After an extended run atop the AL Central last decade, the Twins turned in their fourth consecutive 90-loss season and saw many of their top prospects sidelined by injury.
- Joe Mauer, 1B: $92MM through 2018
- Ricky Nolasco, RHP: $37MM through 2017
- Glen Perkins, LHP: $18.15MM through 2017
- Phil Hughes, RHP: $16MM through 2016
- Kurt Suzuki, C: $12MM through 2016
- Mike Pelfrey, RHP: $5.5MM through 2015
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Trevor Plouffe, 3B, (3.162): $4.3MM projected salary
- Tommy Milone, LHP, (2.164, Super Two): $2.8MM
- Brian Duensing, LHP, (5.104): $2.5MM
- Jordan Schafer, OF, (4.121): $1.5MM
- Anthony Swarzak, RHP, (4.038): $1.4MM
- Eduardo Nunez, SS/3B, (3.090): $1.2MM
- Casey Fien, RHP, (2.143, Super Two): $1.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Duensing, Swarzak, Nunez
- Jared Burton, RHP: $3.6MM club option with $200K buyout
The Twins’ offseason began with what was a surprising move for many, given the team’s loyalty to its front office and coaching staff, as Ron Gardenhire was dismissed from his managerial role and offered another position within the organization. While Gardenhire weighs that decision, the coaching staff will look markedly different next season, as none of the coaches are guaranteed a spot in 2015. The coaching staff will be determined by the new manager and by GM Terry Ryan once Gardenhire’s successor is appointed. Paul Molitor is the primary internal candidate, though Terry Steinbach is another option. Other names floated from outside the organization have been Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo, White Sox third base coach Joe McEwing, Rays bench coach Dave Martinez and former Pirates skipper John Russell.
As Ryan told Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in late September, the rotation will be the focus of the offseason for the Twins. Hughes has been an unquestionable bright spot — one of the best free agent signings from the 2013-14 offseason — but his acquisition was the only of Minnesota’s three rotation expenditures that paid dividends in 2014. The re-signing of Pelfrey to a two-year, $11MM contract has been an abject failure, and a 5.38 ERA in 159 1/3 innings wasn’t what the Twins had in mind when signing Nolasco to a four-year deal. Perhaps there’s some reason for optimism with him, however, as Nolasco’s .351 BABIP is tied for the eighth-highest single-season mark since 1900 (among pitchers with 150+ IP), and metrics such as FIP (4.30) and xFIP (3.97) feel that his performance wasn’t as bad as that ERA would suggest. Nolasco does have a low career strand rate, which typically keeps his ERA higher than his FIP, but not to this extreme.
The Twins’ internal options didn’t exactly pan out either. Former top prospect Kyle Gibson improved upon a rough debut season but logged a 4.47 ERA in 179 1/3 innings and endured a particularly rough patch from mid-August to mid-September before finishing strongly. Kevin Correia struggled all season before being sent to the Dodgers for a PTBNL, and trade acquisition Tommy Milone didn’t perform any better. Prospect Trevor May posted a cringe-worthy 7.88 ERA, though he showed a propensity for strikeouts and was plagued, to an extent, by a .377 BABIP. Top prospect Alex Meyer didn’t make it to the show but did post solid Triple-A numbers before some shoulder discomfort sidelined him in late August.
The Twins’ rotation problems are tied directly to another team deficiency — their defense. Minnesota’s collective .315 BABIP was the highest in all of baseball this season, and their defense ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved. While the infield defense was mostly passable (albeit unspectacular), the team’s -36.2 UZR in the outfield ranked 29th of 30 teams, and no MLB club posted an uglier outfield DRS mark than Minnesota’s -50. The departure of Josh Willingham (via an August trade) and the likely return of converted shortstop Danny Santana to the infield — something the organization has expressed a desire to see — create the opportunity for better outfield defense. (The pitching staff, of course, compounded the defensive shortcomings by finishing with the worst K/9 rate in all of baseball for the fourth consecutive season.)
Minnesota’s bullpen was a relative strength for much of the season, but late swoons by Fien and Perkins, plus some questionable performances from September call-ups, submarined the unit’s collective numbers. Perkins was particularly out of sorts, and his season was eventually cut short due to a forearm strain and some nerve irritation (his UCL is reportedly fine). The Twins will be able to retain the entire group if they wish, though names like Duensing and Swarzak could be non-tender candidates, and I’d expect Burton’s option to be declined. Minnesota drafted Louisville closer Nick Burdi in the second round of this year’s draft, and it’s very possible that he and his 100-102 mph fastball eventually claim a bullpen spot next year. Stephen Pryor, acquired from the Mariners in exchange for Kendrys Morales, could fight for a spot as well. A veteran addition is possible, but the Twins don’t seem likely to spend extravagantly on the relief corps this offseason.
Looking at the team’s arbitration eligible players, Plouffe, Milone, Schafer and Fien seem like locks to be retained, while the others — Duensing, Swarzak and Nunez — are less certain. Cutting ties with those three players would leave Minnesota with about $69MM committed to the 2015 payroll. That would be well south of the team’s $85.5MM Opening Day payroll in 2014 — a figure that grew significantly after adding Morales on a one-year deal in June — so it seems fair to suggest that Ryan could have $20-25MM to spend, should he choose.
History has taught us that the Twins will not be serious players for the likes of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, both of whom have legitimate shots at landing seven-year contracts. James Shields, the next-best arm on the market, seems too much of a stretch as well. The Twins seem more likely to explore the second tier of starting pitchers, which will include one name they pushed for late last offseason: Ervin Santana. The Twins reportedly made Santana a three-year offer in the $30-33MM range in Spring Training, but Santana preferred a one-year deal in the National League in hopes of cashing in on a bigger deal this offseason. It would make sense, then, to see Minnesota again express interest. Brandon McCarthy’s excellent finish to the 2014 season could make him a desirable target for Ryan as well.
If the team is looking at a buy-low candidate, longtime division rival Justin Masterson seems like a good fit. The Twins’ infield defense was markedly better than the outfield defense in 2014, and Masterson’s gaudy ground-ball rate would minimize the impact of a potentially questionable outfield defense in 2015. His strikeout rate remained strong as well, but the Twins would need to be convinced that the knee injury which plagued Masterson’s 2014 season (and likely played a large role in his fastball velocity dropping from 91.6 mph to 88.9 mph) is now healed. Brandon Morrow and Brett Anderson are another pair of high-upside names that come with injury risk but could make sense on one-year deals. The Twins did show interest in Anderson last year before he was dealt to Colorado. Each of these three arms would give the Twins a legitimate trade chip in July should they remain healthy on a one-year deal and should the Twins again fail to contend. The success experienced by Hughes in 2014 could cause pitchers in this vein to give a bit of a longer look at the benefits of pitching in Target Field.
Looking to the outfield, it’s clear that the Twins could use at least one upgrade. While top prospect Byron Buxton — whose season was all but lost due to wrist injuries and a frightening concussion — will eventually claim center field, Aaron Hicks has failed to do so in the short term. Schafer impressed the Twins after being claimed on waivers and figures to have locked up a spot as a fourth outfielder. A run at Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas doesn’t seem realistic; the Twins have never bid that highly on an international free agent, and Tomas could clear $100MM.
If the Twins move Santana back to shortstop and non-tender Nunez (leaving the utility role to Eduardo Escobar), they could pursue options at any of the outfield positions (with Oswaldo Arcia occupying one of the two corner spots). Colby Rasmus is an interesting buy-low candidate, but if he’s looking to rebuild value, a pitchers’ park like Target Field probably isn’t the best setting. Melky Cabrera’s price tag could preclude a serious pursuit from Minnesota, and while they had interest in Nelson Cruz late last offseason, his price tag figures figures to be prohibitive as well. A trade for a defensively gifted outfielder such as Peter Bourjos would make sense for Minnesota, in my mind. He could provide elite center field defense while Buxton develops, and he would also improve results for the team’s pitching staff. Bourjos’ modest salary would allow Ryan to focus his resources on improving the rotation.
Other areas such as catcher and designated hitter likely don’t need to be addressed. The Twins opted to sign Suzuki to a two-year extension rather than trade him this summer when a market failed to materialize, and switch-hitting slugger Kennys Vargas looked impressive in a second-half call-up, batting .274/.316/.456 with nine homers in 53 games. It’s possible that the Twins could receive trade interest in Suzuki this offseason, given the weak market for catchers after Russell Martin. The team does have an interesting alternative in Josmil Pinto, but Suzuki is well-liked in the organization and it’d be somewhat surprising to see him moved so quickly after signing that contract. Suzuki doesn’t seem to be worried about the idea, as he said in August that he and his agents at MVP Sports Group didn’t think it was necessary to try for a no-trade clause.
One interesting point to consider (a topic which Andrew Bryz-Gornia noted at SB Nation’s Twinkie Town) is the future of Plouffe. The former first-rounder quietly had an excellent season (3+ rWAR and fWAR) and looks to have found a home at third base. The only problem is that Miguel Sano is the Twins’ heir apparent at third and could force his way onto the Major League roster next season. It’s possible that the Twins could once again shift Plouffe’s position to a corner outfield spot (they employed a similar trajectory with Michael Cuddyer early in his career), but with an in-house stopgap such as Escobar under control, Plouffe strikes me as an under-the-radar trade target for teams in need of help at the hot corner.
The Twins will first have to determine who will succeed Gardenhire, and when they do, improving the rotation as well as the outfield defense should be priorities in what will be a busy offseason for Ryan and assistant GMs Rob Antony and Wayne Krivsky.