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01/21/09 4:44 PM EST

Third base remains Minnesota mystery

Twins struggling to find power hitter and solid glove to play the hot corner

MINNEAPOLIS -- For nearly half a decade, third base has been an enigma for the Twins.

Since Corey Koskie left as a free agent after the 2004 season, the Twins have been trying to find a way to fill the void with an effective, everyday third baseman. It's proven to be a task more difficult than they ever imagined.

The club's experiment of moving Michael Cuddyer to the spot in 2005 turned into a disaster and the signings of free agents Tony Batista (2006) and Mike Lamb (2008) became flops as well with the organization eventually releasing both players.

Even when the team feels like it might have found a solution for the spot, it turns out only to be short-term. Nick Punto emerged as the third baseman when Batista was let go in '06, but when given the everyday job in '07, Punto pressed and produced the worst offensive season of his career.

So as the 2009 season approaches, it's no surprise that third base is once again the biggest question mark for the Twins.

The ballclub entered the offseason with the goal of upgrading the infield offensively, particularly the left side of the infield.

When the Twins re-signed Punto to a two-year contract in December to be their starting shortstop, it appeared the club's target for an offensive upgrade was focused on third base. But with less than a month remaining until the start of Spring Training, the Twins are still without that additional "power bat."

The need for that missing offensive piece in the lineup is clear. Justin Morneau said back in November that he felt the team was one bat away from being a serious title contender in 2008. And if there is one position where a power bat would fit, it's at third base.

So what exactly has stopped the Twins from adding one this winter?

And perhaps the bigger question would be: Will they add that bat before the 2009 season opens on April 6?

There have been options out there this winter to help the Twins upgrade offensively at third base. It's just that the Twins have yet to find what they feel is the right mix for the position -- a player with a power bat and more than adequate defense who also has a price tag that's not too costly for the organization.

"If you can go out and find the right guy who can hit 20-25 home runs and drive in 100 runs and is established at the position, then you'd love to do that," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "But so far there have been no guarantees that we'll be able to find a player who can do those things."

The Twins have explored a long list of potential fits, but none have worked out. The team pursued free agent Casey Blake prior to the Winter Meetings, but were unwilling to guarantee the 36-year-old a third year on his contract. So Blake ended up signing a three-year deal with the Dodgers. The club also talked the Cubs about Mark DeRosa, but it was their American League Central foe, the Indians, who filled their hole at third by acquiring DeRosa from Chicago for three young pitching prospects.

Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins was another player the Twins inquired about this winter. Yet Colorado's asking price was way too high for the Twins as they wanted a package containing Kevin Slowey, Denard Span and another prospect. Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre, a two-time Gold Glove winner who has 25 or more home runs in each of the last three seasons, was considered to be the Twins' top choice for a third baseman. But Minnesota was included on Beltre's no-trade list -- making a potential swap appear very unlikely.

The Twins want a power bat, but the defensively minded team appears unwilling to sacrifice defense to get it. That's why the Twins have not really made a push for Ty Wigginton, who was non-tendered by the Astros in December, as they see him as having only an adequate glove at third base.

Having not yet found a fit for third base, the Twins are preparing to head into Spring Training with a platoon of Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris at the position. It's an option that Gardenhire said he isn't afraid to stick with after the two players combined for five home runs and 59 RBIs in 95 games at third base last season.

Hot Stove
"Harris played great all over the place last year and Buscher had a heck of a year for us," Gardenhire said. "They are gamers and they come to play. I'm not afraid to start the year right now with those two guys."

That doesn't mean the club has completely abandoned its pursuit of an everyday third baseman. One free agent who remains on the club's radar is Joe Crede.

Crede, 30, will be a slight gamble for whatever team signs him. The third baseman has been limited by chronic back problems over the past two seasons, causing him to play in just 144 games for the White Sox over that span.

What makes Crede an intriguing option is the production he's had when healthy. He batted .283 with 30 home runs and 94 RBIs in 2006, his last fully healthy season. And despite playing in just 97 games for the White Sox last season, Crede hit 17 home runs -- more than double the number the Twins had for the entire season at third base.

Defensively, Crede has also been one of the top third basemen in the league. In three of the last four seasons, Crede has produced a revised zone rating of .737 or higher and is considered by many scouts to be a Gold Glove caliber fielder -- when healthy.

The Twins don't appear in a hurry to pursue Crede until they are confident that he's healthy. Crede underwent another back surgery in October, but is expected to be ready to play this season. The Giants and Rangers are reportedly interested in Crede as well.

With no other third basemen appearing high on the Twins' radar at the moment, it seems likely the club may enter the spring without an upgrade at the position. But don't expect the search to stop just because Spring Training has started.

"We have a team in place, but if we can improve it, we're going to try," Gardenhire said.

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.