After quickly shifting from buyers to sellers at the 2017 trade deadline, the Minnesota Twins’ offense went on an absolute tear during the second half, thanks in part to blazing hot streaks from Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco and Brian Dozier. The lineup’s offensive storm resulted in a whopping 412 runs after the All-Star break, surpassing even the Indians for most in the American League. They surged up the standings to claim the AL’s second wild card spot, but fell to the New York Yankees in the one-game playoff after starting pitchers Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios gave up a combined seven runs across five innings.
The heartbreaking loss alluded to an overarching theme of the Twins’ 2017 season: the woes of subpar performances from starting pitchers. While Santana and Berrios were actually the team’s most respectable performers during the season, the rotation performed miserably on the whole. Sixteen different pitchers started games for Minnesota. Of those sixteen, only one (Santana) qualified for the ERA title. Only five finished with an ERA below 5.00. Minnesota starters as a group finished in the bottom ten in all of baseball in innings pitched (24th), fWAR (22nd), strikeouts (26th), xFIP (27th), least hard contact allowed (21st), and fewest home runs allowed (23rd).
Without dramatic improvements to the rotation, the Twins have little hope of dethroning the rival Indians as AL Central Champions. However, if they can add pitching reinforcements to an offense that’s intimidating from top to bottom, it’s easy to see a path for them to reach the playoffs again. Adding to their fortunes is a weak division wherein the White Sox and Tigers are in the midst of full teardowns, with the Royals likely to follow suit this offseason.
The problem has the potential to solve itself. Santana and Berrios will both return to their roles in 2018, with Kyle Gibson likely to slot in behind them after performing very well in the second half this past season. LHP Stephen Gonsalves and RHP Fernando Romero both rank as top 100 overall prospects and could potentially see major league action next season. And Adalberto Mejia is at the very least a reasonable back-end starter. If Berrios is able to take another step forward, and one of Gonsalves or Romero emerges as a top-of-the-rotation type, the Twins would certainly be no worse off on paper than most contenders.
But even the highest-rated prospects are never sure bets, and Santana, Berrios and Gibson all have at least a few question marks hovering over them. Meanwhile the free agent market for pitchers is full of high-upside starters who carry tremendous risk. Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta represent the top options on the market, while Masahiro Tanaka and Johnny Cueto can both opt out of their current contracts. Most of these pitchers would likely cost more than the Twins can afford to pay, and all carry significant injury risk. Japanese phenom Shohei Otani would be an incredibly exciting target, but the competition for his services will certainly be fierce. It’s difficult to imagine what the Twins could offer him that other teams cannot. So while it’s certainly possible the Twins could land a high-end starter, a foray into the free agent pool would likely end with the Twins having to settle for an even riskier tier of starters that includes Andrew Cashner, Tyler Chatwood, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Jason Vargas and a somewhat resurgent Doug Fister.
To say that the trade market for starting pitchers this offseason will be competitive would be an understatement. The top starters in baseball are heavily concentrated on teams with plans to contend next season. Michael Fulmer and Gerrit Cole are examples of solid pitchers who could be made available, but due to heavy demand, the Twins would probably have to fork over at least one of top 30 overall prospects Royce Lewins and Nick Gordon. Both Fulmer and Cole come with injury concerns.
While many teams are in need of rotation help, the Twins’ situation is dire. If the offense can repeat anything close to their late 2017 production, Minnesota will be in the thick of contention all next season. But they absolutely must get significant improvements within the starting five.
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