The World Series is underway, and Twins fans can't help but think about what might have been. If only the hometown team could beat the Yankees. If only they had a true ace on the pitching staff. If only they had one more bat in the lineup. If... if... if...
While we ponder what might have been, the front office is already in the middle of trying to turn those wishes into reality. Five days after the Series ends, players can begin filing for free agency, and we're less than three weeks away from the General Manager's and Owner's Meetings. Moves are happening already; the Twins team that reports to Spring Training in just over four months is already being constructed.
Unlike last year, though, the finances are looking a bit tight. For the first time in memory, in 2009 the Twins seemed to have nothing but extra cash to spend; they extended Joe Mauer's contract, brought in big-name free agents like Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome, and traded for established players like J.J. Hardy, Matt Capps, and Brian Fuentes.
In 2010, things aren't looking so flush. Minnesota already has about $92 million committed (give or take, depending on a few contracts), and so will probably only be able to spend $15-20 million to bring in players. The front office has many decisions to make - and in my view, here are the most important ones they'll consider.
1) Overpay to retain guys in the bullpen - or save the money and spend elsewhere?
The playoff bullpen consisted of six pitchers - Jose Mijares, Capps, Fuentes, Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, and Matt Guerrier. The latter four of these are all free agents, and Capps is eligible for arbitration (and will likely command a pretty penny should the team offer him arbitration.)
Joe Nathan will be returning from Tommy John surgery, but will he be effective? Capps and Fuentes have closing experience, but either could cost upwards of $7 million. Guerrier, Rauch, and Crain might come cheaper - in the $3-4 million range - but that's an awful lot of money to spend on a middle reliever, especially when the team doesn't have too much to spend.
On the flip side, if the Twins let all five walk, they're faced with an almost laughably unproven bullpen. Nathan and Mijares would be the two mainstays, Pat Neshek could make a return (though he wasn't particularly dominating after battling injuries again in 2010), and after that you're into guys like Alex Burnett and Anthony Slama that had bad-to-very-bad years in limited major-league experience this year.
There are cost savings available out in the bullpen. But how much risk is the team willing to take?
2) Who's going to play in the middle of the infield?
Second baseman Orlando Hudson is a free agent, is looking for a multi-year deal, and is almost certainly gone. Shortstop J.J. Hardy is under team control, but is likely to get $5 or $6 million in arbitration. Alexi Casilla - he of the strange propensity for clutch hits, but a .249 career batting average - is likely to play second next year, but he's usually in trouble with the team coaches for one perceived issue or another. And at shortstop, if not Hardy, there's nobody. (Well, the team could probably get Nick Punto back, but I'm guessing you're screaming at your screen right now in horror, so forget I said anything.)
The front office needs to decide who, if anyone, they want to retain up the middle - and, in Hardy's case, if they can afford a guy who plays very good defense but who couldn't stay healthy and is coming off two weak years at the plate.
3) Can the Twins afford to bring back the Pavstache?
Carl Pavano is a free agent, but there's a catch - he's a Type A free agent, which means that if the Twins offer him arbitration and he declines, any team that signs him would have to give the Twins a first- or second-round draft pick. If the Twins don't offer him arbitration, he'll sign elsewhere for more than one year and decent money - but if they do, and he accepts, he's likely to make $10 million or more next year.
Pavano was solid for the Twins in both late 2009 and in 2010. That said, the team has five other starters - Francisco Liriano, Brian Duensing, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, and Kevin Slowey - already ready to go for 2011. One of those five would have to move to the bullpen - or out of the organization, via trade - if Pavano returned.
The Twins might be able to get another year of Pavano and his wonderful mustache for $10 million. But can they afford to spend half of their budget on one player - especially since they have five starters already on the roster?
4) Can the Twins afford to bring back Jim Thome?
Thome signed for just $1.5 million last year, then bashed 25 homers to lead the team (and in just 340 plate appearances). Thome's price tag has gone up for 2011, perhaps as high as $4 million. He's great and everybody loves him, but he'll also turn 41 next year, and the Twins already have regular DH candidates in Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. Can they afford to bring back the slugger in 2011?
5) Should the team sell the farm to try to get an ace (like Kansas City's Zack Greinke)?
Much has been made of the Royals' potential willingness to deal their young ace, who won the Cy Young in 2009 and is under contract until 2012. Many people saw the news and thought about just how good Grienke might look in a Twins uniform for a couple of years.
However, fans of about 19 different teams said the same thing about their own teams, and the Royals know just what a good thing they have on their hands. They may choose to wait for the market to built itself up - say, until the trading deadline in late July. They may continue to try to sign him to a long-term deal, which might make them unwilling to part with him as soon as this off-season. And the price could be too unimaginably high; would the Twins really deal multiple top prospects for two years or less of a starting pitcher?
Many saw the post-season success of the teams with aces - Tim Lincecum, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia - and decided that the Twins needed one of their own, instead of hoping for Liriano to become that pitcher. But is the price too high?
The Twins are positioned for another run at a division title in 2011 - but first, they need to find a middle infield, a bullpen, and a few veterans. The free-agent market will no doubt be active - but Minnesota has questions from within to answer first.
NOTE: This article would have been much worse and much more incorrect if it weren't for the 2010-11 TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook, as written by the outstanding TwinsCentric quartet - John Bonnes, Nick Nelson, Parker Hageman, and Seth Stohs. If you're at all interested in this stuff, I highly recommend that you go over to http://twinscentric.blogspot.com/ and get your copy now.