MLB

Twins have plenty of holes to fill in free agency

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP)

Jason Kubel is preparing for a free-agent period unlike any he's ever experienced, and so are the Minnesota Twins.

Kubel is one of three Twins mainstays - outfielder Michael Cuddyer and closer Joe Nathan are the others - who was scheduled to become a free agent when the clock struck midnight on Thursday. The veteran was drafted and developed by the Twins, so he was prepared to wade into the waters carefully for the first time in his career.

''I'm a little nervous and a little excited,'' Kubel said on Wednesday. ''I don't know what to expect. Anything can happen, really.''

The Twins are in the same position.

Minnesota historically has not been an aggressive organization on the open market, preferring to draft and develop from within or add players through trades over splurging big dollars on free agents. But a 99-loss season has ratcheted up the urgency and has GM Bill Smith and the rest of his staff exploring every avenue to get the team back to the perennial contender it has been for most of this century.

Add to that the lack of depth in the minor leagues that would make it more difficult to pull off a trade that could help them immediately, and it could put more of an onus on free agency this time around.

They have myriad holes to fill, with needs in the starting rotation, the bullpen and at shortstop being the most pressing. Smith said in September that the team's $115 million payroll likely will be reduced some heading into next year. With Joe Mauer making $23 million, Justin Morneau making $14 million and Carl Pavano taking in a healthy $8.5 million, there won't be a ton of room to operate.

The Twins didn't have a starting pitcher win 10 games this season and still lack a true ace. But those are difficult to find, especially this season with an underwhelming group of free agents. The biggest name, Texas lefty C.J. Wilson, is likely to be out of the Twins' price range, with White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle and Oakland's Rich Harden more realistic possibilities.

They also need a more reliable backup catcher for Mauer, who played in only 82 games because of various injuries and illnesses last season. Drew Butera was woeful offensively, so the Twins could look to steady veterans like Kelly Shoppach, Rod Barajas and Ryan Doumit as other options.

Given that he is one of the team's few power options from the right side of the plate, his ability to play multiple positions and his role as a leader in the clubhouse, Cuddyer figures to be the top priority for the team to re-sign. Cuddyer just finished a four-year, $33.5 million contract and is coming off his first All-Star season. The 32-year-old will likely get plenty of interest from teams looking for a reliable right-handed hitter with pop who is an above-average right fielder and can also play first base, second base and third base.

He has spent his entire career with the Twins organization. While making it clear that he would love to retire as a Twin, Cuddyer also said he is intrigued by testing the free agent waters for the first time in his career.

''It will definitely be a different feeling with the uncertainty of not knowing whether I'm coming back,'' Cuddyer said in September as he packed up his locker.

Kubel is a different story because he is left-handed and the Twins lineup is chock full of lefties, including Denard Span, Ben Revere, Mauer and Morneau. Kubel played in just 99 games this season because of a foot injury and had 12 homers and 58 RBIs.

Kubel said he has been hitting and running without pain and hopes to return to the only ofranchise he has played for next season.

''I've been there my whole career,'' Kubel said. ''No change would be fine with me. I like it there. I like it a lot.''

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Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/APkrawczynski.

Tagged: White Sox, Twins, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel

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