The Twins weakness at third base is no secret. The Nick Punto experiment failed miserably, with his quest to end the season above the Mendoza line quickly becoming a farce. The organization will be spending the rest of the season evaluating the former SEC batting champion, Brian Buscher, a Rule 5 draft pick out of the San Francisco Giants organization. So far he has been solid, but nothing spectacular, which is pretty consistent with all the scouting reports I’ve read on him that state he has very little upside.
The Twins need to be very sure on their decision with Buscher entering the 2008 season. If they aren’t, they should pursue Colorado Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins, a player who could threaten .300-30-100 every season. He is currently making $400,000. but is due a salary jump to about $4 mil. next year due to arbitration. Nevertheless, he is not eligible for free agency until 2010, so the Twins would control him for two years, and would have those two years to negotiate a long-term contract that extends beyond his first few years of free agency, like they did with Joe Mauer, and unfortunately failed to do with Justin Morneau.
The Twins could also afford Atkins. It would not surprise me if their most recent offer to Tori Hunter for 3 years, $45 mil. was their final offer. Torii turned it down and is looking for a contract more in the J.D. Drew range, 5 yrs./$70 mil. Some even believe he will be the number one center fielder to hit the free agent market this summer, ahead of Andruw Jones. Certainly the Twins can allocate some of those unspent funds toward a contract with their new third baseman. Atkins will probably ask for David Wright money, 6 yrs./$55 mil.
Why would the Rockies do this? Many reasons, all interrelated. The Rockies have Todd Helton’s albatross of a contract to deal with, which pays him between 16 and 23 million dollars per year through 2012. Thus, they cannot move Atkins to first base to make room for Ian Stewart, who according to Baseball America is the #2 prospect left in the Rockies’ minor league system (after 2007 promotions) and #46 prospect in all of baseball. However, that ranking shrinks to #22, if one removes players from that list who are currently in the big leagues, or who have spent significant time in the majors this year, players like Hunter Pence, Ryan Braun, Yovanni Gallardo, Alex Gordon, Justin Upton, and Troy Tulowitzki.
How would the Twins acquire Atkins? With their pitching of course. The Rockies organizational weakness has been pitching (although it's getting better), and that is the Twins’ strength. A pitcher from the quartet of Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker and Glen Perkins would probably intrigue the Rockies, though they’d probably demand Garza, the highest ranked pitching prospect in the Twins organization (they wanted Ervin Santana and another prospect from the Angels earlier this summer). Would new Twins G.M. Bill Smith pull the trigger?
In this league, and especially this small-market, the answer to that question always comes down to pitching? What about Johan Santana’s contract? Can Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey be relied upon to give the Twins quality innings as #3 and #4 starters? And, how is Francisco Liriano’s recovery coming?
The answers to these questions will decide if Garret Atkins, or a 3rd baseman of his caliber, will be manning the hot corner for the Twins next season. Whatever the Twins do, they need to do it quickly because time is running out. The most valuable assets in the organization, young pitchers, are probably losing their luster to prospective buyers so it's time to make a decision, hold for good or sell?