- The Twins have the great fortune of having at least two, possibly three rebuilding teams in the AL Central. What they must do is go out and acquire strong starting pitching.
This is Part 2 of SI MLB's "Spend to Contend" series, identifying which teams should open up their pocketbooks and make a run at a playoff spot.
Every year, a team (or two) arrives in the playoffs that spent the previous one losing a lot and playing before shrinking crowds in early August. Last year, that team was the Diamondbacks, who palindromed their 2016 record not by overhauling their entire team but instead by identifying their immediate weaknesses. As the free agent freeze continues into February, over 100 free agents remain unsigned. With so few teams having substantially improved this winter and so many apparently consigning themselves to rebuilding or also-ran status, our “Spend to Contend” series examines those teams, whom like last year’s Diamondbacks, could best benefit from a significant dip into the market rather than a complete teardown. Part 1 on the New York Mets can be read here.
Next up? The Minnesota Twins
Last year, the Twins made history by becoming the first team ever to reach the postseason after losing at least 100 games the year before, jumping from a dismal 59–103 record to 85–77. Their stay in the playoffs was short, as they lost the AL Wild Card game to the Yankees, but in the bigger picture, the turnaround was impressive. Particularly in a division where the Tigers, Royals and White Sox are in various stages of rebuilding, they now have a golden opportunity to solidify their status as playoff contenders.
Executive vice president Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine, who assumed the reins in fall 2016, have begun forging a new identity for a franchise that had fallen behind the curve. Understandably, their quick success has raised expectations—this is not a rebuilding team—and so far this winter, they've talked a good game this winter by expressing strong interest in Yu Darvish, with Levine calling his signing "a priority." It's not entirely fanciful talk, either. Levine, who served as the Rangers' assistant general manager from 2005–16, established a strong bond with Darvish before and during their time together in Texas. Now the Twins have both a need at the front of their rotation and some payroll flexibility. They've got other areas still to shore up as well, not to mention a need to figure out the extent to which their late-season surge—35–24 after the July 31 deadline, compared to 50–53 prior—is indicative of what's to come.
Like so many other clubs, Falvey and Levine have already dipped into the otherwise frozen free agent market to to shore up their bullpen, one that gave them scant relief through the first four months of 2017. Not only did the unit have the league's third-worst ERA and second-worst FIP (both 4.83) as of July 31, but when closer Brandon Kintzler—who'd filled in admirably for the injured Glen Perkins—was traded to the Nationals on deadline day, it appeared the team was waving the white flag. But with 37-year-old Matt Belisle getting his first extended duty as closer, the bullpen improved by nearly a full run over the remainder of the season (3.89 ERA, 4.11 FIP). Belisle is a free agent, but the team has signed reliable righty Addison Reed (two years, $16.75 million), the always-dicey Fernando Rodney (one year plus option, $4.5 million) and lefty specialist lefty Zach Duke (one year, $2.15 million) to join Trevor Hildenberger, Ryan Pressly and Taylor Rogers, among others. If not a particularly imposing group, it's one that should at least miss more bats than the previous model, which ranked second-to-last in the league in strikeouts per nine overall (7.66).
An inability to miss bats has been an age-old problem in Minnesota. After ranking dead last in the league in strikeouts annually from 2011–15, the Twins rose to 12th amid their otherwise unsightly 2016 season, then slipped back to 14th last year; the rotation ranked 12th (7.1 K/9) while placing 10th in both ERA (4.73 and FIP (4.85). Among the holdovers, only 24-year-old Jose Berrios whiffed more than 8.0 per nine (8.6), while staff ace Ervin Santana was right at 7.1. Both 30-year-old righty Kyle Gibson and 24-year-old lefty Adalberto Mejia experienced second-half upticks in K rate, but neither is a hard thrower who offers tremendous upside. Phil Hughes, who's coming off thoracic outlet surgery, is a wild card, four years removed from his stellar debut season in Minnesota, and Michael Pineda, who was signed to a two-year deal after undergoing Tommy John surgery in July, is at best bound for a late-season cameo in preparation for a full return in 2019. Youngsters Stephen Gonsalves (a 22-year-old lefty) and Fernando Romero (a 23-year-old righty) have both appeared on various outlets' top 100 prospects lists in recent days, but they have a combined four starts above Double A (all by Gonsalves).
All of which is to say that this is a rotation in need of a big arm, and there's none bigger on the market than that of Darvish. The 6' 5" Japanese righty whiffed 10.1 per nine last year, his first full one after returning from Tommy John surgery, and owns a career rate of 11.0 per nine, the highest among active starting pitchers. His 3.86 ERA and 3.83 FIP weren't stellar, but the late-season tweaks of his mechanics and repertoire sent him on a great September/October run that ended only when the Astros decoded his pitch tipping in the World Series. Assuming that's fixed, it's not unreasonable to think that he can return to being his old self. Pitching in spacious Target Field, with elite flychaser Byron Buxton behind him, should help.
Obviously, Darvish won't come cheap; last month, I illustrated how a valuation of around $150 million over six years wouldn't be out of line, and industry estimates for a contract of that length have been in that general ballpark. As of mid-January, Darvish had narrowed his list down to six teams, and more recently, it's been reported that his preference is for a return to Los Angeles, but the Dodgers, who are trying to limbo under the $197 million competitive balance tax threshold, must offload a significant chunk of Matt Kemp's remaining salary. The Yankees are trying to do the same with Jacoby Ellsbury. The Rangers are no longer an option, which leaves the Astros, Cubs and Twins as the other three teams in the running.
The Twins, who last year opened the season with a $108.1 million payroll and who are already at around $104.6 million according to Cot's Contracts, probably can't win a straight up bidding war for Darvish, but a creatively structured contract, say with an opt-out after two years and some additional no-trade protection, could give them a leg up. Such a move means taking on extra risk on top of the considerable mileage the 31-year-old Darvish already has on his right arm, but it's not like Jake Arrieta, the other top-tier free agent pitcher, appears to be a realistic alternative. Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, the consensus next-best free agent options after Darivsh and Arrieta, are both much more contact-oriented in their approaches, solid additions but hardly game-changers.
While a big deal for Darvish would make the Twins swallow hard, they do have Joe Mauer's $23 million annual salary coming off the books after 2018. They’ll also shed the $9 million of Brian Dozier and potentially the $13.5 million of Santana, though the latter does have a $14 million option that vests if he throws 200 innings and passes an end-of-season physical. What’s more, the team doesn’t have a single player under contract beyond 2019—you can’t get much more flexible than that!
(Update: On Tuesday afternoon, the Twins announced that Santana had undergone capsular release/debridement surgery on his right middle finger, which will sideline him for 10-12 weeks, costing him most or all of April. His absence will likely prevent him from reaching 200 innings, in which case the Twins would have a $14 million club option on him for 2019 and an additional rotation hole for the first month of the season.)
Beyond Darvish, the area where the Twins need the most help is at DH, where switch-hitters Robbie Grossman and Kennys Vargas were both merely league-average hitters and worth a combined 1.5 WAR including their defense at the outfield corners (Grossman) and first base (Vargas). Obviously, the Twins aren’t going to swoop in and sign J.D. Martinez unless the slugger opts for one of agent Scott Boras' famous "pillow contracts," but they can take advantage of the current glut of free agents to sift through options.
Given the relatively modest production and projections for leftfielder Eddie Rosario and rightfielder Max Kepler — both homegrown, inexpensive and lefty-swinging — someone who can play a corner outfield spot and, ideally, swing from the right side, is one path. Aging righties Jose Bautista, Matt Holliday and Jayson Werth are coming off bad seasons, but under the right circumstances could be cheap options, and disposable ones if they don't bounce back. More interesting is Carlos Gomez, a former Twin who hit .255/.340/.462 with 17 homers in 105 games with the Rangers. He's just 32, but is no longer an elite defender in centerfield, and due to injuries has averaged just 113 games over the past three seasons. Limiting his exposure in the field could be the ticket to recapturing his offensive productivity.
Alternately, the pool of available first basemen (and "first basemen") offers options as well. Lucas Duda and Adam Lind both swing from the left side but offer a step up from the available outfielders in terms recent production, with three-year OPS+ of 119 (Duda) and 114 (Lind) respectively. Logan Morrison, who enjoyed a 38-homer breakout in 2017, would fit this bill as well. Any of them would need a platoon partner, but it needn't be a strict platoon. So here's another idea: righty utilityman Eduardo Nunez, who spent 2014 to mid-2016 with Minnesota, where he turned his career around. Nunez's glovework has never been his strength (-17 DRS over the past three years), but he's adequate to spot at second or third base (less so at shortstop) when he's not DHing. What's more, he provides a hedge in case Miguel Sano draws a suspension from the league for his alleged sexual harassment of a photographer. Nunez, who made $4.2 million last year while playing for the Giants and Red Sox, was under consideration by the Mets, who ultimately signed Todd Frazier; he's said to still be in contact with the Red Sox, and via FanRag's Jon Heyman, as many as seven other teams have expressed at least some level of interest.
Of course, there's nothing stopping Falvey and Levine from dipping into the trade market to fill the DH role. For example, they could take 2016 AL home run leader Mark Trumbo off the Orioles' hands—at a discount, of course—after a down 2017 showing. This regime needn't mortgage their much-improved farm system (22nd last year according to Baseball America, 12th this year thanks in part to the addition of 2017 overall number one pick Royce Lewis) to take advantage of their current position.
Before Falvey and Levine arrived, the Twins were known for an approach that tended to be safe and all too conservative. The fruits of that approach are apparent with regards to the volume of homegrown players on this roster, but so are its flaws. Now is an excellent time for the Twins to be bold, to land Darvish while the game's financial heavyweights look on, and to give this promising nucleus a chance to mature as a contender.