Full Count: A Twins Offseason on the Brink

Despite losing 99 games in a season sponsored by Murphy’s Law, the Twins entered an offseason in which neither building to contend nor rebuilding really fully made sense. For one, the team lacked the liquid assets required for a rebuild; its more valuable commodities were either inked to long-term deals, or the player was coming off an injury-riddled campaign. Or both.

Secondly, with nearly $40 million promised to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau this season and next, the Twins were left with only one real option: Build a club which could *possibly* contend if Mauer and Morneau are both healthy and productive in 2012.

Coming off such a disastrous season, and with a payroll that will likely check in about $13 million lower than last season, interim General Manager Terry Ryan was faced with the difficult task of erasing, or at least blurring his predecessors blunders, all while inexplicably facing a lower payroll despite only entering the third season of a new stadium, and those precious new stadium dollars.

Now, two full months into the offseason, Ryan has done a pretty decent job. Still, he’s made five big moves — a relative frenzy compared to previous Twins offseasons — and likely has at least one more move on the horizon before the club heads to Florida to begin preparations for the upcoming campaign.

Today, I’ll use symbolism everyone can understand to explain exactly how this pivotal offseason, despite a number of good moves, is still one which hangs in the balance as we inch closer to opening day. Just a note: I’ll only be talking about incoming players. The outgoing moves were all beneficial for the Twins, for what it’s worth.

0-0 pitch – Ball: Jamey Carroll – Infielder

Just under a week after resuming his GM post, TR made his first significant move of the offseason, inking the diminutive Carroll to a two-year deal as the team’s starting shortstop. And while this doesn’t exactly signal the club waiving the white flag on Tsuyoshi Nishioka, it certainly may mean that the import may have to re-attempt to earn his stripes in Rochester rather than Minneapolis, or he’ll risk being Igawa’d.

In Carroll, the Twins are simply looking for someone to be there on a regular basis. In his career, Carroll has played steady, if unspectacular defense all across the infield, shown very good plate discipline, and has done a good job as both a sub and as a starter, providing flexibility for each of the four franchises which he’s played. Twins shortstops on the whole hit .238/.292/.320, committed 29 errors, and had a collective UZR of -15.8, while Carroll went .290/.359/.347 with a -1.9 UZR at short, where he played about half his innings. Even at 38-years-old, Carroll should provide the club with improved infield defense — paramount for a team with so few strikeout pitchers — and will slot in nicely in the two-hole between fellow good-eye guys Mauer and Denard Span.

1-0 pitch – Ball: Ryan Doumit – Catcher/First Baseman/Outfielder
Ryan continued his disciplined approach at the free agency dish, nabbing former Pirate backstop Doumit on a one-year, $3 million deal. And while Doumit comes with his share of issues –namely health, and defense– a hitter of his caliber (.360 wOBA over 236 PA in 2011) would have likely garnered at least a multi-year pact, as well as probably nearly double the salary.

Doumit’s skills actually fit the Twins needs quite nicely. He’s a dreadful catcher, but if everything breaks how the club would prefer, he’d only end up catching every now and then. The team even brought in J.R. Towles to have a chance to battle Drew Butera — with swim noodles, presumably — for a roster spot, thus helping to ensure that Doumit may be used in more of a quasi-utility role. With Morneau a complete and utter wild card, and with no immediate DH options on the current roster, Doumit should health-willing be able to grab 400-500 PA as a swingman between first base and DH, and he may end up in the outfield a bit as well. If I were to bet, he’ll probably play a considerable amount at first while Morneau DHs, both preserving the Canadian and preserving Twins fans’ eyes from seeing Doumit behind the plate or in the outfield.

2-0 pitch – Strike: Matt Capps – Relief Pitcher

Sometimes you can’t help but want to take a hearty 2-0 rip. However, in re-signing Capps, it’s hard to say yet if TR fouled this one off, or whiffed. Capps very obviously had one of the worst seasons of his seven-year career, as his WPA sunk well below zero for only the second time. And like his rough 2009 season, which not only culminated in his non-tendering by the Pirates but the untimely passing of his father, Capps was victimized yet again by the long ball. However, in addition to allowing far too many home runs, Capps’ strikeout rates completely bottomed out, falling to a Pavanian 4.7 per nine, nearly two whiffs off his career rate.

Now maybe there was more to the arm injury than what meets the eye, and maybe he really was compensating for it as a result, but his 2010 season looks more like an outlier than what he should return to, given a healthy offseason. For one, Capps induced worm burners 10 percent more often in ‘10 than he had his entire career before and after. So even though he allowed fewer line drives in 2011, more of his fly balls left the yard. Second, he lost velocity in ‘11, amounting to over a full tick of his heater from ‘10. But like his ground ball rates, Capps was simply regressing to his career average velocity. So while Capps may not be the pitcher he was in ‘11 with the miniscule whiff rates and penchant for dialing nine, he doesn’t appear likely to bounce back a la second-half Joe Nathan, either. Besides, bad teams don’t really need closers, and until the Twins show otherwise, that’s a bad team.

2-1 pitch – Ball: Josh Willingham – Outfielder

For the second time since I’ve followed the club extremely closely, the Twins signed a free agent that I’d pegged at the beginning of the offseason as an ideal target (the other time? Mike Lamb. Ugh). If you’re interested, I covered this signing extensively here, but not only is Willingham a better hitter than the departed Michael Cuddyer (by a .364 to .345 wOBA margin) whose legit pull power is better suited for Target Field, but he signed for $10-plus million less, which allowed the club more free agent flexibility to sign…..

3-1 pitch – Strike: Jason Marquis – Starting Pitcher

Again, in a big hitter’s count, TR has taken a huge rip and well, completely missed. Not only did the club use the money saved by dealing Kevin Slowey on an inferior pitcher, but the Twins added a pitcher whose lone redeeming quality is inducing ground balls, even though the 2012 season package already comes with Scott Diamond (Rich Harden sold separately). The money could have been better spent on Harden, Coco Crisp, Chris Capuano (when figuring what’s left on a rough $100 million budget), or any number of players that represent either a clear upgrade to what’s in tow, or a better ideological direction for the team to take.

Marquis’ contract is virtually identical to the one the Twins handed Ramon Ortiz in 2007. Here’s to suggesting that’ll end in a similar fashion, with Liam Hendriks playing the role previously held by Matt Garza (young upstart who steals veteran’s spot).

So as you can see, TR has effectively worked a full count. As a team coming off such a disastrous campaign, it certainly needed more good moves than ‘meh’ ones. As a result, I think it makes for a decent, if simplistic approach to evaluating the Twins offseason. Now we wait, probably for the club to sign Dan Wheeler.

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In addition to Rotographs, Warne is a Minnesota Twins beat reporter for Cold Omaha as well as a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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