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Twins to evaluate multiple free-agent options

Twins to evaluate multiple free-agent options

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Coming off a 99-loss season just one year after winning 94 games and the American League Central, the Twins face an important offseason.

Outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel and reliever Matt Capps could potentially leave as free agents, while closer Joe Nathan had his $12.5 million option declined by the club.

The Twins -- after paying Nathan's $2 million buyout -- will have roughly $83-85 million in payroll obligations including estimated arbitration figures.

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Minnesota entered the 2011 season with a franchise-record payroll of $113 million, but payroll is expected to decrease slightly, meaning the club has about $20-25 million to spend this offseason.

Twins general manager Bill Smith has also indicated the club is going to try to re-sign Cuddyer and/or Kubel, while also trying to retain Nathan even though it decided to buy out his option. But Cuddyer and Kubel are set to test the free-agent market and there's no guarantee either will be back next season.

Capps, however, is unlikely to return, but the bullpen needs to be revamped considering the team finished with the worst bullpen ERA in the Majors.

The Twins also could go the free-agent route to sign a starting pitcher, as left-hander Brian Duensing could be moved from the rotation to the bullpen.

The club is also looking to add a shortstop after Tsuyoshi Nishioka's and Trevor Plouffe's struggles, as well as a backup catcher who can provide some offense behind Joe Mauer.

So the Twins appear primed to make several moves via free agency to help the club, but aren't expected to make any major splash signings considering they have so many areas of need after a disappointing '11 campaign. The free agency period begins tonight at 11:01 p.m. CT.

CONTRACT ISSUES

Free agents: Michael Cuddyer, OF; Jason Kubel, OF; Matt Capps, RHP

Eligible for arbitration: Francisco Liriano, LHP; Alexi Casilla, INF; Jason Repko OF; Kevin Slowey, RHP; Glen Perkins, LHP; Jose Mijares LHP

Player options: None

Club options: Joe Nathan, RHP, $12.5 million (declined).

Non-tender possibilities: Repko, Slowey, Mijares

AREAS OF NEED

Bullpen: The Twins lost four relievers to free agency before the season and simply couldn't replace their production, as left-hander Glen Perkins was the lone bright spot in the bullpen. Nathan also pitched well down the stretch, and is likely to be offered a new multiyear deal after his option was declined. The Twins will look to add a veteran arm or two via free agency, while hoping younger pitchers such as Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak and Kyle Waldrop can continue to improve and round out the rest of the bullpen.

Starting rotation: The Twins hope to add a starting pitcher via free agency -- or trade -- this offseason after Minnesota starters finished with the third-worst ERA in the American League. Left-hander C.J. Wilson is perhaps the lone ace on the market, but he is expected to be out of their price range. Left-hander Mark Buehrle is a more realistic target, and would give the Twins a much-needed boost, especially given his consistency over the years with the rival White Sox. Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma is also an option, as the club finished second in the bidding for him last year when he was posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles, and is now a free agent and free to sign with any team after the A's failed to sign him last year.

Shortstop: Improving their defense at shortstop is a priority of the Twins, considering Nishioka's and Plouffe's well-documented struggles there defensively last season. The Twins are looking to add a veteran shortstop, and free agents such as Clint Barmes and Ramon Santiago fit that bill. Minnesota could also decide to bring back Nick Punto after his one-year stint with the Cardinals.

Catcher: Drew Butera is regarded as a solid defender, but his bat is a major liability -- he's combined to hit just .178 with four homers over the last two seasons. If Mauer remains healthy and sees most of the action behind the plate, the Twins can live with Butera as their backup catcher, but there's no guarantee Mauer can do that after he caught just 52 games due to various injuries and illnesses. So the Twins are intent on adding some offense behind the plate, and could look to sign a veteran such as Rod Barajas or Kelly Shoppach to help out with catching duties.

2012 payroll: The Twins are not expected to exceed their 2011 Opening Day payroll of $113 million, but should still open the season with a payroll in the $100-110 million range. So even though they finished with the worst record in the American League, they're not looking to rebuild in '12, as they have the payroll to put a winning team on the field. But like last year, injuries will have a major role in dictating their success, as key players such as Justin Morneau, Denard Span and Mauer -- who will be paid a combined $40 million next year -- need to stay healthy and produce. It's also important to note the Twins have the No. 2 pick in the First-Year Player Draft, and last year at that slot the Mariners paid their pick $8.5 million.

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Bollinger Beat, and follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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