Tonight is the night (any Dexter fans out there?). As the clock strikes midnight, MLB free-agents everywhere will be eligible to sign a contract with any club that makes them an offer. Some are Type-A free-agents, others Type-B, but all of them free to go to any team that will have them. If I'm Bill Smith and the Twins, I have a lot of work to do this off-season. I need half of a bullpen, I need a couple of middle-infielders, I might even need a starter...I've gotta get going. Earlier this week I talked about the Twins bullpen needs and now I want to focus on another somewhat pressing need of theirs and that's the middle infield.
Tsuyoshi Nishioka was a disaster last year. Alexi Casilla was pretty much who we thought he would be. The others were just minor-league fill-ins in what was a dismal season up the middle. Last year's experiments highlighted just how much of a mistake it was to let JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson go without having a whole lot to fall back on. 5 players saw 15 or more starts at 2nd base. 4 players saw more than 30 starts at SS. 44 errors we committed between the two positions and an overall .970 fielding percentage (league average for the positions combined was .979)...and that's not even counting the 20 errors at 3B. Last year's Twins team was essentially a real-life example of how much of a difference a good (or bad) defensive middle-infield makes.
Given that free-agency is literally right around the corner, here are a couple of free-agents that would be a good fit for the Twins. Some of them are more expensive, others not so much - though for a lower salary you often have to compromise on offensive production.
#1 Candidate: Kelly Johnson (2B) - Type-A
MLBTR thinks that Johnson is headed to the Dodgers, but there's no reason to think that the Twins couldn't get in on this free-agent. I've talked about Johnson here before on this site, but in my opinion he really is the cream of the crop when it comes to free-agent 2nd basemen. Johnson is 29-years-old, he has a career .260/.343/.441 triple-slash, and he's a good 2nd baseman (.981 career fielding % and career 10.9 UZR). While Johnson is perhaps one of the more expensive middle-infield candidates out there, he also is probably looking for a long-term contract which the Twins would be smart to offer him given the lack of middle-infield depth within the organization. Johnson made $5.85M last season and could probably be had for a 3-5 year deal worth about $7-9M per year (worth the picks you'd have to give up due to Johnson's Type-A FA status). Johnson would be an instant upgrade on Alexi Casilla and would allow the Twins to either move Casilla to SS or find someone else to play shortstop and make Casilla a utility option.
#2 Candidate: Clint Barmes (SS or 2B) - Type-B
I actually wouldn't mind seeing the Twins pursue both of these guys, but my gut tells me that's unrealistic. Barmes in not much to look at offensively, but he is intriguing from a defensive standpoint. Barmes has played more SS in his career than 2B, but has a solid (not spectacular) glove and a little pop in his bat. He made $3.92M last year and if offered some sort of multi-year deal, would probably only command a salary in the $4M-$5M per year range, maybe even less. At 32 years old Barmes is probably only to get slower from here, but as a short-term fix, he's worth a look.
#3 Candidate: Aaron Hill (2B best, can play SS) - Type-B
Hill would most likely be a 2B candidate only, but again, it's a need the Twins have so he's worth a look. After being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks last season, Hill showed that he's still got it carrying a .315/.386/.492 line in 33 games to end the season. Hill has a career 21.7 UZR score at 2B to go along with his .987 fielding %. Hill and Johnson are very similar...both are solid defenders who bring a bat with them to the plate. Within the spacious confines of Target Field, Hill is likely to be more of a doubles hitter than Johnson but either of them would be a vast upgrade offensively from what the Twins have in-house. Aaron Hill made $5M last year and would be the "middle-of-the-road" option between these three, likely commanding a $5-7M salary over a 2-3 year deal.
There are other options out there, Furcal, Betancourt, etc., but these are the three options I like best based on price, age and ability. I would love to have Kelly Johnson, I think he would make a great fit for the Twins, but my gut tells me I'm dreaming which is really too bad.