Even though their payroll increased greatly in 2010, in some ways the Twins continue to act like a small market club. Last off-season was a great example. Along with the trade for Carl Pavano during the 2009 season, the signings of Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson and the Hardy-Gomez trade all have one thing in common: the Twins took a chance on a "buy-low" candidate.
The Twins have been doing this for more than a few years now, with mixed results. When the bets pay off, we have seasons like we had last year: Pavano settling into a comfortable #2 role, Thome smashing dingers, and Hardy and Hudson solidifying the middle infield. When it goes badly, the Twins get players like Bret Boone, Tony Bautista, and Livan Hernandez. It can be frustrating to watch, but targeting players like this (and avoiding flashy free agents and trade targets) is a big reason why the Twins have been competitive for the last 9 years.
So, with Free Agency opening on Sunday, who are the "buy low" free agents the Twins should be looking at? I will be looking at four areas of need for the 2011 roster: Starting pitching, relief pitching, RH bats, and utility fielders.
Chance the Twins actually sign a free agent starting pitcher: Less than 50%. When people say, "You can never have too much pitching," they're talking about quality, not quantity. The Twins have a good 5-man rotation under team control in 2011. They also have the option of offering Pavano arbitration. If they're going to add another starter, they need to do something with one of the starters they already have. That said, if the Twins can move a pitcher via trade, or if they're comfortable sending one of the five down to AAA, they could do well with one of these options.
Justin Duchscherer - Limited to only 28 innings last year with a hip injury after sitting out all of 2009 with elbow trouble and depression, "the Duke" has proven to be an unreliable commodity. Of course, in 2008, he was fantastic, going 10-8 with a 2.54 ERA in 141.2 innings.
Why the Twins would sign him: Duchscherer told Jane Lee in September: "My hip's been fixed -- both have been fixed -- and my elbow's fixed. I can't imagine what else could go wrong." With that kind of optimism, why not? Duchscherer has #2 starter upside.
Why the Twins won't sign him: Something else could go wrong.
How much will he cost?: 1 year, $1-2 million
Rich Harden - Harden pitched his way out of the playoff rotation in Dallas, guaranteeing that his $11 million mutual option would be bought out. Harden strikes out a lot of guys, but he also walks a few, and can't stay healthy. He pitched very well for the A's and Cubs in 2008. A one-year deal hoping for a bounce-back year seems likely.
Why the Twins would sign him: Rick Anderson is good at teaching pitchers to limit walks, which is Harden's weakness. Harden is only 29 years old and is a strikeout pitcher.
Why the Twins won't sign him: Another team sees the big, shiny name, and offers him more money. Harden also might want to give the softer National League another try.
How much will he cost?: 1 year, under $5 million.
Erik Bedard - After the Mariners traded away too much to get the Orioles's ace pitcher (and made Twins fans instantly regret the Johan Santana trade), he pitched two injury-shortened seasons. The M's signed him to an incentive-laden $1.5 million dollar contract for the 2010 season. Bedard never got close to sniffing a single start, much less a single incentive.
Why the Twins would sign him: A former ace who (like Liriano) had Tommy John surgery at age 23, Bedard has pitched well whenever he's been healthy. He's another high K rate pitcher.
Why the Twins won't sign him: He hasn't pitched a full season since 2007.
How much will he cost?: I could honestly see him settling for a minor league deal, but some team probably will give him another 1 year deal with incentives.
Chris Young - The Padres declined an $8.5 million option on Young, a former All Star, after he pitched only 20 innings last year due to shoulder problems.
Why the Twins would sign him: Again, a familiar refrain. Young is a high k-rate pitcher with past injury problems.
Why the Twins won't sign him: The Padres want to bring him back, but at a lower price.
How much will he cost?: 1-3 years, under $5 million per year.
Keven Correia - Correia's ERA ballooned last season to 5.40, but it's likely he was unlucky, even though he pitched in PETCO. He gets a large amount of ground balls (49%) but had a horrible FB/HR rate last year (14.8%). He has a decent strikeout rate, but his walk rate went from 2.9 in 2009 to 3.9 in 2010.
Why the Twins would sign him: He's due for a bounceback year, and he pitched well in 2009.
Why the Twins won't sign him: We already have plenty of pitchers who give up more HR's than they should.
How much will he cost?: 1 year, $2 million.
I've avoided names like Brandon Webb and Jeff Francis because I think that they're too obvious, and because I bet they'll get closer to their market value (think Ben Sheets last year). Any other suggestions for "buy-low" candidates?