MLB hot stove: Three moves Twins can make to counteract their free agent losses this winter

At 36-24, the Minnesota Twins finished with the best record in the Central regional last season en route to their second consecutive AL Central title. It still wasn’t enough to end their record postseason losing streak. The Twins were swept in the Wild Card Series to extend the October losing streak to 18 games. 18 games! It’s unfathomable.

Historic postseason losing streak aside, Minnesota boasts a talented roster that should have the team in contention for a postseason spot again in 2021. FanGraphs projections say the Twins have the seventh-best roster in baseball at the moment, narrowly behind the much more active White Sox in the AL Central (38.9 WAR to 38.1 WAR).

Much more active is an understatement, really. While the White Sox have added Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks (and Adam Eaton) in recent weeks, the Twins have added Hansel Robles and not much else. They’ve already lost Trevor May (Mets) and Matt Wisler (Giants) to free agency. Look at the other 2020 Twins in free agency:

To be fair, the Twins have made a handful of minor-league contract signings (Luke Farrell, Derek Law, Tzu-Wei LinJuan Minaya, etc.), but so has every team. Minor-league depth signings are standard offseason business, not something to be championed as an effort to improve. Minnesota has sent a small army of players into free agency with few additions to compensate.

The Twins are hardly the only team to have a quiet offseason, of course. The White Sox are the only American League contender to meaningfully improve their roster, and some, like Cleveland (so long, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco) and the Rays (so long, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton), have made themselves appreciably worse. The pandemic is cutting into payrolls and it shows.

“I don’t think the fact that we lost money in 2020 [is] the driver for what we are going to do in 2021,” Twins owner Jim Pohlad told reporters, including Phil Miller of the Star Tribune, in October. “There is uncertainty [about attendance in 2021]. We are going to have to figure out an ‘uncertainty discount,’ and we will.”

Spring training is a little less than a month away now and only 16 of our top 60 free agents have signed, so the Twins have plenty of time to make a move(s) and plenty of players to choose from. I have a very hard time believing they will sit on their hands the rest of the offseason and take this current roster into 2021. Moves are coming, and here are three things Minnesota still needs to do.

1. Figure out the infield

On paper, the Twins are set all around the infield. Miguel Sano settled in at first base last year, contact machine Luis Arraez has hit his way into the second base job the last two seasons (.331/.390/.429 in 124 MLB games), Jorge Polanco is signed long-term to play shortstop, and Josh Donaldson is at third base. All set, right? No need to make a move on the infield.

Well, no, not necessarily. Donaldson turned 35 last month and he was again dogged by calf problems in 2020. They limited him to 28 games last year and 348 of 546 possible games the last four years. With three years at big money remaining on his contract, the Twins could move Donaldson to DH in an effort to keep him on the field. Maybe not a full-time DH, but what about half-time?

Arraez’s and Polanco’s defense also leave something to be desired. Arraez is at minus-6 Defensive Runs Saved in 80 MLB games at second base, and Polanco has been in the negatives at shortstop every year since 2015. Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric agrees with Defense Runs Saved. It has Arraez and Polanco comfortably below average at their positions.

Last month The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal noted the Twins are receiving trade interest in their young, controllable players like Arraez and Polanco, which creates the potential for an interesting “trade an infielder and sign a free agent” scenario. From Rosenthal:

The Twins, like all teams deep in young talent, are drawing trade interest in their upper-level prospects and major leaguers under long-term control. The potential to deal one of those major leaguers, second baseman Luis Arraez, creates an interesting scenario in which the Twins could move shortstop Jorge Polanco to second and either sign a free-agent shortstop or trade for a 2021-22 free agent at the position

With the exception of DJ LeMahieu, all the top free agent infielders remain unsigned. The Twins could follow through on Rosenthal’s hypothetical, trade Arraez for help elsewhere on the roster and shift Polanco to second base, and sign an above-average defensive shortstop like Marcus Semien or Andrelton Simmons. Likely? I don’t think so, but the front office has to consider all possibilities.

The Twins are in a good spot because they don’t have to do something with their infield. Sticking with the status quo is a perfectly viable option, so they can play the market and see what shakes loose, and pounce on anything that makes sense. They will have to figure out what they’re doing with the infield fairly soon, however, because that decision affects other parts of the roster, such as…

2. Add a bat

Cruz is an ageless wonder. The 40-year-old authored a .303/.397/.595 batting line last season and only eight players in history have hit more home runs after their age-30 season. Similar to LeMahieu and the Yankees, it feels like a Cruz-Twins reunion is inevitable. It’s a perfect fit for everyone involved, and yet, it hasn’t happened. Cruz remains unsigned.

Early in the offseason it was reported Cruz is seeking a two-year contract, which seems unlikely at his age despite his production, but there’s no harm in asking. They’ll never give it to you if you don’t ask. La Velle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune provided an update on Minnesota’s talks with Cruz earlier this month:

The Twins made a one-year offer during the opening weeks of free agency, then pulled it off the table after a couple of weeks. A second contract offer was made during the holidays that went nowhere as Cruz’s camp waited for word on the NL. There hasn’t been a lot of back-and-forth negotiating between the sides. 

MLB is playing hardball with the universal DH — the league reportedly wants the MLBPA to agree to an expanded postseason field in exchange for the universal DH, a trade that would make the Pirates deal for Chris Archer look fair — though it is expected to be implemented again in 2021. Pitchers need to build back up after the truncated season and the universal DH will reduce injury risk.

Until that happens though, Cruz’s market will be limited to American League teams, some of which are already set at DH (Astros, Red Sox, Yankees, etc.). The Twins aren’t going to bid against themselves. Until Cruz gets another offer that forces the Twins to come back to the negotiating table, Minnesota is not going to up its offer. This isn’t hardball. This is how free agency works.

Point is, the Twins need to add a bat prior to spring training, either Cruz or a suitable replacement, and they have options. They can put Donaldson at DH and sign a third baseman. They can put top prospect Alex Kirilloff at DH and sign a left fielder. What about Sano? He could move to DH, and the Twins could bring in a new first baseman. The possibilities are nearly endless.

In addition to Cruz, the Twins also had interest in Michael Brantley, Adam Duvall, and Kyle Schwarber earlier this offseason, according to The Athletic’s Dan Hayes. Schwarber has since signed with the Nationals, though Brantley and Duvall remain unsigned. Interest in those players suggests the Twins will stick with Donaldson at third base and bring in a left field/DH type.

The Twins averaged 4.48 runs per game in 2020, a tick below the 4.65 MLB average, and they scored only two runs in the two-game Wild Card Series against Houston. That was with Cruz, Rosario, and Gonzalez in the lineup (but not Donaldson, who was hurt). Minnesota has an obvious need for another bat. There’s a hole in the middle of the lineup.

3. Add a starter

In Cy Young runner-up Kenta Maeda and two-time All-Star Jose Berrios, the Twins have a dynamite 1-2 punch atop the rotation. Michael Pineda remains a bit of a mystery — when hasn’t Pineda been a mystery? — but he had a 3.38 ERA in five starts following his performance-enhancing drug suspension last year, so he’ll slot into the rotation somewhere in 2021.

The rotation behind Maeda, Berrios, and Pineda is unsettled. Randy Dobnak is a great story but the clock may’ve struck midnight late last year (15 runs in 16 1/3 innings in his final four starts), and his profile as a guy who doesn’t pile up strikeouts or excel at limiting hard contact is a risky one. Devin Smeltzer spent most of 2020 in the bullpen and wasn’t very good (12 runs in 16 innings).

If the season started today, Dobnak and Smeltzer would be in the rotation, with Glenn Sparkman, Brandon Waddell, and maybe top prospects Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran representing depth options (neither has pitched at Triple-A). You can do worse than Dobnak and Smeltzer. You can also do better, and because they fancy themselves a contender, the Twins should strive for better.

The Twins attended Corey Kluber’s showcase last week and made the righty an offer before he signed with the Yankees, reports Darren Wolfson of SKOR North. Wolfson adds the Twins still have interest in retaining Odorizzi. The appetite (and effort) to add a starting pitcher is there, which tells us Minnesota is not content to roll with Dobnak and Smeltzer on Opening Day.

Just about all the top starting pitcher trade candidates have been traded (Yu Darvish, Lynn, Snell, etc.) and it’s unlikely the Twins will spend what it takes to sign Trevor Bauer. Free agency still offers several appealing second-tier starters, like Odorizzi and Masahiro Tanaka, and reclamation projections like Kluber are plentiful (Archer, James Paxton, etc.). Pitchers are available.

The Twins have gone all-in on analytics under president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and last year they rolled the dice with Bailey and Hill, two stathead favorites, as low-cost rotation options. They pitched well (combined 3.09 ERA) but made only 10 starts between then due to injury. It would not surprise me at all to see Falvey & Co. follow the Bailey/Hill path again this year.

Either way, Minnesota could use a reliable starting pitcher to slot in toward the back of the rotation. Someone to push Dobnak and Smeltzer down a peg on the depth chart. The offer to Kluber and lingering interest in Odorizzi is an indication the Twins plan to add an arm, the same way their interest in Cruz tells us they plan to add a bat. They’ve been very patient this offseason, but pretty soon it will be time to act. Falvey can’t kick the can down the road much further.

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