Few pundits pegged the Twins as postseason contenders in 2015, but the emergence of some young talent led to the club’s first winning season since 2010 and a legitimate run at an American League Wild Card spot. Veteran GM Terry Ryan and his staff will attempt to push this team to the next level and give Twins fans their second postseason since the opening of Target Field.
- Joe Mauer, 1B: $69MM through 2018
- Phil Hughes, RHP: $48.8MM through 2019
- Ervin Santana, RHP: $40.5MM through 2018
- Ricky Nolasco, RHP: $25MM through 2017 (including buyout of 2018 option)
- Brian Dozier, 2B: $18MM through 2018
- Glen Perkins: LHP: $13.5MM through 2017 (including buyout of 2018 option)
- Kurt Suzuki, C: $6MM through 2016 (plus 2017 vesting option)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR)
- Kevin Jepsen, RHP (5.163) – $6.0MM
- Trevor Plouffe, 3B (4.162) – $7.7MM
- Eduardo Nunez, 3B/SS (4.090) – $1.5MM
- Casey Fien (3.143), RHP – $2.2MM
- Tommy Milone (3.143), LHP – $4.5MM
- Shane Robinson (3.141), OF – $800K
- Eduardo Escobar (3.128), SS/3B/2B/LF – $1.8MM
- Non-tender candidates: Robinson
As it stands right now, the Twins project to have about a $103MM payroll on Opening Day next year simply by tendering each of their arbitration eligible players and rounding out the roster with league-minimum talent. That’s about $10MM shy of the club’s franchise record, so there may be limited financial room, though perhaps the club’s winning record will create a willingness among ownership to surpass the previous high-water mark. Trades could also create some extra payroll space, though I’ll get into that later.
Pitching has been a primary need for the Twins for quite some time, and Ryan has said they’ll look for rotation help and bullpen help once again this winter. The question, then, becomes where exactly the Twins will fit all of these arms onto the roster. That’s not to say the Twins necessarily have a surplus of quality starting pitching, but they probably have enough arms to get through the season. (The quality of said season would simply be questionable.) In Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson, Tommy Milone, Tyler Duffey and Trevor May, the Twins have seven rotation options. That doesn’t include Jose Berrios, who ranks among the game’s Top 25 prospects or so and is more or less big league ready.
Nolasco has performed dreadfully and spent roughly a year’s worth of time on the DL since signing a four-year deal. The Twins, undoubtedly, would have interest in moving the remainder of that contract this winter, though they’d probably have to take on a similarly unappealing contract. Hughes missed a month late in the year due to back issues but may have been injured longer than that (my own speculation), as few pitchers see their fastball mysteriously lose two miles per hour at the age of 28. Santana’s PED suspension hurt the Twins’ 2015 hopes, but he debuted and finished with a flourish, though there was a ghastly stretch sandwiched between his most impressive work.
The Twins’ five best options for the rotation are probably Santana, Hughes, Gibson, May and Duffey, with Berrios waiting in the wings. However, May had success in his move to the bullpen, and it’s possible that the Twins, who desperately need relief aid, could leave the hard-throwing 26-year-old there. From my vantage point, May at least merits another audition in the rotation, as he showed a nice mix of missing bats and limiting free passes while working as a starter through July.
A run at David Price or Zack Greinke would be uncharacteristic, and one has to wonder how many mid-rotation arms the team can target; a pursuit of Midwest native Jordan Zimmermann would be one thing, but going after Mike Leake, Yovani Gallardo, Wei-Yin Chen, etc. would feel like more of the same — spending heavily on a veteran, mid-rotation commodity despite the presence of comparable arms on the current roster.
Rather, a greater focus perhaps should be placed on repairing what was a dismal bullpen in 2015. Minnesota relievers combined for a 3.95 ERA that ranked 21st in baseball and averaged a league-worst 6.9 K/9. In terms of FIP, xFIP and SIERA, the Twins’ bullpen ranked 24th, 28th and 27th, respectively. Glen Perkins dealt with back injuries that plagued his second half, so the Twins will hope he’s in better health to pair with deadline acquisition Kevin Jepsen in the late innings next year. A return to health for Ryan Pressly would be a boost, and May or one of the other rotation candidates could be a bullpen option, too.
The Twins, though, will need to add at least one arm, if not two or three. In particular, there’s a lack of quality left-handed options behind Perkins, who typically works the ninth inning, taking him out of the equation for earlier high-leverage spots. (That deficiency makes the decision to leave Sean Gilmartin unprotected in last year’s Rule 5 Draft look particularly questionable.) Tony Sipp and Antonio Bastardo have had success against both lefties and righties, making them reasonable targets. A return for Neal Cotts, another trade acquisition, could be in order. Additionally, they’ll hope to eventually see some of the power college arms they’ve placed a recent emphasis on drafting — Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, Zach Jones — surface in the bigs. The bullpen is probably the most likely destination for former top prospect Alex Meyer, whose stock plummeted with a poor 2015.
One factor that will help both the rotation and the bullpen will be the team’s wildly improved outfield defense. After rating as the worst defensive outfield in baseball in 2014, the Twins showed a glimpse of a potentially rangy, dynamic future outfield consisting of Eddie Rosario in left, Byron Buxton in center and Aaron Hicks in right field. Even with Torii Hunter posting a Defensive Runs Saved mark of -8 in right field, the Twins still made an unfathomable improvement of 58 runs (-50 in 2014, +8 in 2015) in that regard. And, on the periphery of the outfield mix is German prospect Max Kepler, who forced his way into Top 100 consideration with a monster year at Class A Advanced and Double-A. Kepler hit .322/.416/.531 and took home MVP honors in the Double-A Southern League. While he’s probably Triple-A bound to begin the season, it’s easy to imagine him quickly earning a promotion.
The presence of that young and athletic outfield mix raises one of the key questions for the Twins this winter, which is whether or not Hunter will retire. Hunter has said in the past that it’s the Twins or retirement, but he’s also disinterested in a part-time role. The Twins value Hunter’s clubhouse presence and the impact he has on the work ethic and day-to-day approach of young players, but from a production standpoint, the team would be better not giving him regular at-bats. His 2015 play suggests that he’d benefit from more rest, as well; Hunter hit .257/.312/.444 in the first half but slumped to .217/.265/.359 with a five percent strikeout increase after the All-Star break. If he’s back, it should be as a fourth outfielder/part-time DH on an incentive-laden, one-year deal with a lower base salary than this year’s $10.5MM. One plan of attack could be to start the year with Hicks in center and Hunter in right, then move Hunter to a part-time role once Buxton gets more Triple-A experience. He has, after all, hit just .209/.250/.326 in the Majors.
Hunter isn’t the only former Twins first-rounder with an uncertain future. Trevor Plouffe has emerged as a solid everyday third baseman over the past few seasons, but the arrival of Miguel Sano gives the team a younger, cheaper and offensively superior option. With Joe Mauer entrenched at first base despite declining production, the option of shifting Plouffe or Sano to the opposite corner does not exist. (The “move Mauer back to catcher” crowd makes a bizarre and dangerous argument, as Mauer’s history of concussions inherently makes that notion a risk to his health long after his career is over.)
Plouffe will, presumably, draw trade interest from teams needing help at the hot corner, especially since his arbitration price isn’t exorbitant. The Twins could continue to use Sano, Mauer and Plouffe in a first base/third base/DH rotation, but they’ve said they don’t want to make Sano a pure DH at the age of 22.
Elsewhere in the infield, Minnesota has a need at shortstop. Danny Santana predictably regressed after a lofty strikeout rate and .405 BABIP in his rookie season, though few would’ve expected such a precipitous fall. The organization may still have hope, but it was Eduardo Escobar playing regularly late in the year. The 26-year-old Escobar had a nice second half that left him with a quality overall batting line (especially relative to his shortstop peers), but he’s not a great defender and hasn’t consistently shown the ability to produce offensively at the Major League level. He had a stretch similar to his 2015 second half back in 2014 but could neither maintain it then nor replicate in this year’s first half. Then again, free agency offers little certainty, with Ian Desmond and Asdrubal Cabrera bringing differing levels of inconsistency to the top of that market. One speculative bad contract swap floated by MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes was to send Nolasco and a pitching prospect to the Rockies in exchange for Jose Reyes, as the difference in salaries would essentially mean the Twins were getting Reyes for two years and $23MM.
The greatest need for the Twins is behind the plate. Though Kurt Suzuki is well liked and popular with his teammates, his .240/.296/.314 batting line translated to a wRC+ of 66 (i.e. his park-adjusted production was 34 percent worse than a league-average hitter), which ranked sixth-worst in the game among players with 450 plate appearances. He also caught just 12 percent of attempted base stealers and rated as a below-average pitch framer.
Minnesota reportedly tried to acquire A.J. Pierzynski in July and offered him a two-year deal prior to signing Suzuki in the 2013-14 offseason, so I’d imagine they’ll again have interest in a reunion with the veteran, who had a nice age-38 season in Atlanta. The Twins may be somewhat of a dark horse for Matt Wieters, but it’s also possible they’re wary of adding the 6’5″, 230-pound Wieters after watching the 6’5″, 225-pound Mauer’s body break down behind the plate. (Mauer, in addition to his concussion troubles, has had significant back and leg issues that most likely stemmed from his size and catching workload.) Potential trade candidates could include Jonathan Lucroy, Christian Bethancourt, Austin Hedges and Mike Zunino, though the latter three have yet to prove their offensive value in the bigs, and Lucroy had his own concussion issues late in 2015. Nonetheless, Lucroy would represent a two-year upgrade, whereas the other three are long-term options with plus defensive tools — an asset the Twins organization otherwise lacks.
The Twins have their own stock of young players with big league experience that have yet to prove their offensive consistency. Most notable is Oswaldo Arcia — a former Top 50 prospect (per Baseball America) that belted 20 homers in just 410 Major League plate appearances in 2014. Arcia has batted a respectable .243/.305/.437 with 36 homers in 213 big league games, but he’s a poor defender in the outfield corners and struggles against lefties. He also batted a curiously low .199/.257/.372 in Triple-A this season. Arcia will open next season at 24 and has plenty of power but will be out of minor league options. His 2015 struggles notwithstanding, Arcia is a natural target for teams seeking a left-handed corner bat with some pop.
First baseman/DH Kennys Vargas also struggled in the Majors in 2015, though like Danny Santana, he excelled upon a minor league demotion. Both have options remaining and could remain a part of the team’s future.
The Twins have a fascinating offseason on the horizon, as their highly touted farm system has begun to bear fruit at the Major League level, bringing into question the futures of some veteran contributors. Despite several graduations to the Majors, the Twins boast seven prospects in MLB.com’s Top 100, giving them a still-deep reserve of minor league talent that could be used to upgrade deficiencies at shortstop and catcher. In addition to the candidates listed above, a player such as the MLB-ready Jorge Polanco (a shortstop who most believe will need to move to second base) could be a valuable trade chip. Lower-level names such as recent Top 5 picks Kohl Stewart and Nick Gordon are well regarded but won’t factor into the Major League picture until at least 2017, if not 2018-19. With an accelerated timetable for contention, there’s an argument to be made that the Twins should shift from collecting minor league talent to parting with potentially blocked or far-off prospects in order to make a more serious run in 2016.