Despite losing seven of their last ten, the Minnesota Twins are still in first place in the American League Central. The Tigers and Chicago White Sox have cut the Twins’ lead in the division to 0.5 and 1.5 games, respectively. As Joe Pawlikowski wrote earlier today, the Twins should not panic. They remain the most talented team in the division. However, the Twins have real competition at the moment, and should be looking to make improvements where they can at a reasonable cost.
Buy or Sell
The Twins should be looking to buy, but carefully. They do not have many obvious needs among their position players. The biggest “hole” is probably another middle infielder who can play third base. Nick Punto‘s glove largely makes up for his helplessness at the plate, but this is one place the Twins could use a real upgrade. Brendan Harris will return to his replacement-level self soon enough and Danny Valencia, at least at this point, doesn’t have the bat/glove combination to be a real improvement over Punto. While the Twins can probably get by with Punto at third, both shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Orlando Hudson having injury problems already this seasons. If Minnesota can obtain a decent third baseman it would allow Punto to fill in at third, second, and short when needed rather than having to resort to replacement-level scrubs like Harris and Matt Tolbert if another rash of injuries hits.
Another good idea might be trying to obtain a decent fourth outfielder, since Denard Span is Minnesota’s only competent defender out there — one shudders to think what might happen if he gets hurt. To be fair, a Michael Cuddyer–Delmon Young–Jason Kubel outfield (in whatever positional combination) might finally beat out the Matt Garza-and-Jason Bartlett-for-Delmon Young,*-Brendan Harris-and-Jason Pridie trade in terms of Twins-related Unintentional Comedy value.
* No, Delmon Young being about league average so far this season does not come close to making up for it. The fact that he’s being praised for an average performance only accentuates the hilarity of that trade. It is a credit to the Twins front office that they’ve been able to work around it.
To the surprise of no one who understands the value of relievers, the Twins have weathered the loss of Joe Nathan quite nicely. Jon Rauch and Matt Guerrier are good if unspectacular, and while the Twins could use another decent bullpen arm, they don’t have to make a desperation move.
The starting pitching has been strong, with a FIP under 4. Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker and Carl Pavano head up a rotation good enough to compete with any other in the Central, but a) things are really close, and b) they could improve it. If they could replace Nick Blackburn‘s innings with a league average starter, or perhaps even (given the right trade circumstances) Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt, Minnesota could really widen the gap between themselves and their divisional competitors, not to mention set themselves up with a strong playoff rotation.
On the Farm
According to Beyond the Box Score’s pre-season aggregate farm system rankings, the Twins have the 12th best farm system in the major leagues. They have some very high upside position players like Aaron Hicks, Ben Revere, and Miguel Sano in various levels of the system, as well as their usual bevy of potential middle-of-the-rotation strike throwers. Danny Valencia has a chance to be an adequate starting third baseman down the road. Their most obvious prospect trading chip is catcher Wilson Ramos, who is probably a league average catcher at worst, and maybe much more than that. More importantly, he might be the most “blocked” player around baseball at the moment. The Twins shouldn’t give him up for just anything, but they should be shopping him for the right deal. If they crave an impact pitcher, Minnesota will have to give up more than just Ramos. It’s tough to imagine them trading Hicks or Sano, but if the right offer is on the table, flags fly forever…
At about $98 million dollars, the Twins are hardly the small payroll team of the past, thanks to the taxpayer generosity. They don’t have much money coming off the books in 2011, and Joe Mauer is getting a big raise. There are also decisions about options and/or arbitration raises to be made for players like Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and J.J. Hardy, among others. Moroever, unless Hudson (free agency) and Hardy (arbitration) are retained, the Twins will probably have to replace them with free agents. So unless they plan on raising their payroll significantly in 2011 (and they may very well, I don’t know), any pieces they acquire in trade this season probably shouldn’t require them to commit to much more money in 2011.