January 29, 2009

Twins Notes: No Relief, More Kubel, Tons of WBC

  • Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Twins pulled out of contract talks with Eric Gagne "just when Gagne was ready to meet their price." Back in November one of my entries listed Gagne among a handful of low-cost bullpen targets and suggested offering him a one-year deal worth "$3 million plus incentives." It turns out that was right on the money, because Christensen notes that Gagne "was willing to sign a one-year, $3 million deal with about $500,000 in incentives."

    Failing to sign Gagne is far from the end of the world, but dating back to the middle of last season the Twins' refusal to add even one capable reliever has been maddening. The bullpen unraveled after Pat Neshek was lost for the season in May and completely collapsed down the stretch, ultimately costing the Twins a trip to the playoffs. Not only did the Twins fail to fill an obvious hole via trade, they've since watched as quality setup men come off the board cheaply all offseason.

    Christensen speculates that the Twins are "exploring trade options for bullpen help" after failing to sign Gagne, so there's still hope that Smith will add a useful reliever. In the meantime he's missed out on myriad chances to address a weak spot for a fraction of the Twins' unused payroll. Along with Gagne, my November entry about low-cost bullpen targets suggested Jeremy Affeldt, Brandon Lyon, and Will Ohman while noting that Russ Springer and Bob Howry would be worthwhile if not offered arbitration.

    Gagne and Ohman remain unsigned, but none of the four who have been snatched up received more than $4.25 million in guaranteed money for 2009 and guys like Takashi Saito and Joe Nelson signed for much less. For around $4 million the Twins could have added a capable veteran to a bullpen that struggled mightily for most of last season and that may haunt them unless Smith pulls off a good trade in the next month. Considering that Smith's next good trade will also be his first, I'm skeptical.

  • Jason Kubel's contract extension finally became official more than a week after first being reported, so we now know that he'll make $2.75 million this year and $4.1 million in 2010, with the Twins holding a $5.1 million option or $350,000 buyout for 2011. This offseason the market for corner outfielders and designated hitters has seemingly dried up quite a bit as teams perhaps realize that the combination of a non-elite bat and limited glove can be fairly easily replaced.

    With that in mind two of my favorite analysts, Rob Neyer and David Cameron, have suggested that the Twins are making a mistake by locking up Kubel. Neyer and Cameron are correct that it isn't especially tough for most teams to find a reasonably priced corner outfielder or designated hitter who can post an .800 OPS in a semi-platoon role, but finding Kubel-caliber hitters has been tougher for the Twins than most teams and there's also a very real possibility that he still has plenty of room left to grow.

    A two-season, $7 million commitment to a 27-year-old who's emerged as the team's third-best hitter is hardly a big risk. Plus, having the option to keep Kubel around for his age-29 season will come in very handy if he bumps up his production, and even if he stays in the .800 OPS range a $5 million price tag will be reasonable (and tradable) in 2011. He's bounced back from a major knee injury to become an asset in a power-starved lineup and the Twins did well to cheaply extend his time under their control.

  • Even with Joe Mauer declining his invitation to catch for Team USA the Twins lead baseball with 18 players on provisional rosters for the World Baseball Classic. Phil Miller of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has the full list, which includes major leaguers Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, Jesse Crain, and Nick Punto, and top-40 prospects Jose Mijares, Luke Hughes, and Carlos Gutierrez. Punto was born in California and has lived in America his whole life, but will play for Team Italy.
  • Miller notes that Carlos Gomez showed some signs of improved plate discipline while playing in the Dominican Winter League, walking 10 times in 21 games after drawing a grand total of 25 free passes in 153 games last season. Winter league performances aren't especially meaningful to begin with and anything can happen in what is basically one month's worth of games, but Gomez is also saying all the right things about becoming a more patient hitter:
    I'm getting more patient. Take more pitches. I practice. I take pitches. I stand and take 60 pitches, then swing at one. Don't swing for 60 pitches. I watch a pitch and tell, "Strike, ball, high or low." When I'm ready to swing, I have more discipline to wait.

    Talk is cheap, of course, and after posting a 142-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio Gomez has a long way to go just to have decent plate discipline. Still, it's encouraging that he's working on what is undoubtedly his biggest weakness, because without at least some semblance of strike-zone control all the physical tools in the world will go to waste. I'm not yet convinced that Gomez will be an impact hitter, but a great glove means that it won't take much offensive improvement to make him a top all-around center fielder.


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