It’s only May 17th, but for the Minnesota Twins, the 2011 season is essentially over. Losers of nine straight, they now stand just 12-27 and are 13 1/2 games behind the first place Indians. They’ve been atrocious at nearly every aspect of the game; they rank last in wOBA and last in xFIP, a pretty awful combination. Even the eventual return of Joe Mauer won’t be enough to right the ship – there are just too many problems to overcome to save this season, and the Twins need to start playing for 2012 and beyond.
The problem is that I’m not sure how much they can actually do. For most teams, when they fall out of the race they promote youngsters from the farm and put the veterans on the trade block to try and add a few prospects to the organization. The Twins don’t really have all that much in the way of interesting assets to sell off, though.
They’ll be able to move Jim Thome when he gets back from the disabled list, but he’s a 40-year-old DH, so the market for him will be limited. The other veterans in the final year of their contract are Michael Cuddyer, Joe Nathan, Jason Kubel, and Matt Capps, and of those, only Kubel is likely to have any trade value at the moment – the other three have salaries that all outweigh any positive value they contribute on the field. Moving Kubel might not generate much of a return in a trade either, since they’ll essentially be marketing him to the same teams they’re selling Jim Thome to and effectively giving prospective buyers a choice of which left-handed DH they prefer.
If the Twins are willing to eat most of the remaining money due to Nathan and Capps, they’ll be able to find new homes for their closers, but a little bit of salary relief is probably the best thing they can hope for in return. Cuddyer might not even bring them that. There is no prospect bonanza coming when they initiate a sell-off.
Beyond that, though, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot the Twins can do besides hope that key players improve. They’re committed to Justin Morneau through 2013 at $15 million per season, so replacing him isn’t really an option; they just have to hope he gets back some degree of what he had before the concussion. Likewise, there’s not much to be done with Francisco Liriano except hope he finds his velocity and command again – he has tanked his trade value at this point, and the team now needs to spend the rest of the year figuring out if he’s worth offering arbitration to at season’s end.
Finally, there’s the elephant in the room – Joe Mauer’s future. More than anything else, this issue will determine how long the franchise’s rebuilding might actually take. If Mauer can get back to being a regular catcher who can withstand the rigors of a full Major League season, then there might be hope that this drought could be a one year thing. The Twins will have money to spend this winter, still have the pieces of what could be a decent pitching staff in place, and having a healthy Mauer behind the plate would provide a huge boost to the offense.
But if they determine that Mauer is going to have to switch positions sooner than later, than this year presents an opportunity for them to make the switch. Rather than forcing him back behind the plate when he returns, they could use him as a DH and give him time at third base between games. If he becomes comfortable enough with the position, Danny Valencia isn’t someone you worry about displacing, and the team could give Mauer some time towards the end of the year to see if the position switch would work for him.
At least then the organization would be able to make long term arrangements at those positions. If Mauer’s situation is still up in the air, they can’t really pursue permanent solutions at spots that he might need to move to, forcing them to continue on with transitional players at 3B, DH, and possibly in a corner outfield. They’re also not going to acquire an upgrade over the likes of Drew Butera if the plan remains for Mauer to return to catching, but that leaves them in the same position they are now – without a real alternative if it doesn’t work.
Ideally, there would be better options for the Twins than experimenting with a position change for their best player, hoping their highly paid first baseman recovers quickly and dumping veterans for cost savings, but there are no easy fixes for this roster. The problems in Minnesota run deep, and without some good fortune, they might not be able to turn this thing around all that quickly.