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Twins looking for free-agent pitching at Winter Meetings

Denard Span has already been dealt, leaving the Twins little in the way of trade chips, besides perhaps Josh Willingham. With this in mind, the team appears to be set to look for free-agents, rather than trades, at this week's Winter Meetings

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony had a revealing quote, in a conversation with Phil Mackey of ESPN 1500:

"We probably don't have a lot of pieces that we do have to trade for starting pitching (with Span now gone)," Antony said. "We'll probably be a little more aggressive and spend our time at the winter meetings talking to agents rather than clubs."

Now, the Twins have a good reason to be trying to give the impression that they're not interested in trades. Minnesota would love nothing more than to drive up the trade market for Josh Willingham, whose value will probably never be higher after he hit 35 home runs, drove in 110 runs, and won a Silver Slugger award in the outfield alongside Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton. Willingham has a fairly cheap contract - $7 million per year - that has two years remaining, but he's also about to turn 34 years old and has a checkered injury past.

The Twins, then, want to give the impression that they don't want to deal their slugger, and that it would take a huge offer to get them to part with Willingham. And so, they've got an ulterior motive to indicate that they won't be talking trade this week at the Winter Meetings.

Aside from that, though, there's certainly a lot of truth in Anthony's statement as well. By most reckonings, the Twins have somewhere between $20million and $30million to spend in free agency this year, and most if not all of that cash will go towards starting pitching, where the team is horrendously thin. The Twins need to find two or three pitchers, and they'd be happy to do it this week if the price is right.

That said, the early indications are that the price won't be right in any way. The Royals set the bar by giving Jeremy Guthrie $25 million and a three-year contract, and it's starting to be clear that any half-decent starters will cost more than $10 million per year, and will probably be getting three- or four-year contracts. The Twins would much prefer shorter contracts and less money, which means they may well be shopping exclusively in the bargain bin. Francisco Liriano keeps getting bandied about as a possibility, despite the Twins' intimate knowledge of how terrible he's been; I'm not sure fans should get their hopes up for anything more exciting than a Liriano re-signing.

Really, the kinds of pitchers the Twins sign this week, and the contracts to which they sign them, should give us a pretty clear marker for the Twins' plans for the next few years. If the Twins are truly aggressive, and give longer and higher-dollar contracts to a pitcher or two this week, it'll serve as a sign that the team is still trying to win as soon as possible, the Denard Span-Alex Meyer trade aside. If, however, we see some traditional Twins free-agent signings - one- or two-year contracts for pitchers who are below the median in this free-agent market - it may be a sign that the team is focused on building for a future date.

And if the team deals Willingham for a couple of young arms, to try to restock their bare-cupboard pitching farm system - well, then we'll know for sure.