AL Central Hot Stove forecast: Tigers have cash to catch Twins
Assuming Justin Morneau is fully recovered from his post-concussion symptoms, and he believed he was close during the playoffs, the Twins can push Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, whose options they picked up, back to right field and designated hitter, respectively. That would leave second base, vacated by free agent Orlando Hudson, as the only significant hole in their lineup given the emergence of rookie Danny Valencia at third base in the second half of 2010. The best player to fill that second base hole is, of course, Orlando Hudson, who even if he had an off year at the plate, was still the best fielder at the position this season and should have plenty of suitors gambling on a rebound at the plate.
Pavano, who accepted arbitration last year but will likely seek a multi-year deal this winter, is a free agent who could return. But while the Twins have organizational depth in their rotation, most of it is headed for the back end of the rotation, so they could use another solid, established starter. Padilla's home run tendencies would be a good match for homer-killing Target Field. The same is true of Rauch, who excelled as the teams' closer for the first four months of 2010 and didn't really need to be replaced, though he was, when the Twins landed Matt Capps in a trade with the Nationals. Speaking of closers, the one-year anniversary of Joe Nathan's Tommy John surgery is March 10, so he should be back in action early in the year, if not quite on Opening Day. Four men from the Twins' 2010 bullpen are free agents right now, but they have a lot of in-house solutions, including getting Nathan back, a full season from Capps, Anthony Slama being ready to try his stuff in the majors, and perhaps Pat Neshek being more effective another year removed from his own Tommy John surgery. They should still re-sign at least one of their departing relievers, and given the way they were collecting closers down the stretch -- they also acquired Angels closer Brian Fuentes -- it wouldn't be a surprise to see them spend even more on the bullpen.
The real key for the Twins this winter, however, is to let . . . Nick . . . Punto . . . go. In his seven-year reign of terror, Punto hit .248/.323/.324 while averaging more than 100 games a year, practically defining replacement-level. The Twins have declined his option, suggesting that his time in the Twin Cities is finally over, but I'll believe it when I see Ron Gardenhire's favorite toy in another uniform.
The White Sox don't need to worry about pitching. Their bullpen is deep, and their rotation is four-strong with lefty Chris Sale, the 13th pick in this year's draft, the favorite to win the fifth spot, and Jake Peavy due back early in the season after rehabbing his reattached shoulder muscle. Their lineup, however, is a mess. It doesn't help that general manager Kenny Williams spent last winter filling holes with unproductive bats such as Mark Teahen, Juan Pierre and Omar Vizquel, the last of whom just had his option picked up despite the rapid approach of his 44th birthday. It also doesn't help that their best hitter from the just-completed season, Konerko, is a free agent.
The White Sox have significant holes at four positions and if they are serious about contending, they need to be aggressive in filling them. That means Victor Martinez, not more A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate, and a run at Adam Dunn for first base, with popular incumbent Paul Konerko as either the fallback or the right-handed companion in a powerful 1B/DH combo. If they do that, they can roll the dice on Brent Morel at third base given the dearth of free agent options. If they don't, they should make a run at Adrian Beltre, because, for the long run, Morel is nothing special, and the closest Dayan Viciedo got to ball four last year was when he was facing the Rays' bullpen.
The problem, of course, is that the ChiSox already have about $80 million committed for next year, because Williams also likes to collect big contracts ($12.5 million to Alex Rios, $16 million to Peavy, more than $8 million each to Pierre and Edwin Jackson). Arbitration-eligible closer Bobby Jenks, who earned $7.5 million last year, is likely to be non-tendered, but arbitration raises to John Danks and Carlos Quentin will eat up that savings. The White Sox are going to be expensive next year no matter what they do this winter. The question Williams and owner Jerry Reinsdorf need to answer this offseason is whether or not they'll be an expensive mediocrity or a very expensive success.
With Magglio Ordoñez, Jeremy Bonderman and Johnny Damon becoming free agents and their obligations to Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson ending, the Tigers have nearly $60 million coming off the books for 2011 from those five players alone. Justin Verlander's contract will eat up $6 million of that, but that's a mere 10 percent, and they have no major arbitration cases to be concerned about this offseason. That means the Tigers are going to be players this winter. They are unlikely to re-inflate their payroll to the roughly $134 million they spent in 2010, but with just $61 million committed as of this writing, they have plenty of room before they start reaching those lofty heights.
The World Series wasn't even over when the rumors about the Tigers' interest in Victor Martinez and Carl Crawford started to fly, and those two are excellent targets for a team that had a black hole at catcher in 2010 (Tiger catchers hit .223/.294/.330 on the season), needs to replace two outfielders, and plays in a spacious ballpark that favors triples hitters. Comerica Park also favors righties, however, so Werth wouldn't be a poor choice, either. Werth should also rise on the Tigers' list if they are realistic about what to expect from rising sophomore Brennan Boesch, who hit just .163/.237/.222 with two home runs in 245 plate appearances after the 2010 All-Star break.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, there aren't many exciting options for the middle infield positions, which are currently manned in Detroit by 2010 rookie bust Scott Sizemore and veteran utility man Ramon Santiago. Signing Hudson, however, would give them some certainty up the middle and directly hurt the defending division champion Twins. Failing that, David Eckstein would be a decent choice as a player who could be pushed into a reserve role if Sizemore starts to live up to his promise in 2011.
It's not as though the Tigers lack places to spend their money, however. Outside of Miguel Cabrera, there's not a player in their lineup who couldn't be improved upon, and there are no hitters of note in their farm system behind Sizmore, who is not necessarily a future All-Star himself. They could also use another starting pitcher, or two while they wait for the arrival of 2009 ninth-overall pick Jacob Turner, as well as some reinforcements in the bullpen. On those fronts, Jon Rauch and Vicente Padilla hold the same appeal in Comerica that they do in Target Field, which again puts the Tigers and Twins in competition for talent. The Tigers need to win those battles, however, because they're building on a far weaker foundation than the Twins.
The Indians are deep within a rebuild and have made it clear they won't be players this winter. Rather, the big job for new general manager Chris Antonetti will be gaining cost-certainty by working out multi-year deals with some of the team's first-time arbitration-eligible players, specifically under-the-radar star right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and closer Chris Perez. In the meantime, they'll work to continue to establish their prospects in the majors and wait for Travis Hafner's contract to expire after the 2012 season.
The Royals are what the Indians hope to avoid becoming, a team in a perpetual state of rebuilding, with a roster littered with busted prospects that seems to follow every step forward with two back. Breakthrough seasons by Zack Greinke and Billy Butler lent hope in 2009, but the team's top minor league prospects were awful. In 2010, the minor league picture perked up with big seasons from former first-round picks Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, but Greinke and Butler struggled to build on their breakouts. Gil Meche and David DeJesus are entering the final year of their contracts, which offers payroll flexibility for 2012, but also reminds us that the Royals failed to improve during their time in Kansas City. There are still prospects to dream on and high draft picks on the way, but the chances of them coalescing in to a winning team seem to recede with every season. The final stage of the rebuilding process is convincing ownership to wager on one or two big free agent fish who can fill the remaining holes and push the team into contention, but the Royals aren't anywhere close to that, so they'll continue to fill their lineup with cast-off filler like Yuniesky Betancourt and Wilson Betemit, players who might fool fans with a hot month or two but ultimately do more harm than good. That won't interfere with the plans of any of the other 29 teams.