The Minnesota Twins are in a weird place.
No, not playing outside at Target Field. They’ve gotten used to that by now. But in free agency.
The Twins were not good this season, as evidenced by their last place finish in the weakest division in baseball. But strangely enough, they do have a good nucleus in tact, at least offensively.
The 3-4-5 in the middle of the lineup of Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau provides more than enough offense for a competitive team, and Denard Span is an above-average leadoff hitter. Their 2012 lineup was not a last place lineup.
Which tells you everything you need to know about just how bad their pitching was.
The problem with the Twins begins on the mound, but the issue they face is that they are far enough away from fielding a competitive pitching staff that most of their offensive nucleus will be gone by the time they get the arms to go with them. Morneau, for example, will be a free agent after this season. He’s not the MVP he once was, but he’s still productive hitter, although he now has a massive platoon-split. Willingham and Span are signed for just two more years.
Whether or not they believe they can be competitive within two years will their strategy for the future.
The thought would seem to be that if they can add some pitching to an average offense, they could compete in a weak AL Central. But there may not be enough pitching available on the free agent market, even if they had the money to sign all of the best free agent pitchers, to get the Twins back to being competitive on the mound.
Which leaves them not only as non-participants in the free agent market, but sellers this offseason.
The Twins will not be competitive this season, making a trade of Morneau virtually inevitable. They likely should have made a move involving Willingham this past July at the trade deadline, but with two years still left on his contract there’s still time, and he’d be quite valuable to a number of teams this off-season. The same goes for Span, who has been on the trade market for quite some time and offers the leadoff abilities that a number of teams need.
The Twins have some replacements for those players in-house, that could be ready by 2014. Outfield prospects Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia are well on their way to being major league outfielders, and Chris Parmelee is ready to take over for Morneau this season.
If the Twins want to get back to competitve baseball, their best bet is to trade the valuable pieces they have for young pitching – an obvious strategic move that they obviously know.
The only real question is whether or not that strategy should involve trading Joe Mauer.
And it’s a question without a definitive answer.
Mauer is set to be paid $23 million per year for each of the next five years, a large contract for any team, but a potentially hand-cuffing salary for a team that spends as little as the Twins do. Luckily, he rebounded in 2012 to regain his status as one of the best hitters in the American League, and the Twins have begin to use him at first base and designated hitter in order to get his bat in the lineup more often.
Because of this, trading him is no longer imperative.
But he is the piece that would bring the most back in return, and with the amount of talent they need to bring in, trading him for multiple impact players could be beneficial.
But he’s just so good.
So the strategy for the Twins should be to listen, but not shop him. Teams will inquire about Mauer just out of principle, and the Twins should listen. If a team makes them a franchise-changing offer, they’d be silly to refuse it. But trading him just for the sake of trading him would be foolish.
The Twins need to move Justin Morneau. His presence in their lineup in 2013 will do them no good towards being a competitive team this season, so anything they can get for him to build towards that future is worth obtaining. The same goes with Span and Willingham.
But it’s a different situation for Mauer, who can still be the center piece of a competitive Twins team.