Although offense has hardly been a problem for the Twins here in the early going, finding a viable solution at shortstop remains a top-ranking priority for the long-term success of the club.
It's one of the most important positions on the field and it's been a frustrating problem area for this franchise for many years. Rarely has the deficiency at short been more noticeable than it is now, with Pedro Florimon batting .115 and sporting a horrendous .366 OPS.
At a position where the offensive expectations are relatively low, Florimon has been beyond inadequate. The lowest qualifying OPS for a shortstop is Zach Cozart's .473 in Cincinnati; that still beats Florimon's present mark by more than 100 points.
No amount of defensive aptitude makes up for that kind of anemic production at the plate. The Twins need to upgrade. And what's most worrisome is that they don't really have any appealing replacement candidates lined up, now or in the remotely near future.
Eduardo Nunez doesn't field well enough to be a regular MLB shortstop, especially on a contact-heavy staff that induces lots of ground balls. After a strong offensive showing in spring camp, the defensively erratic Danny Santana is hitting .268 with a sub-.700 OPS in Triple-A. Jorge Polanco, whose bat looks far more promising, is currently at Single-A and he has committed 11 errors in 21 games at short, suggesting that his glove is a long way from big-league ready (I still think he ends up at second).
So if the Twins are truly interested in addressing their shortstop problem with authority, they need to look outside the organization. To that end, Stephen Drew has been a popular name
. He's still sitting out there in free agency as clubs have scoffed at the idea of meeting his asking price while also giving up a high draft pick.
Here's the problem with trying to sign Drew: either you try to make it happen now, which would require forfeiting a second-round pick in this June's draft, or you make a play for him after the draft, which would remove the pick compensation from the equation but would force you to compete with many other teams who will also be bidding more aggressively.
And here's the bigger problem: it's not clear that Drew is all that good.
Last year he was a solid offensive contributor, hitting .253/.333/.443 with 13 homers. Quality production from a shortstop, and perhaps quite enticing if you believe he'll match it year in and year out.
But in the two seasons prior, Drew hit just .238/.313/.373 with 12 home runs total. He strikes out a ton. And he's already on the wrong side of 30. While he's almost certain to be an upgrade over Florimon, Drew doesn't strike me as being worthy of a sizable investment.
So if you want to take the free agency approach, the alternative is to wait it out until the offseason. Try to find some workable stopgap for the rest of this year -- whether that's Santana, Nunez, Eduardo Escobar, or someone else -- and then put some of those hefty cash reserves to use.
Who will be available? Let's take an early glance:
Asdrubal Cabrera, CLE
Cabrera hasn't been able to back up his breakout campaign in 2011, when he was an All-Star and Silver Slugger with 25 homers and 92 RBI. His numbers have sagged in each of the last two seasons and this year he has really struggled to get going. He also isn't considered a particularly great defender.
However, he's still only 28, and even with his numbers dropping off in the past two campaigns he has still managed to total 30 homers with a .732 OPS that is perfectly solid for a shortstop. He's also almost certain to be available, since Cleveland will be transitioning to top prospect Francisco Lindor soon.
In fact, if Lindor (currently in Double-A) forces the issue it's possible that the Twins could pull off a midseason trade for Cabrera and then work out an extension.
Hanley Ramirez, LAD
Here's an interesting name. Ramirez was one of the best hitters in the league last year and garnered MVP votes despite playing only 86 games. He's raking again here in April, with an .857 OPS and a league-leading 11 doubles.
There were some reports earlier this spring that the Dodgers and Ramirez were talking extension but it's been all quiet since. If the 30-year-old does hit the market, he's sure to be very expensive but he has the potential to be an offensive centerpiece and one of the most dramatic upgrades imaginable.
J.J. Hardy, BAL
The Twins misguidedly dumped Hardy after the 2010 season because they wanted to change directions and go with Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who they felt better fit their shortstop mold. Hardy has since won two Gold Gloves and bashed 77 homers in three seasons with the Orioles.
It was, without question, one of the most blatantly and inexcusably horrendous personnel decisions this organization has ever made, but there's no use dwelling on it. The question at this point is whether it would be worth exploring the idea of bringing Hardy back.
The answer is probably not. He'll be 32 after this season and although his purported lack of traditional athleticism hasn't stopped him from being a high-end shortstop over the past three years, it might be a sign that he won't age particularly well.
Plus, would Hardy really want to return to a team that clearly never valued him as they should have?
Jed Lowrie, OAK
Lowrie is currently making $5.25 million in his final year of arbitration, and is set to hit free agency for the first time in the offseason. He's been a very good hitter in each of the last two years and has looked phenomenal in the early weeks this season, with a .286/.423/.429 slash line that is driven in part by a 13/20 K/BB ratio.
He's a switch-hitter with a consistently successful track record, and he's only 30. He's also highly unlikely to re-up in Oakland, with top prospect Addison Russell on the way and the A's typically averse to big-money deals.
There are a few older and less interesting names slated to be available, such as Jimmy Rollins, Rafael Furcal and Mike Aviles, but those mentioned above are the ones worth focusing on. Assuming that those guys don't sign extensions, they'll comprise one of the more intriguing free agent shortstop crops in recent memory.
With the Twins grasping for answers at the position, and likely to be working with an enormous cash surplus, the timing could hardly be better.