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MLB: Twins look to bolster rotation

MINNEAPOLIS -- It might be called the Hot Stove League, but Minnesota Twins fans waited almost all last winter for their oven to finish preheating. On a frigid Jan. 23 day in Minneapolis, general manager Bill Smith opened the team's annual media ...

MINNEAPOLIS -- It might be called the Hot Stove League, but Minnesota Twins fans waited almost all last winter for their oven to finish preheating.

On a frigid Jan. 23 day in Minneapolis, general manager Bill Smith opened the team's annual media luncheon by saying, "We've had a very, very busy offseason . . . and the result is basically nothing."

The Twins' first acquisition of note came Feb. 9, when they signed reliever Luis Ayala. Spring training was in full swing by Feb. 21, when they finally signed third baseman Joe Crede.

That's why last Friday's trade that sent center fielder Carlos Gomez to the Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy was so surprising. Two days after the World Series, Smith already had a big move under his belt.

"I think this is a good first step for us to improve our club," Smith said. "We've got a lot of challenges ahead of us to try to defend the Central Division championship."

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Smith, assistant GM Rob Antony and senior advisor Terry Ryan are in Chicago today for baseball's annual general managers meetings, a three-day gathering that usually gets the rumor mill churning full speed.

Targeting moundmen

Now that they have Hardy, the Twins can concentrate on an even bigger need: starting pitching.

Last winter, the Twins stood pat with the young starting rotation that helped push the White Sox to a one-game tiebreaker for the AL Central title in 2008. The group's encore fell seriously flat.

The Twins ranked 26th out of 30 major league teams in starting pitcher ERA (4.84) -- Minnesota's worst mark since 2000, the year of Sean Bergman.

"We've got (Scott) Baker, (Nick) Blackburn, and we fully expect (Kevin) Slowey to come back (from wrist surgery)," Smith said. "(Brian) Duensing certainly pitched very well for us down the stretch, and beyond that, we've got candidates. We expect (Francisco) Liriano to bounce back and hopefully regain the form that he had at the end of the '08 season. (Anthony) Swarzak, I think will be better second time around."

Then Smith might have tipped his hand.

"We'll see what's out there," he said. "And if there's a veteran starter or two that's a good fit for us, then we'll proceed accordingly."

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A starter, or two? Yes, there are indications the Twins will not hesitate to add two veteran starting pitchers this offseason, allowing Duensing, Liriano, Swarzak, Glen Perkins and Jeff Manship to provide the depth teams always seem to need.

Veteran possibilities

First, the Twins will see if they can re-sign free agent Carl Pavano, who went 5-4 with a 4.64 ERA after coming from Cleveland in a key August trade. Insiders say the Twins also plan to court Webster, Wis., resident Jarrod Washburn, who has made it known he'd like to play close to home.

Last season, the rotation missed a veteran leader, especially when Baker and Liriano got off to horrendous starts. What this staff really needs is a bona fide ace, but to get one, the Twins likely would need another trade.

The best starter on the free-agent market is John Lackey, but even with their increased revenues from Target Field, the Twins shouldn't try to outbid the Yankees, Mets and Co., for Lackey's services. Those are risky investments, and a wrong move could cripple the Twins for years.

But they should find out whether they can package some of their young talent for the likes of Florida's Josh Johnson or Toronto's Roy Halladay.

Halladay, 32, is one year from free agency, but the Blue Jays decided to hold on to him at the July 31 trade deadline. He has a no-trade clause and did not include the Twins among the list of teams for which he'd accept a deal last season, but it's worth checking again.

Johnson, 25, is 34-16 with a 3.40 ERA for his career, and he's two years from free agency.

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