Now that we've taken several days to let the fresh wounds scar over and taken some time away from baseball, it's time to start thinking about the upcoming off-season that will start in about 2 weeks or so. The number one concern the Twins will have is what to do with a bevy of free agents and arbitration-eligible players, namely: Carl Pavano, Orlando Hudson, JJ Hardy, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Matt Capps and Jim Thome. With around $90M already committed for next year's team and keeping in mind that a realistic ceiling for next season's payroll is around $100M, the Twins will simply not be keeping all of the aforementioned players. Let's go through each one.
Carl Pavano - SP - Restricted Free Agent (Type A)
Deciding what to do with Pavano will probably be the Twins most difficult choice this off-season, particularly because he has pitched so well here for the past season and a half. Last off-season, Pavano avoided arbitration with the Twins, opting to sign a 1-year, $7M deal. He backed that up with a solid campaign that saw him win 17 games for the Twins while sporting a very respectable 3.75 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 32 starts. What concerns me about Pavano heading into next season is a) his second half and b) the September he had this year. Pre All-Star break, Pavano had a 3.58 ERA, post All-Star break he had a somewhat mediocre 3.97 mark. In Sept/Oct, he had a putrid 5.06 ERA and even worse FIP at 5.86. I'm not saying one month of mediocrity is a bad omen for Pavano, but he was definitely less valuable down the stretch (in a few admittedly meaningless games) and seemed to lose a bit of what he had earlier in the year. Pavano fits the Twins starting pitcher mold perfectly, and I'd personally like to see him back, but ultimately I think the cost will be too high (likely $9M+).
Orlando Hudson - 2B - Restricted Free Agent (Type B)
O-Dogg pretty much gave the Twins what should have been expected this season...good defense, an average bat, and a good attitude. The only problem I have with Hudson is that he was terrible down the stretch. He had one of three decent offensive showings in the playoffs, but the overall body of work (offensively) probably isn't worth a penny more than the $5M they paid him this year. As Gleeman pointed out in his column yesterday, Hudson is not likely to be brought back precisely because, "the Twins may feel they can get 90 percent of the production for 10 percent of the cost in Alexi Casilla." If Hudson's season had been more productive offensively, it might be a no-brainer to re-sign him, but the fact is that he's only marginally better than Casilla and I don't think the Twins will be hurt that much if they let him go. Plus, they have more pressing need for the extra cash to address bullpen free-agents. For more on O-Dogg and his impending free-agency, check out John Bonnes' piece over at Twins Geek.
JJ Hardy - SS - Arbitration Eligible (free agent)
Similar to Hudson, JJ Hardy had an unimpressive season that was interrupted a few times by injury. Unlike Hudson, however, the Twins do not have a replacement player on their roster that is as valuable as Hardy. The Twins could have Punto (who has a club option for next season at $4.5M that I do not expect them to pick up) play shortstop, but he's nowhere near Hardy's potential at the plate and defensively, they're about equal. This past season, Hardy made a tidy sum of $5.1M and depending on what the market for shortstops is this winter, he could probably be re-signed for another season for about $5.5-$7M. I hope the Twins go after Hardy, I think he's a solid player at a position the Twins would struggle to fill otherwise. There's a blurb here on Baseball Prospectus regarding Hardy's free-agency that I disagree with, but anyway, here's the link.
Matt Guerrier - RP - Restricted Free Agent (Type A)
This is where it starts to get tricky. Between Guerrier, Crain and Rauch, half of the Twins bullpen are free agents. As for Matt Guerrier, he had a very up and down year. He was good in April, May and June and then sucked it up for July and August before returning to form for September. This past season Guerrier made $3.15M which was easily his best season money-wise so far. Again, it's hard to put a finger on what type of market to expect for a guy like Guerrier, but I imagine, given his consistency over the past 6 seasons in both durability and performance, that there would be a fairly good market for him. Personally I think it's worth locking him up for a few years, he has been one of the stalwarts of the Twins bullpen during the run of success over the past 8 years and he's only 31 years old. He's pitched over 70 innings in each of the last 6 years and though he leaves something to be desired as far as strikeouts go, he's reliable and effective. For the sake of argument, let's say the Twins offer him a 3-year deal at $4M per...moving on.
Jesse Crain - RP - Restricted Free Agent (Type B)
This is the guy I think the Twins have to resign. Yes he gave up a homer to Tex in the playoffs, but the guy was by far the best bullpen option for most of the season. Crain made only $2M this past season and will likely command a decent raise, which he deserves. He proved this year that his stuff is dominating and he will be much less expensive to re-sign than Brian Fuentes or Matt Capps. Assuming (and that is a hopeful assumption) that Joe Nathan returns next spring, Crain would make a great set-up man if he could repeat his performance from this season.
Jon Rauch - RP - Restricted Free Agent (Type B)
The Twins picked up Rauch's club option last year, but this year he's a free man. He didn't have a particularly great year, but might get some interest as a closer from some teams because he proved himself shaky-yet-competent in the early goings for the Twins this past season. I'd like to see the Twins re-sign him because he'll be a cheaper, yet equally competent, option than Fuentes or Capps, but who knows. What's going against Rauch is a mediocre 2nd half and the fact that the Twins probably have someone down in Triple-A who can do his job. Rauch made $2.9M this past season and will probably be looking at something similar to that on the free agent market, which wouldn't be out of the Twins price-range and hey, sometimes the devil you know is better than the one you don't.
Brian Fuentes/Matt Capps - RP - Restricted Free Agents (Both Type B)
I think these guys fall into the same boat and both are guys unlikely to be re-signed by the Twins. They were brought in for a pennant (and World Series) run that fell short. The only scenario in which I see Fuentes staying here is one in which he's willing to take a lot less money than he was making. He would be a valuable lefty specialist to be sure, but with an optimistic price tag likely in the $5M-$7M range (he made $9M last year). As for Capps, he falls into the category of "replaceable player" as he's not particularly dominant and isn't something the Twins don't pretty much already have. If the Twins didn't think that Nathan was going to be ready for the start of next year, I could see them making a run at Capps, but otherwise, I don't see him with the team come next season.
Jim Thome - DH - Unrestricted Free Agent
I saved the best for last. Thome has been a fan favorite at every stop of his Major-League career and here in Minnesota, it's been no different. Thome helped his own case by having a great year including a walk-off home run for the ages against the White Sox and a memorable mammoth-shot against the Royals. Thome was an absolute steal for what the Twins paid him, a mere $1.5M plus incentives, producing 25HRs and a 1.039OPS from the DH slot, a vast improvement on what has been one of the weaknesses of this team over the past several years. That said, unless the Twins can work a similarly cheap deal with Thome for next season, I hope they don't bring him back. I fear it would be like Favre's season last year vs. his season this year...you can't catch lightening in a bottle twice. The history of 40+ year old power hitters is not very good (except Ted Williams). Hammerin' Hank Aaron hit 40HRs at 39 and then proceeded to hit 20, 12, and 10 in his next three seasons before retiring. Barry Bonds (*) hit 45HRs as a 39-year-old and then hit 5, 26, and 28 before pretty much being forced into retirement. Hell, most power hitters don't even manage to stay on the field till their 40's (Mantle, Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, etc) so Thome's already in rare company there. Anyway, all that to say, I love Thome and I think he's a great locker room presence and really, I wouldn't be disappointed if the Twins did bring him back for one more year, but as far as expectations go, I don't think he will be as productive next season and therefore not worth a higher price to bring back.
So to recap, if the Twins go with my proposal, Pavano, Hudson, Fuentes, Capps and Thome would be gone and they would re-sign Crain, Guerrier, Rauch and Hardy. The total cost for those players would be in the $12M - $17M range putting the Twins overall payroll at ~$102M - $107M, a modest bump up from this past season's $97M total. With my scenario, the Twins would keep their bullpen intact, continue to have solid middle-infield defense (with Casilla taking Hudson's place) and make a spot for Duensing or a trade that would bring in another front-line starter. As an aside, see here for a good description of Type A vs. Type B free agents and see here for a list of all 2011 free agents (players whom are free agents this coming off-season).
**Thanks to Cot's Contracts for all the salary numbers