So far this year, the Minnesota Twins are playing .514 baseball at 55-52, projecting to a final record of 84-78 on the year. That's about their true talent level this year, too; at 501 runs scored and 480 allowed, they're hitting their Pythagorean projection perfectly, and no particular player is having a particularly bad year by his own standards, with the possible, slight exception of Joe Mauer.
So, the Twins aren't really a playoff team, not in the American League, anyway. And that's with the best pitcher in baseball, one Johan Santana, on the team.
Santana will not be on the team any longer in 2009. Yes, you might want to quibble with that fact, but you're indulging wishful thinking to suppose otherwise. You want to see Santana re-up with the Twins. Anything but go to the... Y... Y...
But it isn't happening. The probability of Johan Santana being a Minnesota Twin come opening day 2009 is about 0.01%. It's the raw, painful financial truth of the matter: Barry Zito got 7 years, $126 million. What do you think Johan freakin' Santana is going to get out on the market? I think 8 years, $170 million is a fair over/under. Yes, I know that would be an insane contract to give any pitcher. But I wouldn't rule out 8/200, even 9/210 for Santana. He's been the undisputed best pitcher in baseball for four years running. Every team on planet earth wants more pitching. You do the math.
Bottom line, the Yankees are going to pay Santana whatever it takes to sign him; it's going to take 200 million dollars or something very close to it, because the Red Sox and Mets and Dodgers and Angels are also going to want him; and the Twins simply can't afford it. You can make a good argument, as I would, that the Twins shouldn't sign Santana to that kind of contract, even if they could.
The Twins have a few good young pitchers that you may have heard of. Matt Garza. Boof Bonser. Scott Baker. Kevin Slowey. Francisco Liriano coming back from elbow reconstruction. By 2009, the very rosiest scenario is that those guys a) all stay healthy, and b) all significantly improve over where they are right now. Then, taken together, they'd be able to replace Santana's production and the Twins would break even on the pitching side of the ledger. But how likely is that? I'd put the chances somewhere between “flying cow” and “snowball's chance in hell.” Pick any five young pitchers, at random, and the chances are basically nil that, two years later, none of them will have suffered a serious injury.
The Twins' lineup is extremely top-heavy, I mean extremely. Remove Torii Hunter—which is the likely case as soon as this season is over—and the Twins are left with precisely three quality hitters on the roster: Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Mike Cuddyer. There's no position-player help in the system, now that Alexi Casilla's up.
Without Santana, the Twins, as currently constructed, are done. 2008 is their last hurrah for another year or two after that. Translation: It's time for Terry Ryan, and Carl Pohlad, to decide what to do, right now.
He has three options:
Bet It All On 2008
We can't even say for certain that this is an option, because it would require convincing ownership to open up the purse. 2008 is the last season Johan Santana is going to be a Minnesota Twin; you aren't going to be able to compete in 2009 without Santana and Torii Hunter on the team.
If the Twins are going to try their level best to win that elusive championship in 2008, re-signing Torii Hunter is essential. Pay whatever it takes; explain to him that you're pushing hard for a championship right now, and want him to be part of it. It'll take a huge contract, but he'll sign. After you've made your 2008 push, and particularly if it falls short, you can trade him off. You're assuming the risk that he blows his shoulder in 2008 or something and you get saddled with the contract, but you get insurance on the contract. Even if you have to give him a no-trade clause, after you've partially gutted the team post-2008 it won't be hard to convince him to accept a trade.
There's still more work to do after that, and it's going to have to be done by shelling out money on the free-agent market and/or trading away your few remaining non-major-league prospects. The Twins need more hitters than just the Big Three and Cuddyer. They need a shortstop. They desperately need a third baseman. They need one more corner outfielder. To take a serious run at a title, they need to fill at least two of these holes. They already missed a chance to fill one of them on the cheap, and yes, here I am thinking of Morgan Ensberg; but the point is, these holes need filled, and the Twins need to pay to fill them if that's what it takes.
Who might be available? At shortstop, the pickings are slim: David Eckstein is probably going to be the best free agent shortstop available, and I can't especially recommend anybody pay $5 million a year for a below-average shortstop, which is what Eckstein is these days. But hey, he's gritty and dirty and hard-nosed and maybe the Twins will just go ga-ga for him.
Third base? It's not much better. There's Mike Lowell, but you never know which Mike Lowell you're getting if you give him the 3/30 or so contract he's going to be after. That's really about it; Cesar Izturis is probably the next-best player at the position who's going to be out there.
Corner outfield? That's where they need to make their move. In fact, they should be signing two, maybe three corner outfields with bats, since they have a DH slot they haven't made use of in years as well as an open hole in left field. Bobby Abreu may be available—the Yankees have a $16 million option on him, but that may be a tad much even for him—and if he is, the Twins should make every reasonable effort to ink him. You could bet on Jermaine Dye being healthier, but the odds are stacked against you. Milton Bradley is a guy the Twins should definitely go after, provided he doesn't murder anyone between now and January (an open question at this point). Convincing Kosuke Fukudome to come see the beautiful Great Lakes would likely work about as well as it worked on Yi Jianlian, so that's probably not an option. His availability does increase the probability of Abreu's availability, though.
It looks bleak, but keep in mind that things change, and by winter there's likely to be somebody available, either through free agency or by trade, that can bolster the Twins. Improving at the margins should not be difficult: If they keep Hunter and sign an impact player like Abreu, it should not be hard to improve at the margins, by which I mean find relatively cheap players who can improve upon the likes of Nick Punto and Jason Tyner and Jason Bartlett.
Now is the time. The Twins can't hold anything back.
Fold and Look to the Next Hand
This could become Terry Ryan's only really viable option in two scenarios, both uncomfortably likely: One, Pohlad doesn't let loose another dime for a championship chase; and two, if there just isn't anything to be had on the market this winter.
In this scenario, you let Hunter walk and grab the draft picks. Then you do the really, really painful thing: You trade Johan Santana.
The truth of the matter is, unless they do something along the lines of what I outlined above, the Twins have very little chance of making the playoffs in 2008. Yes, the young pitchers could improve, but then, they might not; and with the terrible lineup after the big three and no signs of improvement, the Twins just aren't going to improve much over what they already are. Everything breaks right, they win 92 or so, which probably isn't enough to get it done in a division that includes the Indians and Tigers and a league that also features the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels. More likely not everything breaks right, and they wind up in the 82-86 range, same as they're in this year, and then Santana leaves and it's lights out.
An open auction for Johan Santana's services, if his GM has any kind of competence—and Terry Ryan does—should yield one of the all-time great hauls. Played properly, the Twins absolutely should be able to parlay Santana into a treasure chest full of young goodies. I strongly suspect they could clean the Dodgers' clocks out, in particular, in a Santana trade, given Uncle Ned's irrational hatred of all baseball players younger than Nomar Garciaparra and irrational fondness for pitching. Every contending team in baseball would be bidding on his services. The best time to trade him is over the winter—never trust any pitcher to not tweak his elbow before July rules around.
The Twins don't really have any other assets anyone else would especially want, although of course in any situation like this, if you don't at least give Dave Littlefield a call, you just aren't doing due diligence. But they do have all those young pitchers, and given that you're going to lose Santana anyway, if you can turn him into, say, Andy LaRoche, James Loney, Chad Billingsley and another couple decent minor leaguers—and no, I don't think that trade's out of the realm of possibility, not given that it's not far off from what the Dodgers were talking about trading for Mark Teixiera—you open the window to be competitive again as soon as 2009.
It's a hard sell to the season ticket holders, I know. But in the long run, it's far healthier than letting him walk away and bagging the Yankees' first-round pick—which will be the last pick of the round, or very close to it—and a compensatory pick.
That leaves one more scenario:
What the Twins Will Actually Do
...which is, of course, the same things all GMs do in this ridiculously risk-averse era: nothing.
Ryan, perhaps with ownership's, shall we say, guidance, will conclude two things: First, he can't trade Santana without excessively angering the season-ticket holders, and second, a Santana trade is just too risky; if the young players he gets back don't pan out, it would damage Ryan's career. (Classic case of the GM putting his own interests ahead of his employer's interests, which has become an epidemic in modern baseball management.) The safe thing for the modern GM to do is nothing, even if, as it is in the Twins' case, doing nothing is a near-guaranteed path to three or four years of irrelevance.
And let the record show, also, that while he's nowhere near the insanity of Sabean and his comical sidekick Ned, Terry Ryan's not especially fond of young players himself.
I think the Twins are smart enough to know they have no chance of re-signing Santana, so they'll make a strong effort at re-signing Hunter, and they just may succeed, since none of the other big-money teams are really hurting for a center fielder. They'll cross their fingers on their young pitchers and hope Mauer and Morneau reprise their ridiculous 2006 seasons. It won't work, they'll win about 80 without Hunter or 86-87 with him, Santana will don the pinstripes, and the Twins will be mediocrities for the rest of the decade, at least.
Twins fans, now is the time to write in to Terry Ryan and to your local papers and reassure your front office that, if they can't lay out the money to go for it in 2008, trading Johan Santana is the best thing for the team. I know you desperately want to keep him; I know it just isn't fair that your team comes up with a devastating, awesome, Hall of Fame pitcher, and the economics of the sport dictate that you can't keep him, that he has to go to the Yankees. But you can't change the economics. You have to do the best work you can within their framework. If the Twins aren't willing or able to significantly improve the team for 2008, keeping Santana all year and letting him walk away makes no sense at all.
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