MINNEAPOLIS -- Major-league teams assess their needs in the offseason, maybe make a trade, possibly sign a free agent, or clean house.
The Twins may not need to make a move this winter. If they can keep the nucleus of the team intact, and sign center fielder Torii Hunter, they've got a shot to make a run at another Central Division flag in 2003.
But, as can be expected, the Twins have critical decisions to make this offseason. Contracts of key players expire this season.
Signing Hunter, whose contract is up, must be priority No. 1. He is one of the game's rising superstars at 27, one of its most clutch offensive and top defensive players.
The top four starting pitchers are as gifted as those on any team. Brad Radke, Eric Milton, Rick Reed and Joe Mays might be No. 1 starters for any other team. Kyle Lohse and Johan Santana were in the starting rotation much of the regular season and are budding stars. The readiness of Lohse and Santana may make one of the higher-paid big four expendable via trade.
In the bullpen, there are few better 1-2 relief combinations than J.C. Romero in the eighth and Eddie Guardado in the ninth. Both of their contracts expire this season. LaTroy Hawkins, Mike Jackson, Bob Wells and Tony Fiore have been capable setup men. Hawkins is eligible for free agency. Jackson may not be re-signed because he will be 38 next season. There is enough young talent in the farm system to force some intriguing decisions, such as letting Hawkins, Jackson and Wells go.
Is there a better defensive infield than Doug Mientkiewicz at first, Luis Rivas at second, Cristian Guzman at short and Corey Koskie at third? Mientkiewicz's power numbers must improve, and so must the enigmatic Guzman's consistency. The contracts of Mientkiewicz and Rivas expire this season. Koskie is locked up through 2003 and Guzman through 2004.
In the outfield, the Twins build around Hunter and a group of competent players. A position needs to be found for Michael Cuddyer, who may not be the answer in right. Jacque Jones is sound in left. Bobby Kielty and Dustan Mohr platooned virtually all season in right and would start for almost any team. Room has to be made sometime soon for Rochester's Michael Restovich, a power hitter who has steadily progressed through the organization.
Designated hitter is solid with either David Ortiz, whose contract is up, and Matthew LeCroy. Both are only 26. One might be expendable although they make a good left-right platoon.
Behind the plate, the catching is in good hands with All-Star A.J. Pierzynski the starter and 38-year-old Tom Prince a capable backup.
The final four teams in the playoffs are not in the top eight payrolls. The Angels' payroll ranks 15th at $61.7 million and the Twins' 27th at $40.2 million.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia thinks having smaller-budget teams in the playoffs is great for baseball.
"I think it shows if you use your resources wisely, you can build a team that can contend," Scioscia said. "We've certainly done it. The Twins have done it. I think the challenge, when you have teams that are talented at the core, as we are and the Twins are, is not so much keeping them together for one year or building them, it's keeping them together for a period of time so you can reap the fruits of the team, and that's being perennial contenders."
Both teams appear capable of attaining that distinction.
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