Your Daily Fantasy Rx
by Tim Polko
Minnesota's fantastic second half propelled them above the Royals and White Sox to win the AL Central, and while they only one won of the four ALDS games against the Yankees, the franchise remains in excellent position to see an extended run of post-season contention. As long as they start filtering more rookies into prominent roles, I expect them to stay in the playoff hunt indefinitely.
Unfortunately, the team will need to break up the core group of Twins in order to accomplish both tasks. Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, Rick Reed, Kenny Rogers, and Shannon Stewart all appear likely to leave in free agency. After wisely picking up Corey Koskie's $4.5M option, the scheduled raises for Koskie, Jacque Jones, Cristian Guzman, Brad Radke, Eric Milton, and Joe Mays alone account for the salaries of Reed and Rogers. Likely arbitration settlements with Johan Santana, Kyle Lohse, Matt LeCroy, and Luis Rivas should demolish at least the $4.5M paid to Guardado and Doug Mientkiewicz this year. So assuming the Twins don't significantly raise their payroll, I see perhaps $5M at most to fill roughly a dozen holes.
The biggest problem is the rotation, where Santana ranks as the new ace, followed by Radke and Milton, however the latter two both could leave as free agents in a year. So the only two current starters nearly certain to pitch for the Twins beyond 2004 are Santana and Lohse. Although top draft picks like Ryan Mills and Adam Johnson look like busts, AAA starters Grant Balfour, Brad Thomas, and Matt Carnes, along with AA starter J.D. Durbin, all look nearly ready to contribute in the majors. I don't believe the Twins need to add a veteran starter this winter as Balfour and Thomas should pitch at least adequately. Joe Mays will miss much of 2004 due to injury, however his return in 2005 should help compensate for the loss of the veterans.
Minnesota's bullpen suffers from even bigger issues as both closer Guardado and elite setup man Hawkins appear likely to find closing jobs elsewhere after somewhat contentious talks with the organization. Losing Santana to the rotation removes the next best reliever, so only Juan Rincon and perhaps J.C. Romero will return in next year's pen.
Fortunately the Twins possess a wealth of relief prospects, and if Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan are smart enough to use them, I don't expect to see a severe drop in bullpen effectiveness. Jesse Crain, Michael Nakamura, and Juan Padilla all appear ready for the majors, and Jeromy Palki and Todd Erdos also deserve consideration. Balfour and Thomas both belong in the big leagues, and both could help the bullpen if they don't win starting jobs. I know Ryan will be tempted to spend the $6M salaries taken home by Guardado and Hawkins in 2003 on veteran relievers, but unless they find a fantastic bargain or two, they should save the money and try to improve the middle infield.
While the pitching staff in Minnesota could see nearly 75% turnover between 2003 and 2005, the offense appears somewhat stable. Team leader Torii Hunter is contracted through 2007, and cleanup hitter and DH Matt LeCroy might not even be arbitration-eligible for another season. A.J. Pierzynski will yield to Joe Mauer within a year, and the Twins should be able to keep Manitoba native Corey Koskie at third base indefinitely if they transfer some bullpen funds to the infield.
Even though Doug Mientkiewicz finished the year as the #3 hitter and could win a Gold Glove, his lack of power and rising salary makes him a bad fit here. He should depart, hopefully via trade, as Justin Morneau deserves the first base job. Jacque Jones will shift back to left field for one more year, and Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas appear set to return in the middle infield.
Of course, the Twins lost in the playoffs because their starters weren't healthy and they didn't receive enough offense from the infield. Replacing Shannon Stewart at leadoff should also rank as a priority as I can't imagine he wants to remain on turf any longer.
Luis Rodriguez should replace Chris Gomez as the backup infielder, and while the AAA second baseman lacks speed, he owns much better plate discipline than Rivas or Guzman. A combination of Rodriguez, Rivas, and Guzman could handle the leadoff and 9th slots if Ryan doesn't look to trade for one of the many decent second baseman available this offseason. AA shortstop Jason Bartlett should replace Guzman in 2005, and he should develop into the team's best leadoff man in years.
Right field remains the last open spot here, however Mike Cuddyer, Mike Ryan, Mike Restovich, and Lew Ford all appear ready for the majors, not to mention current OF backup Dustan Mohr. Hopefully the team will make a move, perhaps sending Ryan or Ford somewhere for either a middle infield upgrade or a third base prospect if the Twins don't plan to keep Koskie. Cuddyer owns the most upside, yet Ford posted a .329/.405/.575 in 73 at-bats, Ryan managed a .393/.441/.754 in 61 at-bats, and Restovich compiled a .283/.406/.415 in 53 at-bats. All can contribute in the big leagues now, and all hit right-handed, so Spring Training likely will determine the starter in right, as well as Jones' long-term replacement in left. Cuddyer and Restovich probably rank as the favorites, but Ryan is the best hitter now and Ford would replace Jones' speed in the lineup. While trading for Stewart obviously worked out even though Santana's move to the rotation appears primarily responsible for the team's surge, acquiring another outfielder this winter seems ludicrous given the available internal options.
General Manager Terry Ryan enters the off-season with one of the biggest challenges of any GM: how to convert a playoff-caliber team with a rising payroll and over 25 qualified major leaguers into a fiscally-responsible contender that still retains the same team spirit that helped carry the squad this far. The gutsiest move involves dealing a couple of top young players, perhaps Pierzynski, Rivas, and an outfielder, to a team with multiple needs for an elite hitter or top young prospect. Possible fits include the Cubs in a deal involving Hee Seop Choi and/or Juan Cruz, the Brewers for Richie Sexson and cash, the Astros for Brad Lidge to close, and the Pirates for Kip Wells or Kris Benson and cash. More aggressive options include dealing for Carlos Beltran, the nearly untouchable Jeromy Bonderman, or Jose Vidro, who may be the most useful player available for teams with talent to deal this off-season. Vidro could give the team a long-term solution at second base while adding needed OBP to the lineup, Beltran adds a huge short-term bat, and Bonderman gives the team a future ace.
None of these options seems particularly feasible without knowing how much of the Twins' core Ryan desires to keep. By 2005, only Hunter and possibly Koskie could remain on offense as Mauer, Morneau, Rodriguez, Bartlett, Cuddyer, Restovich, Ryan and Ford all deserve extended looks in Minnesota. The presence of a homegrown future stud like Mauer also should alleviate any fan trepidation regarding the parade of competent role players out of the Metrodome. Of course, given the multitude of intriguing options facing Ryan, keeping this team below 85 wins any time soon would require an extremely unlikely deliberate act of sabotage. Expect to see the Twins challenge for the AL Central title in 2004 until at least the last week of the season.
Grant Balfour, 24, RH Swingman
I still don't believe the Twins gave Balfour only one start down the stretch before promoting retread Carlos Pulido. Fortunately, given his complete dominance at Rochester and his 27:9 K:BB in 23.1 IP with 19 H and 3 HR allowed in 16 relief appearances in the majors, Balfour almost certainly should break camp with the Twins. Although I see no reason why he shouldn't succeed as a starter other than a poor homer rate, he should approach double-digits even if he just inherits LaTroy Hawkins' role in the pen. Balfour also should compete with Jesse Crain and Mike Nakamura to close if the Twins don't sign a veteran, so he merits a few bucks in almost any league given his upside no matter what role he wins.
Although injury problems limited his playing time, Bowen should rank with the better catching prospects in baseball given his decent walk rate, power potential, and switch-hitting. His .184/.272/.313 performance at A+ Fort Myers in 2002 still concerns me, however Bowen's exceptional rebound season at least should make him a solid candidate to back-up Pierzynski next year. While I'd love to see a catching-desperate team like the Cubs or Orioles deal for him given his upside, Bowen at least merits a minimum bid if he remains with the Twins to begin next season. He definitely could surprise if given regular playing time.
Crain's eventually might move to the rotation given he owns four quality pitches, however the absolute dominance of this 2002 2nd round pick should keep him in relief for the next year or two. After compiling a 29:11 K:BB in 28 IP split between the Appalachian and Midwest Leagues a year ago, his combined totals of a 114:25 K:BB in 84 IP this season might make Crain the best relief prospect in baseball. He barely gives up one hit every two innings and still hasn't allowed a homer as a professional. Crain will spend this fall on Team USA, and if the Twins don't overpay for a veteran reliever, he should receive serious Spring Training consideration for the closer's job. If he breaks camp with Minnesota and isn't featured in too many winter articles, a couple bucks on Crain could net you a very impressive return over the next few years, particularly if he remains in short relief.
Selecting Mauer instead of Mark Prior in the 2001 draft may have cost the Twins at least one World Series' berth during the last two seasons. He also certainly shouldn't rank as anyone's minor league player of the year given the offensive production of players like Jeremy Reed and Prince Fielder. However, Mauer owns as much upside as anyone in the minors, compiled obviously impressive averages this year, and if nothing else, his combination of talent and marketability as a native Minnesotan should silence second-guessers within the next few seasons. Although his walk rate dropped and he still isn't hitting for power, Mauer's .90 contact rate and excellent defense make him one of the most appealing prospects in the majors to fantasy owners. He needs another couple months in the minors, but I have no doubt the Twins will give him the necessary development time given their cautious approach thus far, but he should debut in 2004 before challenging for the 2005 Rookie of the Year.
If the Twins don't invest in a veteran closer, I'd like to see Nakamura compete with Jesse Crain and perhaps Grant Balfour for the job. Unfortunately, the organization's decision to keep him in middle relief rather than short relief during the last few years should limit his immediate roto value. Promoted near the beginning of June, Nakamura compiled an 8:0 K:BB in 9.1 IP over 10 G, along with 10 H, a 9-14 G-F, and 1 HR allowed, before poor outings against the Brewers and White Sox resulted in his immediate demotion. Both his lofty ERA and atrocious home rune rate appear totally incongruous with his 344:101 K:BB in 343 IP prior to 2002, or his career sub-3.00 ERA in the minors. Even though he only stands 5'10", Nakamura deserves a long look as a middle reliever in the spring, an opportunity he should receive given he remains on the 40-man roster. He will merit fantasy attention once he establishes himself in Minnesota.
Restovich's 4.11 #P/PA with the Twins is perhaps the best indicator of his skill improvement this season as only a 2.67 G-F in Minnesota strikes me as overly worrisome. Despite moving to a worse hitters' league, he maintained a .10 walk rate while increasing his contact rate from .70 to .74. Although his slugging percentage dropped from .542 to .465, his OBP essentially remained the same and his BA only dropped 11 points. Even his SB success rate jumped from 61% to 77% due to smarter baserunning. While Minnesota lacks an obvious starting spot for him unless Cuddyer plays 2B and Restovich beats out Ryan, Ford, and Mohr in right field, Restovich also appears ready to contribute if needed. Another few months in the minors also shouldn't hurt his development as Restovich remains a key part of Minnesota's future as he owns perhaps the best raw power in the organization.
Rodriguez's only downside is that he stands just 5'9", yet he might be the best current middle infielder in the Twins' system. Although he could have left as a minor league free agent, he just re-signed with Minnesota and should challenge for a big league roster spot in Spring Training if one of the dozen clubs needing a quality middle infielder doesn't grab in the Rule 5 draft first. Rodriguez possesses little power or speed, however career skill ratios of a .13 walk rate and a .91 contact rate, as well as the consistent defense indicated by only committing 13 errors in 130 games in the middle infield, obviously gives him value in the right situation. A minimal investment in him at the draft could result in a significant profit if injury or a sudden bout of inspiration leads to a regular starting job for Rodriguez.
Maybe Ryan just grew bored with AAA after posting a .288/.353/.486 performance in 2001, followed by a .261/.330/.522 in 2002. Of course, shifting from Edmonton to Rochester also accounts for some of the decrease in power. His output for the Twins still seems more the result of a small sample size than any skill improvement given his .79 contact rate and 3.60 #P/PA. Fortunately his .89 G-F indicates promising power upside, and he certainly could contribute if given an everyday job. While I wouldn't overbid here given the competition, his skills suggest he could reach double-digit value with regular playing time far more than those of someone like Dustan Mohr. If nothing else, Ryan's left-handedness should keep him employed in Minnesota for a few years given the righty excess among the team's upper-level outfield prospects.
Two terrible stints in the majors and injury problems still can't negate the promise displayed by Thomas at Rochester this year. Although he continues to suffer from an elevated hit rate, the excellent Twins' defense will give him a needed boost once he reaches the majors. More importantly, his 7.7 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, and .5 HR/9 all indicate welcome improvement from his disappointing 2002 season, and he deserves a long look for a rotation spot in Spring Training. While his hit problems could balloon into a qualitative disaster, owners in leagues with relatively open transaction policies certainly should consider Thomas in the spring as he could emerge as quickly as Joe Mays or J.C. Romero did in past years.
Jim Abbott, 24, RH Starter
Abbott compiled a 4-8 record and a 3.90 ERA on a 103:43 K:BB in 132 innings in the Midwest League in 2002, so hopefully his performance this season will push him up some prospect lists. He isn't a particularly dominant pitcher, however Abbott's overall skills merit attention as he could reach the majors in the second half of 2004. Don't waste a draft pick on him given the Twins' depth, but consider him as a late-season free agent if he impresses at AAA and earns another promotion.
Only a disastrous debut at AAA in 2004 should keep Bartlett from winning a starting job in the Twins' middle infield by 2005. Obtained from San Diego for Brian Buchanan a year ago in July, Bartlett now ranks among the most roto-friendly prospects in the game given his prodigious speed, solid plate discipline, and sufficient defensive ability to guarantee a regular role in the majors. Of course, neither his .11 walk rate nor a .88 contact rate are overly great marks, and a 63% SB success rate is obviously troublesome, however 31 doubles and significant fantasy upside make him a superb minor league draft pick in spring drafts.
While I'm surprised Minnesota moved Bonilla to New Britain's rotation after he pitched effectively as the Quad City closer in 2001 and only managed 30 innings a year ago at Fort Myers, his success at AA places him among the team's starting prospects closest to the majors. The weak dominance indicated by a 4.9 K/9 could portend his eventual return to relief, work, but Bonilla's immediate future lies in starting given his 2.3 BB/9 and .5 HR/9. Although he isn't an acceptable fantasy pick for now since we don't know if he can duplicate this success, he might contribute in a limited role later in 2004.
Carnes' extreme hittability, unimpressive dominance, and rising age keeps him off prospect lists despite his impressive control. Although he soon should emerge as a viable AAAA starter on some club, worrisome hit rates in the upper minors make him a poor play in the foreseeable future.
Minnesota unjustly sent Deardorff to New Britain after Justin Morneau's promotion left the AA affiliate without a regular first baseman. Deardorff, with experience at first, third, and the outfield, gave the team an excellent replacement, but given his success at AA over the past three seasons, I really hope he find a AAA starting job in 2004. While I don't envision him starting regularly in the majors at any point, Deardorff's skill set suggests he should develop into no less than an excellent platoon partner for a cornerman with an aversion to hitting left-handers.
Durbin joins fellow Twins' prospect Jesse Crain on Team USA this fall, and while he isn't as close to the majors as Crain, his effectiveness as a starter gives him more long-term upside. I'm concerned that his dominance drops as he advances each level, however as he continues to compile sub-3.0 walk rates and doesn't allow many homers, Durbin should have a bright future in Minnesota. Expect him to receive a spot start or two in a September call-up before he competes for a rotation spot in 2005, making him a quality selection as either a low-round minor league draft pick or an inexpensive FAAB pick-up late in the year.
Green deserved a trip back to AA New Britain far more than Deardorff as Green failed to exceed a .750 OPS at AAA for the fourth consecutive season. He simply isn't a quality batter due to his poor plate discipline, and while his outfield skills keep him employed, I don't see him helping fantasy teams any time soon.
Hoard's season, which included missing over two months with a strained left rotator cuff, looks very disappointing after he compiled a 126:52 K:BB in 161 innings at New Britain in 2002. He still ranks as a quality prospect given his excellent control a Rochester prior to his injury, however his only logical opportunity to contribute in the majors next season appears to be as the second or third lefty reliever the Twins always seem to carry. Wait until he demonstrates his health and effectiveness before investing in Hoard.
The Twins' decision to rush Johnson to the majors, irrespective of his selection as the 2nd overall pick in the 2000 draft, remains the obstacle preventing him from succeeding. Johnson remained a top prospect for only a year, even compiling a 3.82 ERA on a 110:39 K:BB in 113 IP over 18 AA starts in 2002 before his quick promotion, followed by a demotion and then two successive seasons at AAA, appears to have ruined his psyche. He certainly could succeed in the bullpen given his current skills, however I still believe he could develop into a quality starter. Rather than try to work past the difficulties created with jerking him around the system, hopefully Minnesota will move him this off-season to an environment that would given Johnson better odds of success. Of course, while he still should possess fairly good trade value, he isn't worth owning on fantasy teams as long as he remains a Twin and lacks a defined role.
The former 6th overall pick no longer resembled the prospect that earned that distinction after six seasons of arm problems and incredibly inconsistent control. However, given his 7.5 K/9 this season out of the bullpen in his first AAA season, Mills should be able to carve a nice career as a reliever. He no longer belongs on prospect lists given his limited upside, however I suspect he'll merit fantasy attention within a couple years.
I don't see tremendous upside for Padilla given his relatively pedestrian 6.7 K/9, however his very impressive 1.7 BB/9, particularly when coupled with a .7 HR/9, makes him one of the safest bets among relievers in the upper minors. While he might depart the organization this winter in minor league free agency, his excellent control might force a team to spend a Rule 5 pick on Padilla regardless of where he signs. He should enjoy at least a few years as a dependable middle reliever with some closing potential.
I nearly ranked Palki among double-digit upside prospects, however his variable role, coupled with the fact he almost left the organization as a minor league free agent, makes him very unlikely to emerge as a vital bullpen contributor in 2004. Palki hasn't departed Minnesota since joining the team with Joe Mays in the 1997 trade that sent Roberto Kelly to Seattle, and although he hasn't sniffed the majors, he compiled a 159:55 K:BB in 151 IP in the upper minors over the last two years. He allows few homers, and his continued dominance at Rochester should earn him a long look at camp. Feel free to roster him once the Twins commit to giving him regular work and he registers a few decent innings to avoid an immediate punitive demotion.
The Twins just re-signed him as a minor league free agent, although given his performance this year, I don't know if they want him for any reason other than infield redundancy in case of injury. He owns little plate discipline or power, and his speed has vanished over the years. We might see him in the majors as roster filler, however he won't merit fantasy interest in the foreseeable future.
Although I suspect Schoening needs at least a year of AAA time before he can pitch effectively in the majors, this season qualifies as nearly a complete success as he stayed starting all year, displayed solid control, and established himself as a future rotation candidate. Of the Minnesota pitching prospects who haven't reached AAA, Schoening's experience and solid skills place him only slightly behind J.D. Durbin in the race to the Metrodome. He isn't a viable fantasy draft pick right now, but Schoening could contribute to the Twins as soon as the second half of next year.
The presence of Matt LeCroy and Justin Morneau in the system led the Twins to convert Tiffee to third base this year, and the success of the experiment gives Minnesota a potential replacement for Corey Koskie in 2005. Tiffee committed a relatively few 21 errors in 134 games, his contact rate rose from .90 to .91 despite the jump from A-ball, and he posted career-high averages across-the-board. Only a .06 walk rate overly worries me. Tiffee's 48 extra-base hits and excellent contact rate should push him up prospect lists this winter, so if you want a sleeper third base prospect in extremely deep leagues, spend a low minor league pick on him.
Minnesota wisely re-signed several quality minor league free agents in recent days, and while Torres' failure to produce at Rochester worries me, his success at New Britain over the past three years makes him a borderline prospect. He normally posts a good walk rate and respectable contact rate, so while he lacks power, his base batting skills given him a bright future as a backup backstop. Once he proves himself at AAA, Torres should emerge as the latest in a long line of quality Dollar Days' catchers.
Aside from players listed above, no other Minnesota prospect deserves consideration in 2004 fantasy drafts.
Mike Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Lew Ford, and Juan Rincon lost their rookie eligibility this year, but many impressive upper level prospects still qualify, including Balfour, Nakamura, Restovich, Ryan, and Thomas, not to mention Joe Mauer, Jesse Crain, Jason Bartlett, and J.D. Durbin. Minnesota obviously possesses tremendous upper level talent, as well as a solid collection of tools and skills goofs throughout the system. I expect them to rank among the best organizations for fantasy prospects at least for the next couple years.
Current ranking of potentially helpful fantasy depth for teams discussed thus far in 2003, based on both the quality and quantity of players ready to contribute in the majors, as well as consideration of the trade value of minor league draft picks from the lower levels of each system:
1. Minnesota Twins(Restovich, Mauer, Crain, Balfour, Bartlett)
1. Mike Restovich, OF
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