by Troy M. Olson
Torii Hunter retired from baseball this week, bringing to an end an illustrious career in professional baseball. For the majority of his professional career Torii called Minnesota home. I would be lying if I said my usually analytical mind didn’t just shut off for awhile when he returned to the Twin Cities to finish off his career this season. He could have perhaps finally captured that elusive World Series title with Kansas City, but he came back home where it all started and joined a team that was coming off of four straight 90-plus loss seasons. No matter how we want to quantify the leadership that Hunter brought to the team, there was no denying this young and talented Twins club benefited both on and off the field from Hunter’s swan song. His retirement puts an end to a great playing career spent mostly with the Twins, with a five year stint in LA and two years in Detroit in between. I would not be surprised if Hunter was able to stay on the Hall of Fame ballot for five years or so.
Hunter’s departure leaves a hole in right field, which brings me to the first of many off-season speculations / plans. This one will be less in-depth since we still have not yet wrapped up the World Series.
I would categorize the biggest needs of the Twins entering the offseason as being:
- Beefing up the bullpen
- Finding a left-handed hitting catcher to platoon with Kurt Suzuki
- Find a replacement for Torii Hunter in right
What the Twins DO NOT need to do despite what many will want to do, or what conventional wisdom says:
- Free Agent Starting Pitching (based off of a pretty spotty recent track record of free agent SP signings)
- Shortstop (Eduardo Escobar has at least played well enough to go into 2016 as the everyday starter, and I would argue that he is a top-half of the league SS, given his experience at such a young age)
- Play Byron Buxton right out of spring training
Here would be my approach to the offseason:
- Keep things mostly status-quo. Despite a young and emerging team, the Twins do not have a lot of payroll room based on their allocated budget. They have a lot of young, cheap talent with more on the way mixed in with mediocre and costly over-30 year old players. Some will blame Mauer’s contract, but that is revisionist history. Add up the Santana and Nolasco contracts and you have a couple million more than Mauer. Santana was suspended and missed half of the year for steroid use and Nolasco missed more than half of the year via injury. Nolasco should not be given a scholarship, but should have to earn his way onto the rotation. If he does not:
- Move Nolasco to the Bullpen or try and package him with Trevor Plouffe in a trade. I like Plouffe a lot, but at age-30, he has probably reached his peak value. He is projected to make around 8 million via arbitration, an amount I think his performance backs up. He is a proven, slightly above average 3B who has improved his defense tremendously over the last three years. Sano replacing Plouffe at third would probably be a downgrade permanently on defense, and certainly would be in the short term, however, Sano had a Killebrew-esque debut at the plate and given the surplus of 1B/DH/Corner OF types on the 40-man roster, the Twins should strongly consider dealing from a position of strength, take the short term downgrade on defense, but upgrade offense at both 3B and DH in the process. Sano in the lineup as everyday 3B, combined with either Arcia or Vargas at DH gives the Twins two very young, power hitters that would balance the lineup out nicely.
- Sign Denard Span to play RF and leadoff. I think the Twins should take a page from what worked last year and try and replicate the Hunter reunion with another Twins player that was part of the Puckett to Hunter to Span, etc., unofficial “CF mentor-apprentice” program. This fills two needs. The Twins need to replace Hunter’s bat in RF, and they also badly need a consistent, everyday lead-off hitter. Span fits this role perfectly. Hunter was paid 11.5 million in 2015 and the Twins could probably sign Span of the same amount, spread out over multiple years of course (although they should go no further than 3 years with the offer). Span still has good speed for 31, had an amazingly underrated tenure with the Twins the first time around (patient approach to the plate + solid CF defense) and despite spending time on the DL this year, shows no immediate signs of regression. Slotting him in right field allows Aaron Hicks to maximize where his talent fits best with the Twins, hitting further down in the order, using his great speed in centerfield, and continuing to refine his approach at the plate without having to carry the leadoff role burden.
- Sign A.J. Pierzynski to platoon with Suzuki at catcher. A.J. is one of the most hated players in baseball, and maybe this would be the opposite of what Torii Hunter brought to the club house, but if you are also bringing in a guy like Span for a reunion, you’d have to think it would work out alright. A.J. has had a remarkably durable and consistently career at the games most demanding position. Who would have thought he would still be playing catcher a few years after Joe Mauer moved from the position. If you recall, after the 2003 Division Championship season, Pierzynski was traded to the Giants (in a coup that brought Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser to the organization) to make room for Mauer’s rookie season. The Twins lineup is also a little too right-handed heavy in a league with many solid to great right-handed pitchers. Adding some veteran lefty bats (Span and Pierzynski) who as of last year, seem to have plenty left in the tank, would address imbalance.
- Sign one, decent right-handed set-up arm for the back-end of the bullpen. This would give you three solid to great relievers at the back end of the bullpen in Glen Perkins, Kevin Jepsen, and said free agent. Does it make them the Royals bullpen overnight? No. But only the development of elite arms in the minors like Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, or Alex Meyer would do that to the bullpen. No need to overspend on a position that pitches no more than 70 innings per year. Between Span, AJ, and a right reliever — the Twins are spending no more than 22 million, which is about the amount that will be saved from the Hunter contract being off the books (11.5 million), trading Plouffe (8 million), and trading Nolasco (I will be conservative and say we pick up most of his contract to get the deal down, so the Twins only save 4 out of 12 million on this one).
A couple of impact moves added to a talented, young core. The early roster would then shake out like this, give or take…
25 Man Roster:
Span (RF), Dozier (2B), Mauer (1B), Sano (3B), Rosario (LF), Arcia/Vargas (DH), Pierzynski/Suzuki (C), Hicks (CF), Escobar (SS)
C – Pierzynski/Suzuki, UTIL – Nunez, UTIL – Santana, 1B/OF/DH – Arcia/Vargas
SP1 – Hughes, SP2 – E. Santana, SP3 – Gibson, SP4 – May, SP5 – Duffey
CL – Perkins, SU – Jepsen, SU – Free Agent/Trade, MR – Pressly, MR – Graham, MR – Tonkin Spot/LR – Milone
40 Man Roster that could make an impact:
Max Kepler, Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Jose Berrios, Alex Meyer, Erik Fryer, Mason Melotakis, Blaine Boyer (to name a few)
Designated for Assignment, not re-signed, taken off the 40-Man roster or given outright release:
Brian Duensing, Chris Herrmann, Shane Robinson, Casey Fien, Aaron Thompson, Doug Bernier, Neal Cotts, Ryan O’Rouke, A.J. Achter