The Twins caught a huge financial break last week when Tsuyoshi Nishioka requested his release. That surprising move saved them from having to pay the remaining $3.25M in salary that Nishioka was still guaranteed.
That scenario is rare, though not unheard of in Major League Baseball. Royals starter Gil Meche walked away from $12M prior to the 2011 season, stating that it wasn't fair to himself, his family, or the Royals to continue given the state of his shoulder injury. In October 2009, Kenji Johjima opted out of the final two years of his contract with the Mariners, alleviating them of what had been a $16M albatross.
Nishioka's decision hasn't provided the Twins with that type of financial windfall, but it's still a move that will free up some extra cash for the team this winter. Last offseason, the list of players that signed for under $3.3M was highlighted by the Twins' own Ryan Doumit, as well as Kevin Millwood, Bartolo Colon, Cody Ross, Ryan Ludwick, LaTroy Hawkins, Fernando Rodney, Jeff Keppinger and Scott Hairston (Let's just ignore Jason Marquis and Joel Zumaya on that list... whoops).
Each of those players has made noticeable contributions to his team's success this season at a bargain price. A look at this offseason's upcoming free agent class reveals several more potential bargains. Because of the Twins' current roster construction, I find it unlikely that they'll be spending on a backup catcher, a first base/DH type, an outfielder, or probably a third baseman either. Looking at middle infield and pitching options, however, I think the following are all reasonable targets who will command in the neighborhood of $3.25M (or less):
Kelly Johnson - I can see Johnson topping that mark simply because of the weakness of the second base class, but likely not by much. He'll definitely earn less than this season's $6.38M.
Jeff Keppinger - Keppinger's salary may come in around $3.25M, but it'd likely have to be the first of a two-year deal similar to Jamey Carroll's to facilitate that. He's quietly hit .297/.342/.403 dating back to Opening Day 2010.
The shortstop market is bone dry, especially if the Tigers exercise Jhonny Peralta's option. Stephen Drew won't command a huge salary, but I'm betting he tops $3.25M simply because of the scarcity of shortstops this offseason and his upside.
Any of the following should command $3.25M or less (though some would require incentives based on performance in addition to that base):
I could also see Carlos Villanueva (heavily endorsed by our own Brandon Warne) commanding somewhere around that type of salary in the first year of a two-year deal, perhaps with a total value of $8-9M or so.
None of those pitchers exactly leap off the page as impact signings, but each would likely present an upgrade (or have the potential to be an upgrade) over the brigade of replacement level fodder that's taken the hill for the Twins this season.
And, of course, it could simply be added on to give the Twins a push to sign a player they previously would have been outbid on by upping a one-year offer for a pitcher from $5M to $8M or so (hypothetically speaking).
Nishioka's $3.25M refund isn't likely to be the tipping point that pushes the Twins back into contention, but it's a nice unforeseen benefit that will allow Terry Ryan, Rob Antony, Wayne Krivsky, etc. to look at bringing in another veteran presence or make a low-risk, high-upside signing that could provide the Twins with a few extra wins. Sure, a guy like Millwood would induce little more than yawns and a host of eye rolls from the fan base, but it's better to have a 1-2 WAR starter or middle infielder than a $3.25M sinkhole on the roster.
Steve Adams also writes for MLBTradeRumors.com, RotoAuthority.com and MLB.com's Fantasy Baseball. You can follow him on Twitter: @Adams_Steve