Cliff Lee may have set Twins free from Yankee shackles

Should you closely follow Minnesota Twins baseball, gentle reader, you'll empathize with the vitriolic tone that appeared in this space on Monday.

Given the 50th anniversary of Twins baseball and the debut of Target Field, 2010 was an historic time for this ballclub. Yet despite all the deserved positivity that surrounded the 2010 Twins, I can think of no sadder way for this campaign to have come to such an abrupt and sorry close.

Hardball talk this week has and will focus on what went wrong for the club in getting swept again by the Yankees in the ALDS before the conversation turns to how the Twins will roster themselves in preparation for 2011.  While ample signing decisions need to be made in the months to come on that front, allow me to take a look back at very specific personnel move in the season that was.

Given the frugality of Twins' past, the club's front office did an exceptional job in beefing up payroll and personnel this season to compliments the team's new environs.  But obviously, the savvy additions of playoff veterans Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy, Jim Thome, and Brian Fuentes wasn't enough.  Nor was the trade deadline move that brought solid closer Matt Capps over from Washington in exchange for top catching prospect Wilson Ramos.

As we've collectively viewed in the landscape of these MLB playoffs and in the brevity of the Twins' loss to New York -- bullpen strength is a most valuable asset, but it takes the muscle of a stud starter to get your team to a frame where those lauded relievers can take you home.  The Twins bullpen was indeed suspect in this ALDS, but the larger point herein is that the club desperately lacks an Ace.  It wasn't power that felled the Twins (New York hits four bombs to the Twins two), it was power pitching.  In the diminutive scope of a five or seven game series, there is no greater value to a ballclub than a horse that can pull the cart, a stopper who can give you seven-plus innings of near-stainless work two times in a five-gamer or three times in a seven-gamer.   

Cliff Lee could have been that guy and, according to reports both local and national, the Twins made an earnest play to rent the stud lefty for the final three months of the season before he becomes a free agent.  Lee is now in Texas, of course, making a pivotal start in Game 5 against the Rays tonight as the Rangers look to win their first-ever playoff series.  A solid outing by Lee this eve would mirror that 7 IP, 1 ER performance he gave Texas in their Game 1 win over Tampa.  After being acquired by Philly from Cleveland at the trade deadline last season, Lee gave the Phillies four wins in four Quality outings over five oft-dominating playoff starts.

This Twins evidenced no such stoppage in their defeat to the tough Yanks lineup as starters Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, and Brian Duensing offered nary a Quality Start in their respective outings.

I'm not ripping the Twins for failing to get Lee.  Word surfaced after Lee went to Texas for top IB prospect Justin Smoak along with a fellow former first round pick in pitcher Blake Beavan (among others), that the Twins offered pitcher Kevin Slowey and either outfielder Ben Revere or Ramos to Seattle for Lee's services.  The linchpin, it readily appeared, was the Twins' unwillingness to part with the organization's No. 1 prospect, outfielder Aaron Hicks.

The debate of trading the future for the present is a ubiquitous one in baseball, and the Twins shouldn't be shredded for opting not to part with the talented Hicks for a player that they get for 15 regular season starts (that's what Lee gave Texas) prior to a potential playoff clinch.  While the club boosted their payroll by $40 million this year, there's an extremely low (if any) chance that they would have kept Lee on the payroll past 2010.

Yet to look at the eight teams in this year's playoffs is to view an assembly of starting pitching studs, the likes of which the Twins undoubtedly lack.  It's become apparent that their

present crew (including free agent Pavano, as I'm of the opinion that he'll remain here) is up for the jabs required to grind through a six-month season, but lacks the knockout right needed in a smaller sampling of do-or-die games.  Lee would have undoubtedly boosted their chances to take New York to the mat.

Considering the LDS starting rotations of all eight teams, here's a little grading curve that may further evidence the Twins' lack of stud pedigree and playoff experience on their staff.  This isn't the stat gospel by any means, but it is somewhat telling. Here's the grading values:

Cy Young (10 points), 20 win seasons (6 points), All Star appearances (3 points), Playoff Quality Starts (2 points), Playoff Wins and Playoff Starts (1 point each)

1.  New York Yankees -- 185 points
2.  Philadelphia Phillies - 119 points
3.  Atlanta Braves -- 63 points
4.  Texas Rangers -- 39 points (all via Lee)
5.  San Francisco Giants -- 30 points (all via Tim Lincecum)
6.  Tampa Bay Rays -- 23 points
7.  Minnesota Twins -- 14 points
8.  Cincinnati Reds -- 10 points

Obviously, the Twins anemic .216 average and six RBI in the series didn't make matters any better, but for me, this above is the rub.  The list of 2012 free agent starters without club options won't have you running out to grab any wall posters, so the Twins -- while they decide their direction with free agents Pavano, Thome, Hudson, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch and  their club option on Jason Kubel -- also need to address the need for an Ace in their deck of cards.

The Yankees will simply reload.  The Twins, after such a fine season, can ill-afford to insult their fan base or smear their new ballpark with the time it takes to refuel.  

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