- Coming off a 103-loss season and with new leadership in the front office, the Twins faced a tall task this off-season in improving a roster that has an enviable young core but little else going for it.
Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. First up: the Minnesota Twins.
59–103 (.364), fifth place in American League Central
LHP Pat Dean*, LHP Tommy Milone, 3B Trevor Plouffe, C Kurt Suzuki*
C Jason Castro, RHP Ryan Vogelsong
(*free agent, still unsigned)
The biggest change for Minnesota this winter came in the front office, with the franchise appointing former Indians assistant general manager Derek Falvey as its new chief baseball officer and former Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine as its new general manager. That young duo (Levine is 45, and Falvey is a gray hair-inducing 33) has been given the task of rebuilding a team that led the majors in losses last season with 103 and has one of the league’s lowest payrolls—no easy job, even given the club's enviable group of prospects.
For the most part, Falvey and Levine have worked on the margins. Castro is the only player who has gotten a multi-year contract from the Twins, with Minnesota otherwise staying away from free agency. Instead, the new front office will bank on a 2017 improvement led by the folks who are already there, primarily the under-25 trio of centerfielder Byron Buxton, slugger Miguel Sano and righthander Jose Berrios. To that group, the Twins may add the trade return for All-Star second baseman Brian Dozier—assuming that the team finds a package to its liking (see below).
In terms of new faces, Castro replaces Kurt Suzuki behind the plate as the team's starting catcher. The 29-year-old Castro was an All-Star in 2013 with the Astros, but he comes to Minnesota after three straight down years offensively in Houston; over that span, he hit just .215/.291/.369 with an OPS+ of 84 in 1,263 plate appearances. As poor as those numbers are, though, they’re not a far cry from what Suzuki put up last year (.258/.301/.403, 90 OPS+), and Castro is three years younger and a better defender to boot. Whether he’ll be worth the three-year, $24.5 million deal the Twins gave him is far tougher to figure, but he should at least offer some upside with the bat and more consistent defense at a position that’s been a black hole for Minnesota since Joe Mauer moved to first base in 2014.
Aside from Castro, veteran righthander Ryan Vogelsong is the only other notable name joining the Twins for 2017. The 39-year-old hasn’t been a better-than-league-average starter since 2012 and was largely ineffective for the Pirates last year, posting a 4.81 ERA, 5.00 FIP and 87 ERA+ in 82 1/3 innings. Even those mediocre numbers, though, would qualify as an upgrade on most of the Twins’ 2016 rotation, which had the worst ERA (5.39) in baseball last year. He’ll function as a back-end starter and veteran insurance in case Berrios, Tyler Duffey and Kyle Gibson (as well as prospect Adalberto Mejia) don’t produce. Plus, it wouldn’t be a Twins team without at least one soft-tossing righty who doesn’t strike anyone out.
Of the players gone from last year’s edition, none will be missed. Tommy Milone and Pat Dean were both awful last year, the former as a back-end starter (a 5.71 ERA and 5.54 FIP in 69 1/3 innings) and the latter as a reliever and swingman (a 6.28 ERA and 1.7 home runs per nine in 67 1/3 innings). Milone landed with the Brewers, who are making the barest of efforts to field a major league team in 2017; Dean remains a free agent. Suzuki—who suckered the Twins into a two-year, $12 million deal after hitting an unexpected .288/.345/.383 in 2014, then promptly cratered offensively—also has yet to find a home and will probably have to settle for a minor league deal as a backup.
Plouffe’s release, meanwhile, ends a seven-year run with the Twins, who drafted him in the first round way back in 2004. The 30-year-old third baseman has plenty of pop—he’s bashed 86 homers over the last five years—but not much else thanks to his poor plate discipline, base running and defense; last year, he gave the Twins just 0.4 WAR at the cost of $7.25 million. Outrighted in October, Plouffe eventually landed with the Athletics, who have yet to meet a replacement-level infielder they don’t like. Third base in Minnesota now belongs to Sano, who will move to the position full time after a disastrous stint in rightfield last year.
Unfinished Business: Dealing Dozier
It’s hard to imagine a more attractive option on the trade market right now than Dozier. The 29-year-old second baseman crushed 42 homers last year to go with a 136 OPS+ and 6.5 WAR—the latter figure one that trailed only Houston's Jose Altuve (7.7) and Seattle's Robinson Cano (7.3) among all qualified second baseman. Dozier gets even more attractive when you look at his contract, which promises him a grand total of just $15 million over the next two seasons.
That combination of production and affordability is hard to pass up, but it’s also hard to imagine a team putting together the kind of offer that would convince the Twins to make a deal, with Levine saying the braintrust would have to be “really inspired” to trade Dozier. The most persistent suitor has been the Dodgers, who have a huge need at second base and the prospects to make a deal happen, but the latest reports have both teams at an impasse and Los Angeles apparently exploring other options
If the Dodgers are indeed out, that leaves an uncertain market. The Cardinals and Nationals have both been linked to Dozier, but neither is actively pursuing him. The more likely scenario at this point is Dozier staying put and, depending on how the first half plays out, perhaps becoming the trade deadline’s top target as Minnesota continues its rebuild.
Preliminary Grade: D
The Twins haven’t done much to the on-the-field product this winter, and the moves they have made have been low-impact. A Dozier trade would change this mark substantially, but the truth is that there’s little to nothing Minnesota could do this off-season to improve its 2017 outlook substantially (unless recent reports that the team is considering adding free-agent slugger Jose Bautista go anywhere). Getting out of the AL Central basement and back to respectability will instead rest on the young shoulders of Buxton, Sano, Berrios and others. If they falter, another 100-loss season and a second straight uneventful winter are practically guaranteed.