At 18-37, the Twins are effectively out of the race for the AL Central crown...this is not new news. They're 15.5 games behind Cleveland coming into play today and the astronomical win-loss record they would have to put together from this point forward to win even 90 games is on the edge of ridiculous (for those that are curious, they'd have to go 72-35 from here on out). Everyone and their mom around the interwebs is talking about how the Twins are likely going to be sellers come the trade deadline and while I don't disagree with that sentiment, it can not be said emphatically enough that now is the time for the Twins to be smart and play their cards right.
When you're a "seller" that means a) things haven't gone well for you this year and b)you're not expecting them to get better quickly enough to contend. In terms of getting a good deal, that leaves you at a disadvantage. When you're a seller, you're essentially trying to dump salary or perhaps get a load of prospects in return for a more valuable Major Leaguer. The one thing the Twins absolutely need to keep in mind throughout the next two months is that they have both Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan's salaries coming off the books at the end of the season. That's $21,750,000 in salary between those two players alone. In addition to that, Jason Kubel, Matt Capps, and Jim Thome's salaries are also expiring at the end of the season, good for another $15,400,000 off the payroll number. In total, that's $37,150,000 in salary coming off the books at the end of the season, which is about 33% of the current payroll figure ($113M). Granted, yes, you would have to replace those guys, but aside from Kubes you can probably pretty easily replace that production at a fraction of the cost.
So what's the point I'm trying to make? What I'm trying to highlight here is the fact that the Twins don't absolutely NEED to be sellers. Sure, it would be nice to get a couple of prospects for Kubel or Slowey, there isn't much debating that the farm system is in need of an influx in talent...but it isn't worth trading either player unless you're getting something decent in return. The Twins will have enough flexibility with the payroll at the end of this season to make a lot of changes, they don't need to make bad deals now to preemptively try and patch up the holes on a terrible team. The people in the Twins' front office need to be both shrewd and smart right now because for as bad as things look, there is no reason to panic.
I don't think there is much debate that the middle infield is of utmost concern for this team going into next season. That said, considering the investment that the Twins have made in Tsuyoshi Nishioka, it's unlikely that they will be in the market for a 2nd basemen in the off-season. Here's one option that's intriguing:
Kelly Johnson - 2B - Diamondbacks - 29-years-old
Johnson has had somewhat of a down year so far this season, but he owns a career .794 OPS and is a solid defensive 2nd-baseman as well. Johnson has legitimate 20-25HR power and though he does strikeout a lot, he has managed a career .347 OBP. Johnson is set to make $5.85M this season, but could probably be had for $6-$8M per and would be an immediate upgrade over any of the options the Twins currently have at 2nd base.
As for Shortstop, the Twins clearly have a need there. Here are some of the better options:
Jose Reyes - SS - Mets - 27-years-old
Though this is likely a long-shot for the Twins, it's at least worth mentioning that a shortstop of Reyes' caliber will likely be on the market at the end of this season (provided he doesn't re-sign before the end of the year). Reyes has a solid .774 career OPS and while he's no gold-glove at shortstop, he would be light-years better than anything the Twins have, both offensively and defensively.
J.J. Hardy - SS - Orioles - 28-years-old
I find this scenario unlikely as well, considering that a) the Twins traded him away for two garbage relievers and b) there were rumblings that the coaching staff wasn't that impressed with Hardy. The Twins would have to be stupid not to consider this option, however, because the fact of the matter is that the Twins are getting schooled this season on the importance of middle-infield defense and Hardy, when healthy, is about as good as it gets at shortstop.
Rafael Furcal - SS - Dodgers - 33-years-old
While Furcal is an older option, his .285/.350/.410 hitting line would fit nicely into the Twins lineup. With Furcal, the question is always "can he stay healthy" as he has seen significant DL time in 3 out of the last 4 seasons. When he has been healthy he been a good producer offensively and his glove, well, it's been good enough (.965 career Fielding% at SS). The tricky thing with Furcal is that if he reaches 600 PAs this year (unlikely), his $12M option for 2012 become automatic. I can't see the Dodgers picking up a $12M option on him otherwise, so it's likely that Furcal will be a free-agent at the end of this season.
Other options include Yuniesky Betancourt, Ramon Santiago, and Jack Wilson, but to be completely frank, none of those options are much better than the middle-infield options the Twins have had this season.
Given that the Twins will likely have $20-$30M to spend during this coming off-season, using $8M-$10M of that money to fix their shortstop problem should be a no-brainer and they really couldn't go very wrong with any of the three options above. I would be ecstatic to have Reyes, but I find that to be so unlikely, it's not even worth getting excited about. The bottomline with all of this is that the Twins don't need to be aggressive sellers in the next two months and, in fact, they shouldn't make a deal unless they're getting quality in return. Bill Smith could go a long way in repairing his image with Twins fans if he makes patient, smart moves this year that end up paying off next year or down the road.