At first glance, this coming offseason looks like the most difficult one so far for Terry Ryan as GM. Torii Hunter is a free agent, and Johan Santana is going into his contract year. There will be a lot of pressure to re-sign and extend these two. The expectations for 2008 are high, and the fans/press realize that the Twins have a window of opportunity next season.
If you look a little deeper, however, you will notice that the Twins have other options if they should lose one or both star players. Their talented, young pitching gives the rotation some hope should Santana depart. -But I want to talk about the other possible key depatrure. What can the Twins do if they are to lose Torii Hunter? He's going to cost someone $15-16 million per year for 4-6 years. In reality, the possibility of re-signing Sweet Cheeks might already be gone. Where does Terry Ryan turn then?
Denard Span is not ready. He hit .252 in AAA this year, and he needs to start next season in the minors and prove himself before even be given his first cup of coffee. Jason Tyner is a good 4th outfielder, but giving him the everyday job in center is like giving Punto the everyday job at third. OK, maybe not that bad, but you get the idea. Anyway, the only real option for finding a new center fielder is looking outside the organization.
The option of a trade is always present, but for the sake of argument, let's concentrate on free agency. There are actually several free agent center fielders that will be available. Luckily, the market is pretty rich with them this year. This might help push their cost dow a tad and avoid another Gary Matthews Jr situation. Let's take a look at the options:
Darin Erstad - Age 33
Erstad hits and throws as a lefty. He's very good in center field; he has 2 Gold Gloves there (+1 at 1B). The problem with Erstad is that he's been injured for most of the past 2 seasons. That's an indication that he may be wearing down with age and his career may be coming to an end. If he's healthy, he can produce .285 Avg, 10 HR, 70 RBI. If he's healthy. He could also be another RonDL. It should be noted that the White Sox have a $3.5 million option for him for 2008 that they really shouldn't and won't exercise. His injury problems make him dirt cheap, so he'll probably fetch a 1-2 years at $1-2 million per year.
Corey Patterson - Age 28
Patterson bats from the left side of the plate and throws right-handed. He's a decent outfielder, but not spectacular. At the plate, he should give you a .270 Avg with 10-15 HR and 50-55 RBI. He's having a very average year, and he's a very average Major Leaguer. He'll probably cost $4-6 million a season over 2-3 years.
Mike Cameron - Age 34
Cameron is right-handed both hitting and throwing. He's a very good in the field, being a 3-time Gold Glove winner. Offensively, he should only produce for a .260 Avg with 20-25 HR and about 75 RBI. It should also be noted that he is a very streaky hitter. Think Jacque Jones from the right side of the plate. He is having a pretty average season for his career, so there's no plus or minus to his value. He'll likely cost $7-9 million per year for 2-3 years.
Aaron Rowand - Age 30
Rowand bats and throws right-handed. He is an above average center-fielder, but he's not Gold Glove caliber. Offensively, you can expect .285 Avg, 15-20 HR, 80 RBI. He's currently having a career year as well, so his cost will be inflated. He should cost someone $9-11 million per year for 3-4 years.
Andruw Jones - Age 30
Jones bats and throws R/R. He is definitely a top-tier center fielder, a 9-time Gold Glover. At the plate, he should give you .270, 30-35 HR, 100 RBI. Andruw is actually having a very bad season for him, so he may be a bargain. He'll probably fetch $10-12 million for 3-4 years.
Well, those are your free agent options (along with Hunter). If I had my pick, I'd take Andruw Jones in a heart beat. Unfortunately, any number of teams might decide to re-sign these players before they hit the open market. That will probably happen with Jones, IMO. Rowand would be acceptable, but he isn't the middle-of-the-order hitter that Torii and Andruw are. Plus he's probably not the best option in terms of value for your dollar. Patterson might be an passable option because of his youth, but only if the Twins add a serious bat at DH or 3B to replace Hunter. Even then, it's still a downgrade. I also don't really like Cameron because of his streakiness. Erstad scares me, but he does have the possibility of being healthy all the sudden. If that happens, the team that signs him would hit the jackpot. I just don't think that will happen.
The end result here is that if Torii departs, you're most likely looking at a downgrade for the Twins. Both defensively and offensively. The good news is that there are plenty of free agent options to fill center field, but the Twins will absolutely have to use the extra cash to sign another hitter if that happens.