Scouting the competition: The Twins

Here's a report on the Minnesota Twins as we continue to examine the other teams around Major League Baseball.

The Minnesota Twins have been very competitive this decade, with four AL Central titles in the last five seasons coming into this year. But 2007 was frustrating for the Twins, who finished 79-83 and had their first losing season since 2000 and the first one under Manager Ron Gardenhire.

Offense, or a lack of offense, was the problem for the Twins. They finished 13th in home runs (118), 12th in runs scored (718), and 9th in batting average (.264). They were a speedy team (112 stolen bases, fifth best in the AL) and the pitching was good, but the lack of run production really killed this team's chances for a winning season.

The Twins will have somewhat of a new era next season, as Terry Ryan's long reign as the General Manager is now over. His assistant, Bill Smith, is now in charge and will have to face a busy offseason with huge financial issues at hand.

Torii Hunter is a free agent, and the chances of the All-Star outfielder returning are very slim. If Hunter does leave, the Twins will have to look elsewhere for an offensive star. They already need offense, and if they lose their top player the search will be even more extensive.

And then there's Johan Santana, who is still a year away from free agency. But the time to make a call on his future might be this winter for the Twins, who might decide to see what Santana could bring in return on the trade market. The Twins just have little chance to re-sign the star pitcher for the long term, so unless they want to lose him for nothing more than a draft pick in twelve months, Smith and the Twins may shop him a bit this winter.

A Santana trade could remake the organization, which is in need of filling numerous holes. Again, center field will be a huge question mark with Hunter leaving. And the Twins also have huge holes to plug in the infield.

There's no doubt the with Hunter's departure first baseman Justin Morneau now becomes the centerpiece of the lineup. He hit .271 with 31 home runs and 111 RBI in 143 games this season. But Morneau can't do it along, and they have to find him some help in the outfield.

Second baseman Luis Castillo was traded late in the season to the Mets, so the Twins have to replace him next season. Alexi Casilla was the first candidate, but he hit only .222 in 47 games and really struggled. Casilla is a speedster (11 steals) but he's got to hit enough to get on base. The Twins might look for another option this winter.

Jason Bartlett will probably return as the shortstop. He started 135 games there and hit .265 with 5 home runs and 43 RBI along with 23 stolen bases. But the Twins will no doubt look for help at third base, where Nick Punto (.210, 1 HR, 25 RBI, .291 OBP), Luis Rodriguez, and Brian Buscher were just not good enough. Buscher has offensive skills, but he's a poor defensive player and is in winter ball trying to improve at third base.

The outfield has a bit more talent, with Michael Cuddyer being solid in right field. Cuddyer hit .276 with 16 home runs and 81 RBI and a .356 OBP in 140 games started out in right. Jason Kubel hit .273 with 13 home runs, 65 RBI, and a .335 OBP and will be the starter in left across from Cuddyer.

But center field will have to be addressed. Jason Tyner will be an internal candidate. He hit .286 with a home run (his first in forever), 22 RBI, and 8 stolen bases. But expect the Twins to go out and search for a more suitable replacement for Torii Hunter.

There have been rumors the Twins will talk with Barry Bonds about being the designated hitter. And there's little doubt the team needs that type of impact power hitter to join the club for next season.

Joe Mauer is one of the best young catchers in the game, but he missed 40 games with a leg injury and started only 88 games behind the plate. Mauer is a hitting machine though (.293 with 7 home runs, 60 RBI, and a .382 OBP) and will help Morneau and Cuddyer in the lineup.

The Twins pitching staff was impressive this past season, finishing fourth in the American League with a 4.15 ERA. Santana, who was 15-13 in 33 starts with a 3.33 ERA, led the rotation. He struck out 235 in 219 innings pitched and continued to dominate in most games. But with the chances of him re-signing almost slim and none the Twins just might decide to shop him in order to rebuild the organization for the future.

Would the Braves express some interest? Well with the payroll rising this offseason and even more possibly in the future it's very possible the Braves will at least see what the Twins might ask for in a potential deal. There is no telling what the cost might be, but since he's the best pitcher in the game it's at least worth exploring.

If Santana is traded, the Twins hope Francisco Liriano can once again step in and become an ace. That was the plan more than a year ago, but Liriano developed elbow trouble and had to have Tommy John surgery. The 24-year-old lefty is on schedule to return next season, and if there are no lingering effects Liriano could fit right back in as a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher and as a replacement for Santana.

The Twins' rotation is still strong, even after Santana and Liriano. Carlos Silva will probably leave via free agency after going 13-14 and posting a 4.19 ERA in 33 starts. If the Braves decide to visit the free agent market for another starter Silva could be a possibility. But Silva will undoubtedly look for a four-year contract and could approach $10 million a year, making it unlikely.

So the Twins will turn to their younger starters to become even more important next season. Boof Bonser was 8-12 and had a 5.10 ERA in 30 starts. He also struck out 136 batters in 173 innings and will get a chance to move up a slot in the rotation. But expect Scott Baker to have an even better shot at becoming a top guy for the Twins. Baker was 9-9 with a 4.26 ERA and 12 of his 23 starts were quality starts in 2007. Two of the Twins' young guns, Matt Garza (15 starts, 3.69 ERA) and Kevin Slowey (4-1 in 11 starts), will round out the rotation.

The Twins also have to make a decision on closer Joe Nathan. The team has a $6 million dollar option on Nathan, who saved 37 games and had a 1.88 ERA. There are rumors the Twins might pick up that option and then trade Nathan, further fueling the speculation that a rebuilding project is at hand.

If Nathan is traded, the Twins do have some other options. Pat Neshek was outstanding this season, with a 2.94 ERA in 74 games (74 strikeouts in 70.1 innings pitched). Neshek and Matt Guerrier (2.35 ERA in 73 games) could take over if there is an opening.

The Twins also have Juan Rincon (5.13 ERA in 63 games), Dennys Reyes (3.99 ERA in 50 games), and Carmen Cali (4.71 ERA in 24 games) available for the bullpen. Jesse Crain had shoulder surgery, so we'll see if he's an option next season.

Minnesota will be one of the most interesting teams to watch this winter. They will lose Torii Hunter and then have to decide if they can guard against losing two of their other stars in Santana and Nathan. Expect this team to be very active.

Eligible for Free Agency: Torii Hunter, Matt LeCroy, Lew Ford, Josh Rabe, Carlos Silva, Rondell White *, Joe Nathan *
Eligible for Arbitration: Michael Cuddyer, Matt Guerrier, Jason Kubel, Justin Morneau, Juan Rincon, Jason Tyner


Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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