Sunday, October 24, 2004

Winter Claims Its First Victim

There is a good chance the Twins have done something to anger the baseball gods. Maybe it had something to do with leaving Joe Nathan in an inning too long. Perhaps it goes back to the day David Ortiz walked out the door forever. In less than a year the Twins have lost two young phenom players to a knee injury. Just over a week ago, I wrote in this space about how important it was for the Twins to get healthy during the off-season, after having several key players miss significant time this year. In the same post we also talked about how important the development of some key young players would be to next year’s success. Jason Kubel was one of those key players taking part in the Arizona fall league until he had the misfortune of getting hurt. In the big picture this will not have the same devastating effect as Joe Mauer’s nagging knee injury last year. The team will have time to adjust some of its plans while Kubel is out up to 6 months.

If the Twins need to trade Jones, and Kubel is unavailable, they have other options for right field. Lew Ford, who batted .299 with 15 homers and 72 RBI in his first full season of action, could move to the outfield. Rochester native Michael Restovich, who spent most of the season in the minors, could get his long-awaited break. And one Twins official pointed out that Michael Cuddyer, mentioned as a possible replacement for free agent Corey Koskie at third or for underperforming Luis Rivas at second, could play right field. - Star Tribune

The one spot the Twins have the most organizational depth is outfield. Kubel was a pleasant surprise this past year and made himself a part of the team’s 2005 plans. If you had asked someone at the beginning of the 2004 season what the lineup would look like in one year, few would have automatically penciled Kubel in. They would have thrown out names like LeCroy and Restovich. Before hurting himself, Kubel was still not assured the starting job. The players who will replace him are players he would have battled in spring training.

This was supposed to be the year that Matt LeCroy finally got a fulltime chance to prove himself. 264 at-bats later, LeCroy is another year older and in the same spot. He is a solid fill-in until Kubel comes back or someone else emerges to take his spot. What he proved last year is that he is not going to light the world on fire but he can step in anywhere in the lineup with steady production.

Restovich is another option. Just two seasons ago he was another phenom prospect just waiting for the call. He received that call but was not given a full time opportunity to take advantage of it. Instead he played scared, tried too hard to cut down on his strikeouts and has not been a prospect since. His swing may be too long for the big show and he has yet to realize the power output, even at the minor league level, that was hoped for. Next year he will be out of options and Kubel going down may be the break he needs. At this point he has looked too much like Brian Buchanan with a little more speed to warrant much optimism.

It is intriguing that Michael Cuddyer was mentioned as a replacement. He has been slated for some time as an infield replacement either at 2nd or 3rd and proved himself with his late season production. I have not been a believer that he would replace Koskie, since Cuddyer seems uncomfortable at third and it makes more since to either bring back Koskie or let Terry Tiffee have a chance there. If Cuddyer were to move to right it would mean the Twins are willing to go to arbitration with Luis Rivas and pay him for the additional defense at second base. Rivas turns a much better double play then Cuddyer but is not that much better at anything else. Cuddyer even looked much improved defensively as the season came to a close. Nick Punto is another option at second but that would mean the team would bring back Cristian Guzman or a replacement at short. The money spent to keep Rivas would be better spent on Koskie or a cheap outfielder that is going to hit better than Rivas. It might even be a possibility to apply that money to bring back Jacque Jones.

All along it has been assumed the Twins would not be bringing back Jacque Jones with his escalating price tag and their glut of outfielders in the system. The organization has never come straight out and said that Jones would not be back thus leaving open the possibility. If they are not able to deal Jones, he could be back in right next year. I still don’t think it is likely. Jones is going to be overpaid if the team goes to arbitration with him. There are better options out there. He is a player with no real spot on the team anymore. He is not an ideal 2nd hitter where he ended the season, his batting average was down this year at .254 and he is a corner outfielder who only hit 24 homeruns. The only way he will be in a Twins uniform next year is if he signs a deal at a reduced rate and even so, the team would be crazy if it was for more then 1 year. The Kubel injury does make his return more plausible though.

At this point, it is hard to speculate about which free agents will be available in the Twins price range. It is highly unlikely the Twins would go that route either. In the past, they have either gone in-house or made a trade to fill most of their needs. A trade is still a possibility, especially when it comes to Jones or an enigma like JC Romero, but don’t expect Ryan to equal his success from last year. I hope they don’t settle on a player they know like Jones, who has already shown his limited upside. The Twins should at least consider looking for a player capable of more production. Those players are hard to come by and usually carry baggage though so it might be best for the team to let Jones go and replace him with what they already have.

The Kubel injury does nothing but muddle the big picture. Before it was a matter of which of the big three free agents would be resigned. If the team failed to bring back Guzman or Koskie, it was possible a similar free agent would replace them. By bringing back Guzman or signing another shortstop the team could non-tender Rivas and have the depth to replace him with Michael Cuddyer and Nick Punto. That is probably the most likely scenario but because Cuddyer can play so many positions it makes it harder to predict. The team’s payroll will not go up and so if money is used to replace Kubel, it will have to come from somewhere else. It is hard to fathom bringing back Jacque Jones but it could happen. When Mauer went down during the season, the team had no replacement ready to pick up the slack. Kubel’s injury coming so early, allows them the chance to try to replace his production.