Monday, November 15, 2004

Impassioned Offseason Ramblings from a Concerned Fan

The baseball off-season is like a heavy train that takes a while to get going and eventually builds momentum as it goes roaring down the track towards its final spring training destination. Mid-November is right at the beginning of that journey; where players have just begun to file for free agency and teams are mostly trying to re-sign their own guys while testing the market to see what the worth of some players will be. No doubt, trades are being discussed, payroll shuffled around and countless backup plans drawn up. For the most part, all that is left for fans is the agony of speculation of what will happen. Most of what is discussed at this time of year will never come to fruition.

Take the idea of using Luis Rivas at shortstop. This is just one of the possible replacements for Cristian Guzman next year. Rivas would fill the gap between Guzman and the time it takes Jason Bartlett to become a major leaguer. He has played the position in the minors and could prove a relatively cheap option depending on the direction the team goes. Ultimately, it would mean re-signing Corey Koskie to play third base with Michael Cuddyer retaining the second base position. If the team failed to resign Koskie, or a veteran replacement, an infield of Terry Tiffee, Rivas and Cuddyer might be too much of a step back for a team trying to make the playoffs a fourth straight year.

In the meantime the Twins should continue to explore the free agent market at shortstop, third base and starting pitching. Last year they had a backup plan when Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins left. Joe Nathan became an All-Star. To compete again next season the Twins will have to be equally as creative. They got a little lucky when Carlos Silva pitched as well as he did. Next season J.D Durbin and Scott Baker will need to step up if called upon. The key to the off-season is creating depth should things not go well. The Twins had planned on Rick Hulling being their fifth starter last year and when he went down it took them 2 months to find someone to replace him. With the other teams in the division improving each year the margin for error becomes smaller.

The Indians, Tigers and White Sox are all trying to make their respective off-season splashes. The White Sox are trying to acquire Randy Johnson, but it will undoubtedly cost them dearly to do so. They are minor players in the free agent market but have limited money. The Indians and Tigers seem more willing to open their pocketbooks and both teams’ number one priority seems to be Troy Percival. Since the Indians are closer to competing it would be more harmful for the Twins if they were able to sign him. He is a notorious Twins killer. The Tigers cannot be counted out as long as they have Ivan Rodriguez. They made some major strides last year and could be a surprise team this year. They have young good young players and are willing to augment their talent by signing veteran free agents. Ideally, the Cubs would swoop in and wrest Percival away from both teams.

As things begin to fall into place the picture will become clearer. It may take a couple of weeks for the big free agents to start signing. Scott Boras represents many of the better players out there and that will indirectly affect a team like the Twins. His clients will be some of the last to sign, so teams may grow tired of waiting and turn to players such as Radke and Koskie as secondary options.

That is why it is so important to try to sign them early. It is okay to overpay for a player like Radke because he is the closest to a "sure thing" when it comes to pitching? Unfortunately, other teams are aware of that fact as well which drives up his price. If the Twins are going to take the kind of hit that Rivas would be at short they should be willing to make a strong effort to sign Koskie while not being irresponsible. They must remember they have another great group of young players coming up that will allow them to compete for years if they make good decisions now. Loyalty to players that have been with the organization should not prevent them from being creative out on in the market. There is both a pressure to win now and to work successfully work young players onto the roster.

Rivas is likely to get a raise in arbitration. He will not be spectacular in the field and everyone knows what he can do at the plate. That money can go toward increasing offers to Radke and Koskie or trying to bring in a free agent who is going to put up similar numbers to Rivas at a fraction of the cost. Any player can fill a position the Twins may be looking to punt as they wait for Bartlett to develop. A name like Jose Valentin has already been brought up as one possible semi-regular player. The Twins can also look to someone like Barry Larkin who can play multiple positions and be able to step aside when asked. The one thing the Twins have had in the past is patience. They also have the luxury of waiting another month to make the decision on Rivas before they have to offer him arbitration. Most fans would agree that the best thing at this point is to cut the line and go with another option.

The one thing that is hard to have at this time of year is patience as we all wait to see how the dominoes fall into place. If the above scenarios seem a little convoluted that is because they are. There is so much uncertainty and every move can change the makeup market. All the Twins can do is not miss the boat. For now we all wait and hope everything works out for the best.


What Would it Be Like?

When this offseason began, Twins fans as a whole were a fairly optimistic bunch. Things didn’t go according to plan in October, but there is no doubt that the Twins could have (or depending on your point of view, should have) beaten the Yankees. The Twins exceeded nearly all pre-season expectations in a year when many felt the AL Central champions would be lucky to scrape by with 85 wins.

Compared to last year, many Twins fans though, this off-season would be a relative breeze. Indications were that Brad Radke would sign early. Corey Koskie, who seems to enjoy living in the area, would also most likely be re-signed. Even Christian Guzman might find his way back into the fold at a reduced price.

Oh, how things change.

Things definitely aren’t looking so peachy these days. “Déjà vu all over again” might turn out to be the mantra of the 2004-05 offseason, and that isn’t a good thing. Just as like Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins left last year without so much as a goodbye, Radke, Koskie, and Guzy could easily do the same this year. Early reports indicate that there are numerous teams interested in Radke, and all of them could (and will) easily outbid the Twins. The Strib indicates that Koskie has sparked the interest of a few teams, none of them Minnesota. And everything indicates that Guzie is as good as gone (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing…).

We are now faced with the distinct possibility that seven or more Twins could be gone before the 2005 season begins: Radke, Koskie, Guzman, Rivas, Jones, Romero, and Blanco. I wouldn't lose any sleep over the last four, but a 30% roster changeover? From a playoff team? I know Terry Ryan can work miracles, but even he pull only so many rabbits out of that magical hat of his. There aren’t always going to be Joe Nathans out there to snatch up, or Lew Fords waiting in the farm system, ready to instantly become major contributors.

What will life be like if this worst case scenario comes to fruition? First of all, if the Twins can’t sign Radke, I think they’ll probably end up with another veteran innings-eater such as Jon Lieber. If/when Koskie signs elsewhere, I wouldn’t be surprised if TR winds up with a cheap third baseman like Joe Randa. Guzman can conceivably be replaced within the organization, although I actually wouldn’t be adverse to bringing him back at a more reasonable price.

This hypothetical version of the 2005 Twins would be so different they would almost be unrecognizable. The only players left from 2002 would be Hunter, Cuddyer, Santana, Lohse, LeCroy, and Juan Rincon (plus technically Restovich and Mays). I can hardly believe that myself! 2002 seems like only yesterday, yet here we might have a completely new team a scant three years later. Amazing.

That isn’t to say these new-look Twins wouldn’t be a force in the AL Central. Depending on what moves the White Sox make (Randy Johnson?), the Twins would probably still be favored to win the division over the Indians. But it wouldn’t be the slam dunk many of us believed it would be after 2004 ended. And advancing in the playoffs would be even more difficult.

Obviously all of this is merely speculation. It’s still possible that the Twins will sign Radke and Koskie, and maybe even Guzman. But that possibility is becoming more remote with every passing day.

Don’t despair quite yet, Twins fans, but do brace yourself for this possible reality. What would it be like?