Over the next couple of weeks we'll tackle exactly what questions the Twins need to answer by the time they get to spring training. Even then there can be changes, but they'll have directions and expectations by then. Hopefully the discussion we generate here can give us a little insight into how Minnesota will aproach this winter.
The off-season is the time for a full, top-to-bottom assessment of the entire organization; what you have and what you don't, what you want and what you need, where you're going and where you've been. There's always a focus on the following season, but everything must be done with conscious decision of the future. So asking the question "What Do We Have" is more about understanding priorities than categorically running down a list of names and scratching in a "yes" or a "no".
But yeah, there's probably a little bit of that, too.
Understanding what we have helps to answer what's missing, and so I'll be categorizing certain parts of the team (both by skill and position) in one of three ways. High Priority, meaning it's an issue that will be addressed one way or the other over the coming months; Low Priority, meaning skills or positions that do not need to be addressed prior to spring training; and Wish List, which are things not quite as integral as High Priority, but are things that would definitely benefit the team by being addressed.
Catchers - With one of the game's best catchers (at 26 next season) locked up through 2010 for the moment, and with Mike Redmond having his option picked up earlier this month, the only thing the Twins need to worry about here is who would be the emergency catcher. Even with Redmond being 38 next year, this position is pretty far down on the agenda of things to tweak.
Outfield - A pair of talented guys who were 22 this year, another one just coming into his own (albeit more often as a designated hitter), a guy who will be entering the second of a three-year deal and a longtime prospect who just had a breakout season...that's not bad. While it's a position that's not without questions, there's no need to complicate a crowded position. Whatever solutions lie in the outfield, it's all but certain that they're already in-house.
First Base - Justin Morneau has been a full-time player for the last four seasons, and hasn't played in fewer than 157 in the last three. He's a low injury risk and keeps himself in excellent shape, and his production over the last three years leaves little room for complaint.
Second Base - Although he tailed off late in the season offensively, Alexi Casilla certainly took control of this position. It's now his position to lose, and while there can be some debate over whether he could be moved to shortstop in the future, right now we don't want to play with too many complications or "what if's". Casilla is an incumbant at second.
Speed - Denard Span, Alexi Casilla and Carlos Gomez are a trio of exceedingly fast players, and with the youth of this team there aren't a lot of guys who really pull a plow. While this speed isn't necessarily being utilized to its full potential, it's a skill that can be honed. Minnesota isn't a team that has to worry about clogging up the basepaths at any rate, which means this is a skill that doesn't need to become a focus this winter.
Leadoff Hitter - This is a very general term, because it can mean a number of things depending on what a team is looking for. Ideally, this player combines patience at the plate with a good eye, good speed and a knack for getting on base, by getting hits and taking walks. Whatever the case may be, Denard Span emerged as the leadoff hitter this team needed, and just like Casilla at second base the leadoff role is Span's to lose. There are other candidates who the Twins wouldn't hesitate to use in such a capacity, but for now they don't need to go looking for a table setter.
Hitting for Power - This can come in a number of ways, whether it's by a specialist that can be brought in off the bench in certain situations, or whether it's by bringing in an everyday player at a position that can be upgraded. While the Twins will count on increased power production from Michael Cuddyer and Delmon Young in 2009, the only two players returning as long-ball threats are Justin Morneau (.499 slugging, .199 isolated power) and Jason Kubel (.471 slugging, .199 isolated power). Minnesota might decide to take a big gamble, and hope both Justin and Jason replicate their numbers while being supplemented by improvements from Cuddyer and Young, but at the very least they should still be exploring options that will give them a bit of reliable pop off the bench. Craig Monroe, the all-or-nothing guy, doesn't count. Randy Ruiz is an option, but the Twins might look into free agency here, with an eye on third base. No matter what route they take, one thing is certain: it's easier to score runs when you can hit home runs.
Bullpen - The Twins can find a way to add one addtional arm to the bullpen pretty easily, but that's all the leeway they'll have here. After Joe Nathan the reliability factor and track records faulter a bit, which is why the relief corps should be under intense scrutiny. Pat Neshek will have to prove he can still be the effective set-up man, which is far from a guarantee at this point. Matt Guerrier was miserable in '08, and while a bounce back can be expected it's hard to say how much of one it'll be. Craig Breslow is an unproven commodity, Jesse Crain isn't the "blow-em-away" set-up guy we need, and Philip Humber is likely to make the roster because he's out of options. I'm an optimist, and I have faith, but the Twins will address the bullpen over the winter. They may do nothing in the end, but they'll be monitoring their options very closely.
Third Base - With Adrian Beltre as a fairly certain target, the Twins would get a boost on both sides of the ball. They could go into next season with any combination of in-house options, which would give them a live body, but nothing above average at the plate or in the field. With the experience and familiarity brought by a combination of Brian Buscher, Matt Macri, Brendan Harris or Matt Tolbert, in-house solutions are a viable option going into next year...but the team would be served by an improvement. A guy like Beltre would be two birds (third base and power) with one stone.
Shortstop - Much like third base, the Twins could find serviceable options within the fold. Nick Punto could be re-signed, or Brendan Harris, and Matt Tolbert could also step in. Short only comes under "Wish List" because of the offensive implications usually associated with a third baseman...which boosts the hot corner up a notch. The primary issue here with an external option is that the free agent market for shortstop isn't that deep; this is where we could raise the question of Casilla and shorstop, since the market for second basemen is a bit deeper. But again, right now that's all just speculation. For the time it's pretty basic--Minnesota could get by on what they have internally, but would again be served by an improvement.
Starting Pitcher - With the youth and inexperience of the five returning starters (Baker, Liriano, Slowey, Blackburn, Perkins), it's realistic to expect some sort of a regression next season. For this purpose, in spite of how talented this rotation can be on their best days, if the Twins were to go out and pick up a good starter it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. I don't expect this to happen, but with rumblings about a guy like Matt Cain it can't be counted out.
Bench Contact Hitter - If the Twins don't improve offensively at third base or shortstop, the best thing they could do for themselves is to improve their bench prospects offensively. A good contact hitter or situational hitter, a guy who can appear with confidence whether he played yesterday or four days ago, could be a mint addition. Yes, you heard me: mint.
Right now the Twins have relatively few questions, and we know what the primary focus areas for the team will be this winter. One point that should be understood is that, unless something changes, the Twins only have two (or maybe three) spots to play with on the 25-man roster going into 2009:
Starters: Baker, Liriano, Slowey, Blackburn, Perkins (5)
Bullpen: Nathan, Crain, Breslow, Neshek, Guerrier, Humber, Bonser (7)
Catchers: Mauer, Redmond (2)
Infield: Morneau, Casilla, Buscher, Tolbert (4)
Outfield: Cuddyer, Span, Young, Kubel, Gomez (5)
As you can see, the obvious two positions are in the infield, and as we discussed earlier a spot could be made in the bullpen with an easy decision on Boof Bonser or Matt Guerrier.
This is just the beginning, and while discussion can get a bit more speculative or predictive down the road, it's always important at this juncture to have a starting point or to be in neutral. This post is neutral, at least for now. We understand who is probably coming back, and we also have a pretty good idea of the priorities of the team for the coming months.