcher for several more years. The sooner he moves to another position, the less likely he will be a serious contender for the Hall.

It is his production in comparison to other catchers that makes him so outstanding. At another position, whether it be first base, outfield or even third base, he does not hit for enough power or drive in enough runs to be considered elite.

This coming season is going to tell if he has any chance at all. He will need to put up at least career average numbers at the plate, return to good work as a defensive catcher including throwing out runners, and he will need to play at least 130 games – a hundred or more at catcher – to get back on track. If he can do that and follow it with several more years like it, he might earn the right to be considered.

As of right now, I think the odds are against him having a Hall of Fame career.

Payroll Projection Discussions

In recent weeks many bloggers and fans commenting on blogs as well as media pundits have complained about the $100 million payroll limit mentioned by Terry Ryan when he was introduced as the new GM. One of the most interesting and persuasive articles on this topic appeared yesterday on 1500ESPN.com written by Phil Mackey. I highly recommend it.

Anyone who follows Mackey on Twitter (@PMac21) knows he is one of the more articulate Twins columnists. Because he is a credentialed member of the Twin Cities sports media, he presumably has access to sources inside the organization as well as in major league baseball that most bloggers do not have. That gives him a perspective that most of us can only wish for.

After the Terry Ryan promotion and through the latter part of the fall, for several reasons I was more or less convinced that the $100 million figure was not firm. It seemed to me that it was much more likely that the Twins would end up spending somewhere between $105 and $110 million. Even as late as last week, I still held to that view expecting that Ryan would make a couple of moves in the next few weeks to at least improve the bullpen.

Mackey has persuaded me that the limit is probably accurate, at least as the Twins begin the season. In previous posts I’ve discussed the importance and likelihood of recovery of Mauer, Morneau and Span. It makes a great deal of sense to take a wait and see approach to the 2012 season. How they perform will determine just how much of a rebuilding job Ryan has in the next couple of years. Holding back on payroll might be wise as it would allow for mid-season acquisitions if all goes well.

Many fans are not business owners and most likely many are also not in management which makes it difficult to understand the perspective of such positions. Every year, we the fans want to win now. Prudent management requires a longer term view and sometimes that means assessing and even rebuilding knowing that winning even a division title is less likely in one of those years.

As Mackey pointed out in his column, as a private company the Twins do not disclose their total revenue. Because that is the case, we do not have a good sense of all that must be considered. Also lost in most fans’ perspective are the other income and expenditures related to a full major league franchise. Operations of the minor league affiliates, the costs of signing draftees, expenses of the whole scouting apparatus, and front office expenses are all part of the cost of doing business.

On the flip side, not only ticket sales produce revenue. All concessions and merchandise sales as well as TV revenue are significant components on the income side. In the Twins’ case, TV revenue will increase in 2012, as Mackey reports, via a new TV deal with Fox Sports North, but it will not be anywhere close to the TV revenue of the major media markets. As a result the Twins, who have a reported $29 million annual income from TV for 2012, will find it difficult to compete in payroll with the LA Angels, for example, as they have just signed $150 million TV deal. This goes a long way in understanding how the Angels can bring in Pujols for the money he commanded and the Twins are looking a lower tier free agents to fill holes.

In addition, there are other complications for all baseball clubs. For example, the MLB revenue sharing is now flipped for the Twins. It used to be as a small market team the Twins received millions of dollars each year from the league courtesy of the high revenue clubs. In 2011, that changed and the Twins now are paying out. If one considers the radical shift from receiving millions to giving millions, one can see the one-year swing is tough to manage.

Overall when it comes to payroll, I am not one who believes it is the deciding factor in winning and losing. In the long run consistently high payroll certainly helps to remain competitive every year as the Yankees and Red Sox have proven, but small market and smaller payroll teams win as well. It is more important how the money is spent than the total amount available.

After seeing what other teams were willing to pay Cuddyer and Kubel, I think it was wise to not overpay and re-sign them. Their level of production can be found with less money spent. I like the signings so far to fill their shoes.

What I think is still needed are some significant upgrades in the pitching. If there is any wiggle room as Ryan continues to say there is, it is pitching that will be signed before spring training.

Catching Up Via Blog Links

After a few days traveling to visit family followed by some catch-up time, I’m back at the blog again. In the time since my last post, not much has happened on the Twins’ front. About the only real news was the press release on the 25 non-roster players invited to the Twins’ major league spring training camp.

But the lack of any more significant action has not kept the bloggers from their tasks. The last few days four of them have focused some attention on Francisco Liriano. Yesterday, Parker Hageman at Over the Baggy discusses Liriano finally pitching this winter and today Nick Nelson has a nice piece on the major league career of the high up-side, but erratic pitcher. Today’s post by Cody Christie at NoDak Twins Fan is a detailed report on Liriano’s debut in the Dominican League on January 3, and a couple of days ago, Andrew at Twins Fan From Afar made the case for now as the time to lock in Liriano with an extension.

Over at Baseball Outsider Edward Thoma has an interesting set of posts the last few days  beginning with a continuation of his series on trades of the Bill Smith era, then comments about the 25 non-roster invitees including today’s noting two surprising NON-invitees – David Bromberg and Anthony Slama.

And, of course, there is the regular Thursday links article at Puckets Pond to peruse for an eclectic bunch of links put together by Eric Pleiss. Two other posts there by Nate Gilmore – on Terry Ryan’s trade record and a profile of non-roster invitee, Jason Bulger – are worth reading as well.

Jesse at Twinkie Town puts together a roster of players using only remaining free agents as a creative way of reviewing options the Twins might consider in the final phases of preparing for 2012.

Seth Stohs at SethSpeaks appears to be in the process of reviewing the Twins options by position, yesterday focusing on the outfielders and today the infielders, including a number of minor leaguers. One of my favorite bloggers, Seth often gives depth to the Twins organization review because of his knowledge of the minor league system and players.

Right now I tend to agree with Jim Crikket’s take on the apparent reduction of the payroll to around $100 million. On his latest post at Knuckleballs he wonders out loud if the quantity of players being brought to training camp will net the quality needed for a decent 2012 season. I’m with him in wondering the same thing.

If baseball history is your thing, The Tenth Inning Stretch is your place to go. Yesterday featured a top ten list of the Twins’ franchise leaders in OPS. Always informative stuff.

Obviously, the Twins’ blogosphere is alive and well. May everyone have a happy and prosperous year.