Hot Stove: Offensive upgrade sought

Hot Stove: Twins looking to upgrade offense

MINNEAPOLIS -- Will we see "Extreme Makeover: Twins lineup edition" or just a slight retooling of the offense?

We may not know exactly what changes Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan has in mind until it gets closer to Spring Training, but we could see which direction he's headed in this week. With the annual general managers meetings in full swing in Indian Wells, Calif., Hot Stove speculation around the Major Leagues has already intensified. Besides discussing policies and rules, trades are often executed.

There's been no secret about what dominates the Twins' winter wish list.

"Offensively, we're trying to upgrade," Ryan said.

That's certainly a wise course to take considering Minnesota ranked at or near the bottom of the American League in every key offensive statistical category, including dead last in runs scored with 688.

This year's free agent class is considered a thin one by the baseball industry.

"It'll be a good year for some of the players coming out on the free agent market," Ryan said. "I don't see it as a problem [for the Twins]. It's not that big of an issue."

White Sox slugger Paul Konerko, Mets catcher Mike Piazza and Padres outfielder Brian Giles are considered some of the bigger names on the market. Since their 2006 payroll will likely fall in the midsize $57-60 million range, it's unlikely the Twins will spend big to sign one of these players. One who prefers to keep his thoughts private, Ryan did not provide specifics about which players he's looking at or what positions he's looking to fill.

"Players are identified as a good fit that we like and want," Ryan said. "There are about a half-dozen players that fit what we need. You approach them and see what you can do. We're looking for guys who can swing the bat. What position they play, we'll try to make it fit."

One place where there will be change is third base. Manager Ron Gardenhire, Ryan and others in the organization determined that Michael Cuddyer was not a fit in 2005. Cuddyer committed 15 errors this season and had an inconsistent year at the plate.

"It appears likely we'll move Cuddyer off of that third-base spot," Ryan said. "He seemed to do better when he was away from third base. Second base and right field are possibilities, but we'll see where we are before we zero in on any position."

That could increase speculation that the Twins will make a run at Red Sox free agent third baseman Bill Mueller, mid-level. The 34-year-old Mueller is a consistent hitter, a positive clubhouse presence and not expected to be overly expensive to sign. One of the few others available at third base is the Padres' Joe Randa, who turns 36 in December.

Another avenue is that the Twins could trade for what they need. The organization has pitching to spare and could look to move troubled lefty reliever J.C. Romero, starting pitcher Kyle Lohse or prospects to get offense. Rumors have the club being interested in Phillies super slugger Jim Thome, but his expensive contract (three years remaining at around $45 million) could make that deal difficult to close.

There are other issues that remain in flux headed into the winter months. The Twins have not made any offers yet to retain free agent right fielder Jacque Jones, who is considered likely to sign with another club. That could mean Lew Ford, Jason Kubel, Cuddyer or someone outside the organization could be candidates to replace Jones.

Three players -- Lohse, Cuddyer and infielder Nick Punto are eligible for arbitration and must receive contract offers before a Dec. 20 deadline. The Twins have a good track record of avoiding arbitration hearings with their players by signing them earlier, but lost a case against Lohse last year.

Although many speculate that Lohse could be traded or not tendered an offer, it's also very possible that he could be brought back for another year. That decision will depend on the organization's feelings about pitching prospects Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano and whether both are ready for the rotation next year.

Ryan downplayed persistent media rumors that he might deal five-time Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder Torii Hunter this offseason. Ryan said much of the speculation has been driven by East Coast media outlets.

"The Yankees have a need in center field. [The media] start looking at smaller market clubs with contracts that are large," Ryan told by phone on Tuesday night. "The media is just doing their job. Economics are not part of the equation for us this winter. We're fine. Rumors are equating it with small-market economics and that just isn't so. If I do something, it will be baseball oriented."

Hunter will make $10.75 million in the final year of a four-year contract next season. The club holds a $12 million option for 2007.

Of course, everything is gossip, rumor and innuendo until a move is actually consummated.

"That's what it's all about in the winter," Ryan said. "You do all of this prep work and get ready for Spring Training."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.