On Wednesday, the Detroit Tigers signed former Twins outfielder Torii Hunter to a two-year, $26 million contract. On the surface, the Tigers paid a ton for his charisma, leadership and veteran status. Although he had a terrific 2012 season, including the first .300+ batting average season of his career, there is a lot of risk in signing an outfielder who will be 39 years old when the contract ends.
That said, my first thought when I heard the news was that it cemented in my mind the need for the Twins to build for 2014 or even 2015. The comment was met with mixed emotions and plenty of comments on both sides.
Was the signing of Torii Hunter that big for the Tigers? No. The Tigers were head-and-shoulders the favorite in the AL Central even before the acquisition of the former Gold Glover. Adding Hunter got me thinking about the Tigers roster again. I think it is safe to say that Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are really good hitters. Austin Jackson and Hunter will comprise two-thirds of the outfield with Andy Dirks, Brennan Boesch, and young Avisail Garcia. Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, and Danny Worth will round out a very strong lineup. Then there is the starting rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello is a pretty good starting point. Will they bring back Anibal Sanchez? Their bullpen is stacked even when they let closer Jose Valverde leave via free agency. Will they hand a starting job to Drew Smyly or the closer role to Bruce Rondon?
Sure, the wild card could come from the AL Central, but considering the A’s, Angels and Rangers in the AL West, and the five strong teams in the AL East, it seems unlikely. (Yes, about as unlikely as the A’s and O’s being playoff teams in 2012.)
So, what does “build for 2015” mean to me? To some, it could be a fire sale like the Marlins did. It doesn’t have to though. Here are some of the things it means for me:
I completely agree with Terry Ryan that building via free agency is not the best way. That isn’t to say that free agency isn’t important. Of course it is. However, if I’m looking to being a contender in 2015, there is little need to spend a ton of money on older, expensive pitchers like Ryan Dempster.
It can mean using the free agent market to acquire two types of players. First, the Twins can sign decent players who can fill a short-term role. If they do it well, they can be traded at the July deadline for more talent. Terry Ryan had success with this strategy in his previous time as GM. He traded signed Dave Hollins to be his primary 3B in 1996, and in August, he traded him to Seattle for David Ortiz. Roberto Kelly was turned into Joe Mays. JC Romero became Alexi Casilla.
I also think that the Twins can still build for 2015 by making a big splash in free agency this season. (Not that I think they will, just that they could.) They could go after a big name, top of the rotation starter and give him four or five years. The name? Anibal Sanchez. Why? He is looking for a long-term deal, and he is just 28 years old. Most free agents are 31-32 years old. The best of those get three year deals. As he is just 28, maybe a six year deal would be OK. The risk is certainly higher, but it would be a way of telling the fan base that there is a plan, and Anibal Sanchez is going to help us get there. Of course, Twins fans also have to acknowledge that it takes two sides to make a deal. The Twins can go after Sanchez, but Sanchez would have to be willing to sign with a team that has lost 95 or more games each of the past two seasons. How much would the Twins have to overpay to acquire an impact pitcher like Sanchez?
Beyond the trades mentioned above which generally will bring back low-level prospects, if the Twins are trying to build for 2015, they will likely need to trade some players. In order to bring back the best return, it is important to trade players at peak value rather than holding on to them for too long.
The Twins have a few guys that they could consider trading this offseason. It’s hard because they are players that Twins fans know, and they would be traded for players that many fans do not know much about. When the Twins traded Chuck Knoblauch, few Twins fans know much about Eric Milton or Cristian Guzman. When All Star catcher AJ Pierzynski to the Giants, Joe Nathan had one good year as a reliever under his belt, Boof Bonser was a decent prospect, and Francisco Liriano was an injury-prone pitcher in Low A ball.
Josh Willingham is coming off of the best season of his career. He could bring back a couple of quality players. Seeing that Torii Hunter got $13 million a year for two years, the market for outfielders is clearly a bit crazy. Willingham’s two years and $14 million (Total) has to look very attractive to teams looking for right-handed power.
The same can be said for Denard Span whose contract, when compared to what teams are likely to shell out for Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino and Angel Pagan, is very team-friendly.
What has been encouraging is reading rumors about the Twins interest in trading for young pitchers like Trevor Bauer (Diamondbacks), Danny Hultzen (Mariners) and some of the Braves young pitchers like Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran. The pitchers all have high ceilings and only Minor has anywhere near a full year of big league service time. Those are exactly the types of pitchers the Twins should be feverishly attempting to acquire.
This is the most important piece to building a team that can compete for years to come. The Twins did a terrific job of player development from about 1999 through about 2007. It was a system that started with several young players coming up together and then a player or two coming up and contributing each year. It started with the Hunter, Jones, Mientkiewicz, Koskie, Guzman, Pierzynski group that we enjoyed so much. Johan Santana came to the team in 2000. They were joined by Michael Cuddyer in 2002, Justin Morneau in 2003, and Joe Mauer and Jesse Crain debuted in 2004. Jason Kubel debuted in 2004 as well, but his knee injury meant that he missed 2005. Scott Baker came up in 2005, and Francisco Liriano came up late that season. Matt Garza and Pat Neshek came up in 2006.
The Twins minor league pipeline seemed to have an unending supply of impact players. For whatever reason, that has not been the case in recent years, but there are some players working their way up the Twins system that we can be excited about. Some will be up in 2013, some more in 2014 and guys like Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario could be up in 2015. The entire goal is to develop and find out which players can be counted on for the second half of 2014 and 2015. It isn’t to rush them to the big leagues, but it is to make sure when they come up, they are ready.
The Twins have to find out what they have in Chris Parmelee. They still need to find out what Trevor Plouffe can be. Can Brian Dozier play shortstop, or will he move to second base? Can Pedro Florimon hit at all? Can Chris Herrmann fill the same role for the Twins in the future that Ryan Doumit filled in 2012? Scott Diamond, Liam Hendriks and Kyle Gibson all need to get innings in 2013 to see if they factor into the 2014/2015 planning. Could lefty Pedro Hernandez be this year’s Scott Diamond? Getting Adrian Salcedo and Alex Wimmers healthy for 2014 is important. Does Eduardo Escobar have the tool set to be the Twins utility player for the next half-decade? Those can be answered starting in 2013 and into 2014.
In 2014, we should hear about names such as BJ Hermsen, Logan Darnell and maybe Levi Michael. If uber-prospect Miguel Sano were to be exactly on the Joe Mauer path, we would see him in 2014, although 2015 makes more sense for him, Eddie Rosario, and some of those hard-throwing relievers drafted in 2012. Maybe we’ll even see Byron Buxton and J.O. Berrios. In 2016, Max Kepler, Niko Goodrum, Hudson Boyd, Travis Harrison and other names we aren’t even aware of will start appearing. That’s how you build a long-term contender. They have to hit (and get lucky) on their high draft picks, and they have to sign well in the international market as well.
If you’re going to rebuild it, they need to do it right. That doesn’t have to mean completely blow it up. It does mean being smart in free agency and in making trades, keeping an eye on the future as much as the present. It is always remembering that player acquisition through the draft and through international signings ill always be crucial, and then it is necessary for those players to develop their potential.
I’m a Twins fan, first and foremost. They could lose 100 games in 2013 and I will be right back and cheering for them again in 2014. I would like to understand the thought-process and the plan. That said, the front office shouldn’t be expected to say, “We’re trying to compete in 2015.” They should make some moves and hope they get a little bit lucky and give Twins fans some good baseball in 2013. If I’ve learned anything from the last two seasons, it’s much more fun watching a competitive team all regular season than watching a team that is out of contention by Memorial Day. That said, I also have to be realistic after two such poor seasons. I want hope for the future. I’d like to see improvement in 2013. I’d like to see a team that starts to really play well and come together as a young unit in 2014. And I want to see a team that is contending for the AL Central title in 2015, and 2016, and 2017, and, and… you get my point.