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After a surprising AL Wild Card berth in 2017, the Twins’ 2018 season ended with 78 wins and the dismissal of manager Paul Molitor. Veterans Ervin Santana, Lance Lynn, Logan Morrison and Jason Castro each had a nightmarish campaign, while the Twins saw even more troubling regression from Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. The AL Central is still the game’s weakest division, leaving some hope for chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and GM Thad Levine as they look to reload and try for better results in 2019.
- Addison Reed, RHP: $8.5MM through 2019
- Jason Castro, C: $8MM through 2019
- Michael Pineda, RHP: $8MM through 2019
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected salary via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Jake Odorizzi – $9.4MM
- Kyle Gibson – $7.9MM
- Eddie Rosario – $5.0MM
- Robbie Grossman – $4.0MM
- Max Kepler – $3.2MM
- Miguel Sano – $3.1MM
- Ehire Adrianza – $1.8MM
- Taylor Rogers – $1.6MM
- Byron Buxton – $1.2MM
- Trevor May – $1.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Grossman, Adrianza
- Ervin Santana, RHP: $14.5MM club option — declined in favor of $1MM buyout
- Logan Morrison, 1B/DH: $8MM club option — declined in favor of $1MM buyout
The first order of business for the Twins has already been wrapped up, as the team named Rocco Baldelli its new manager. The 37-year-old Baldelli replaces Paul Molitor, who won 2017 AL Manager of the Year honors but was inherited by Falvey and Levine under an ownership mandate. The Twins’ unexpected Wild Card run in 2017 somewhat forced the front office’s hand in offering him an extension, and 2018’s disappointment gave them a natural avenue to appoint a new skipper who more closely shares their organizational vision and philosophy. Molitor, to his credit, was plenty open to newer lines of thinking in baseball, as the Twins experimented with “the opener” late in the season and have been far more aggressive in using defensive shifts under Molitor than under previous skipper Ron Gardenhire. He was offered a new role within the organization but is reportedly unlikely to accept as he instead pursues managerial and/or coaching opportunities with other clubs.
Molitor isn’t the only St. Paul native whose tenure with the hometown organization is up in the air. After spending 15 seasons in a Twins uniform, Joe Mauer wrapped up his eight-year contract in an emotional sendoff that saw him crouch behind the plate for one final pitch from close friend and teammate Matt Belisle before being removed from the game in the ninth inning. Twins fans showered Mauer with adulation in that possible farewell (video link), as play stopped for several minutes while St. Paul’s favorite son soaked in what may have been his final moments as a Major League player.
That Sunday proved to be an almost perfect parting note for Mauer — unbeknownst to him, he would be greeted by his twin daughters at first base to start the game, and he went on to double to left-center in his final plate appearance — but the potential Hall of Famer is still not certain about his future. Asked in an emotional press conference after the game whether he’d return for a 16th season, Mauer demurred, expressing his gratitude for that afternoon’s gestures from the organization before indicating that he’ll take some time to mull his future with his family. If he does return, he’s stated on multiple occasions that he can’t envision playing anywhere else. He may no longer be a superstar, but even at age 35, Mauer posted a league-average offensive season with positive defensive marks at first base (+3 DRS, +2.7 UZR) for the fifth straight season since moving there. He’d surely need to take a sizable pay cut, but if Mauer wants to come back, the organization could retain him on an affordable one-year deal.
First base, though, is one of but many areas in which the Twins are facing uncertainty. In last year’s outlook for the team, I wrote that a lot went right for the 2017 Twins, highlighting the progress made by presumptive building blocks Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario. Of that quartet, only Rosario doubled down on his 2017 breakout. Polanco was slapped with an 80-game PED suspension prior to the season, although he did hit well in his return (.288/.345/.427, seven homers, seven steals). Polanco still looks like a lock to hold down a middle-infield spot in the long run. Buxton and Sano, to put things mildly, are complete mysteries.
Baldelli and his coaching staff — the composition of which remains unclear — should consider restoring Buxton and Sano to their once-prominent status a top priority. The two combined for nearly eight wins above replacement in 2017; each clearly has enough talent to be a cornerstone piece for a perennially competitive Twins team. But neither has been able to tap into that upside on a regular basis, with Sano’s conditioning and penchant for strikeouts and Buxton’s inconsistency at the plate ranking among the most frustrating obstacles Minnesota has faced in recent years.
It seems likely that both will be back in the fold next season, as selling low on either player would be a difficult pill for the organization to swallow. Speaking more generally, the Twins appear set for a fair bit of roster turnover. Rosario and Max Kepler are likely to man the outfield corners next season, while Polanco has a middle-infield spot locked down. But the Twins could plausibly look for new additions at any of first base, third base or DH (depending on where Sano lines up), either shortstop or second base (depending on where Polanco plays) and potentially at catcher. Jason Castro is set to return from knee surgery, and Mitch Garver provided solid offense as a 27-year-old rookie, but there could still be room for an upgrade.
Looking to the pitching staff, Minnesota has a deceptive amount of depth in the rotation but is lacking in the way of top-end starting pitching. Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda (signed last winter to a backloaded two-year deal as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery) can all be penciled into the Opening Day rotation, and the team has a wealth of options in the fifth spot.
Adalberto Mejia, Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves, Tyler Duffey, Kohl Stewart, Zack Littell and Aaron Slegers have all pitched in the Majors, and each of the first three in that group has recently ranked among the game’s top 100 prospects. Most of the bunch is limited to fourth/fifth starter upside, but it’s rather hefty stock of back-end arms. Perhaps, then, Falvey, Levine & Co. would be best-suited looking to condense some of that quantity into a single, higher-quality option on the trade market. That stash of upper-level arms could also come in handy when looking for trades to solidify the lineup and a middle-of-the-pack defensive unit.
The bullpen, though, is a greater area of need. The Twins traded Fernando Rodney to the A’s in August and don’t have a set closer in place, though that’s perhaps less critical than ever in an age where longstanding conventional pitching roles are evolving. Fellow offseason pickup Addison Reed had a terrific start to the 2018 season before struggling badly for a month and then hitting the disabled list with an elbow impingement. He’s owed $8.25MM in 2019 and will be part of the bullpen — likely alongside Trevor May, Trevor Hildenberger and Taylor Rogers. Oliver Drake was excellent for the Twins after finally escaping the waiver carousel, so perhaps he’s pitched his way into the plan. Regardless, there should be multiple spots up for grabs, and the Twins have the means to pursue any high-end reliever they deem a worthy target.
Broadly speaking, in fact, the Twins should have the payroll capacity and the farm strength to pursue just about any possibility they wish. Minnesota has just over $30MM in guaranteed contracts on the books for 2019 (plus another $38MM in projected arbitration salaries) and, incredibly, has a completely blank payroll slate beyond 2019. The Twins have zero dollars in guaranteed money on the books for the 2020 season, so there’s no reason to think they can’t spend as aggressively as any club in the game.
That shouldn’t be read as an implication that the Twins will be a realistic landing spot for a premier free agent such as Bryce Harper or Manny Machado; swaying either player to sign in Minnesota would be a tall order for several reasons. Minneapolis has never been a highly coveted free-agent destination, the 2018 season was a noted disappointment, the Twins have never committed a $30MM+ salary to a single player, and they’d have less margin for error in doing so than larger-market clubs with better television contracts and greater revenue streams. But the Twins did put forth a $100MM+ offer to Yu Darvish last offseason, and it’s not unreasonable to think they could be in the market for free agents who could command annual salaries approaching or exceeding $20MM (e.g. Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel).
Where they’ll look to improve is a larger question than if they have the means to do so. Corbin or Keuchel would represent the most plausible rotation upgrades on the free-agent market, but competition for both figures to be steep. Craig Kimbrel sits atop the free-agent market for relievers, and the market has various top-tier options beyond him, including Jeurys Familia, Zach Britton and 2018 breakout Adam Ottavino. Given the uncertainty at the back of the ’pen and the wide-open payroll ledger, the Twins seem as good a bet as any club to add some high-end relief help this winter.
The lineup presents even more opportunities, as the Twins could target upgrades at any infield slot or conceivably add an impact designated hitter like Nelson Cruz. Minnesota was fine committing its DH spot to one player last season, and even if Logan Morrison’s faulty hip (which eventually required surgery to repair a torn labrum) torpedoed his ’18 season, the willingness to go with one regular option rather than rotate several players through that spot is notable. Marwin Gonzalez’s versatility could serve the Twins well, and they’re a plausible landing spot for a bounceback candidate like Josh Donaldson, who could slot into the middle of the lineup at third base and push Sano to first base/designated hitter himself. Even in the outfield, it’s not outlandish to think the Twins could look for at least one upgrade, with only Rosario having turned in consecutive impressive seasons.
Beyond their substantial payroll flexibility, the Twins possess a solid farm system in addition to the aforementioned back-of-the-rotation depth. They’re one of 10 or more viable candidates to make an earnest run at J.T. Realmuto on the trade market and will be opportunistic in seeking out additional scenarios. The D-backs, for instance, would surely love to clear a portion of Zack Greinke’s remaining salary in a trade and would be intrigued by Minnesota’s system. The Phillies and Cardinals both have their sights set on contending but are also both in line for active winters on the trade market and could make numerous intriguing players available (e.g. Cesar Hernandez, Jose Martinez).
Possibilities abound, but Minnesota has as much flexibility as just about any organization in baseball to make changes this winter, and the likelihood of doing so is strong. The 2017 Twins, frankly, weren’t as good as a playoff berth in a weak American League might indicate on the surface, and that sudden success likely created some unrealistic expectations about the 2018 campaign. But, conversely, the 2018 Twins shouldn’t have been as bad as they were. Fair or not, that 2017 season raised expectations in the Twin Cities, and now that Falvey and Levine are entering their third winter in charge and have their own manager in place, the pressure will be on to start putting forth a more consistently competitive team — one that can not only enter the Wild Card picture but one that can challenge the Indians in an otherwise still flimsy division.