December 3, 2003
Don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out
A few weeks ago, in their first significant move of the off-season, the Minnesota Twins traded their starting catcher for the past three years, A.J. Pierzynski, to the San Francisco Giants. In my entry about the trade, I said the following:
"I have a feeling this Pierzynski-trade is just the start of what is going to be a pretty busy off-season for the Twins.
Eric Milton and Jacque Jones are the two names I hear in the most rumors. Milton is set to make $9 million next year, so getting his salary off the books would create a huge amount of flexibility for the Twins. I like Milton and I'd be sad to see him go, but he's certainly not worth $9 million dollars next year, especially not to a team with a $56 million-dollar payroll and an extremely tight budget.
With Jacque Jones, I suspect it is a question of a) how much Stewart is willing to sign for and b) whether Terry Ryan prefers Jones or Stewart as his left fielder for the next few years."
Since then, Latroy Hawkins signed a three-year deal with the Cubs Tuesday night and, yesterday, the Twins traded Eric Milton to the Phillies for Nick Punto, Carlos Silva and a Player to be Named Later. I'm also hearing strong rumors that Jacque Jones will be the next to go, possibly very soon.
Such is the life of a small-market team. Milton, Hawkins, Pierzynski and Jones have played in parts of 26 total seasons in the major leagues, every single one of them for the Minnesota Twins. They are also all still right in the middle of their "prime" years and, aside from Milton, none of them are exceptionally expensive. Yet, the Twins' budget did not have room for all of them, particularly not with Terry Ryan still being interested in bringing back Eddie Guardado and/or Shannon Stewart.
Strictly based on talent, these are bad moves. Eric Milton, A.J. Pierzynski, Latroy Hawkins and Jacque Jones are all good, established, veteran major league players. The players and draft picks the Twins are going to end up with in exchange for losing those four is not going to be equal value. The problem is that a team like the Twins, with a projected payroll of around $56 million next year, cannot make decisions based solely on talent.
Eric Milton is a good pitcher. He has a career record of 57-51 and his career ERA, adjusted to ballpark and league, has been about 1% better than league-average. At the same time, his lowest ERA in his five full-seasons is 4.32, he missed almost the entire 2003 season with a serious knee injury and he is set to make $9 million next season.
There are a lot of teams out there who are in a position where they can afford to pay $9 million for a slightly above-average pitcher with a knee problem. The Twins, for whom $9 million would take up about 16% of their projected payroll, are not one of those teams.
I suspect a lot of Twins fans will be saying stuff like "that's all we got for Milton?!" over the next few days. The fact is that simply not having Milton will give the Twins $9 million to play with this off-season and that in itself has a lot of value. I suspect Terry Ryan would have been willing to unload Milton's contract for nothing, if that's what the market for him was down to. Getting a utility infielder, a decent middle-reliever and a PTBNL for him is just an added bonus.
For all those who think the sky is falling because they are going to have to be without Milton next year, I would like to point out that Eric Milton pitched exactly 17 innings for the Twins in 2003. They can certainly win without him, and having that $9 million to spend elsewhere is going to help quite a bit. Part of that $9 million will likely be used to re-sign Eddie Guardado and whatever is left over may also be spent on trying to bring back Shannon Stewart, who would become the starting left fielder (assuming Jacque Jones is traded).
While I don't completely agree with all the moves Terry Ryan has made this off-season (I would have re-signed Hawkins over Guardado, for example), there is no doubt that he came up with a good plan of action for an off-season in which he was faced with a ton of difficult decisions. And, in the early going at least, it appears as though he has been able to execute the plan fairly well.
If/when Jones leaves, he will be "replaced" as the left fielder by Stewart.
Pierzynski was traded to San Francisco in part because of the need to shed some salary to possibly re-sign Stewart and Guardado. He will be replaced by Joe Mauer.
In the trade for Pierzynski, the Twins acquired Joe Nathan, who will replace Latroy Hawkins as the right-handed setup-man.
Eric Milton is sent to Philly, clearing $9 million for next year, which can be used to bring back Stewart and also Guardado. In the process, Ryan picks up a decent arm for the bullpen and a young utility infielder to replace Denny Hocking, another player who was let go because of money.
The only real question in regard to who the "replacements" will be is who will be asked to step into Milton's spot in the rotation. But really, Milton didn't even have a spot in the rotation last season, so in that sense he doesn't even need to be replaced. I have a feeling that at no point in the last six months or so did Terry Ryan have a rotation in his head for 2004 that included Eric Milton in it.
It is early in the off-season, we don't know for a fact that Jacque Jones is history, and the Twins could certainly still be waiting to make more moves. That said, right now the roster for next season should look something like this...
C Joe Mauer
1B Doug Mientkiewicz
2B Luis Rivas
SS Cristian Guzman
3B Corey Koskie
LF Shannon Stewart
CF Torii Hunter
RF Michael Cuddyer
DH Matthew LeCroy
Mauer will be a drop-off from the production Pierzynski provided for the last few years, I would almost be willing to guarantee that. And the outfield defense is no longer going to be great with Torii Hunter being flanked by Stewart and Michael Cuddyer.
Aside from that, there is little reason why that group can't be just as good as the group from last season. Mientkiewicz, Rivas, Guzman, Koskie and Hunter are returning. LeCroy should be the everyday DH from the start of the season, as opposed to last year, when he took over the role later in the year. If they are able to sign Stewart, he will be around for the whole year instead of just 65 games.
The biggest issues (aside from them having to actually re-sign Stewart yet) are going to be Cuddyer in right field and Mauer behind the plate. They're going to take a hit offensively with Mauer. With Cuddyer, I still think he has a chance to be a very good major league hitter, with an upside that looks similar to Tim Salmon. I honestly think that he simply needs to be given a chance to play everyday for more than a few weeks at a time, which is something the Twins have not allowed him to do yet.
Of course, along with the strong Jacque Jones' rumors, I have also heard some rumblings that Mientkiewicz is being shopped. If he goes, Justin Morneau would likely take over at first base. Looking at that above lineup, the one thing I wonder about is whether or not Terry Ryan could have squeezed someone like Chase Utley out of the Phillies. Who knows, maybe he has his eye on a second baseman on one of these teams he has been talking about Jacque Jones with. One can only hope.
SP Johan Santana
SP Brad Radke
SP Kyle Lohse
SP Grant Balfour
SP J.D. Durbin / ?????
That's not exactly set in stone beyond the top-three. Grant Balfour may or may not be given a shot as a starter. I really hope he is given the chance, because I think he will do a very good job. J.D. Durbin is my best guess for the final spot at the moment, although I have heard that they may sign veteran knuckleballer Steve Sparks, who could step into the rotation. As much as I'd love to watch a knuckleballer all year, the thought of Steve Sparks (4.88 ERA this year, 5.52 ERA in 2002) taking the hill every fifth day just doesn't do it for me.
Another option is to put Carlos Silva into Juan Rincon's "second-righty" role in the bullpen, allowing Rincon to take a shot in the starting rotation. I think Rincon has the stuff to be a starter, but I'd rather see him in the bullpen.
Since Milton barely pitched last year, essentially what they are replacing in the rotation is Kenny Rogers, Rick Reed and Joe Mays. Mays and Reed were both horrible last year, so replacing them and their combined ERA of 5.67 really shouldn't be all that difficult. Replacing Rogers will be tougher, because he had a pretty nice year, going 13-8 with a 4.57 ERA in 195 innings. Then there's still the possibility that Rogers could re-sign for another year, which would do a lot to solidify the rotation.
The Twins will also get a full-year in the rotation from The Official Pitcher of Aaron's Baseball Blog, Johan Santana, who was their best starter last year, but only made 18 starts. 12-15 more starts from Johan will do a lot of nice things for the pitching-staff.
CL Eddie Guardado
RH Joe Nathan
LH J.C. Romero
RH Juan Rincon
RH Carlos Silva
That's the core of the bullpen, assuming they re-sign Guardado. Essentially all they are doing is replacing Hawkins with Nathan. It's very likely Nathan will not pitch as well as Hawkins has over the last two seasons, simply because Hawkins has been incredible. Still, Nathan will do a good job setting up Guardado.
Would I have rather the Twins been able to hold onto Hawkins, Milton, Jones and Pierzynski, while also re-signing Stewart and Guardado? Of course. With $55 million though, decisions had to be made and good players had to leave. I'd say, all things considered, Terry Ryan has done a very good job. If the team they put on the field next year resembles the one I just outlined above, there is absolutely no reason why they can't win their third-straight AL Central division championship.
That's say a lot about the quality of the division, but it also says a lot about Minnesota's ability to fill major holes in the team, either through trades or the farm-system, all while working under a very tight budget. Of course, almost this entire entry assumes the Twins will, at some point in the near future, re-sign both Eddie Guardado and Shannon Stewart. If, for whatever reason, that doesn't happen, you can be sure I'll be changing my tune quite a bit.
Just because this whole being a fan of a small-market team with a tiny payroll thing is sort of getting to me this week, I would like to present to you what the New York Yankees' bullpen might possibly look like in 2004 (along with approximate salaries):
Mariano Rivera $10.9 million
Jose Contreras $9.0
Steve Karsay $5.0
Tom Gordon $3.7
Paul Quantrill $3.4
Chris Hammond $2.4
Felix Heredia $1.8
Jose Contreras may find himself in the starting rotation, depending on who else the Yankees sign this off-season, but you get the idea. Those seven guys will make a total of around $36.2 million next season. The entire Twins team is scheduled to make right around $56 million. But it's not like I'm bitter or anything.
Oh what it must feel like to be a Yankees fan each off-season...
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