The Twins have shown interest in free-agent righty Michael Wacha, per Dan Hayes and Aaron Gleeman of The Athletic. There’s no indication talks between the two parties have been particularly serious to this point, but Wacha would give Minnesota a veteran arm to help stabilize the back of the rotation if a deal eventually came together.
Wacha, 31, posted a sharp 3.32 ERA in 127 1/3 innings with the Red Sox in 2022, though he did so with a sub-par 20.2% strikeout rate and a 93.2 mph average fastball that tied his previous career-low. Wacha’s 6.0% walk rate was excellent, but he also rather clearly benefited both from some good fortune on balls in play (.260 BABIP) and a career-high 80.3% strand rate that topped his 72.9% career mark by more than seven percentage points. Fielding-independent metrics generally felt Wacha was solid but not to the extent that his baseline ERA might indicate (4.14 FIP, 4.07 SIERA).
That was Wacha’s first productive season since the 2018 campaign, however. The 2012 first-round pick was a steady contributor with the Cardinals, when healthy, from 2013-18 (741 innings, 3.77 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 4.07 SIERA). However, from 2019-21, Wacha was rocked for a 5.11 ERA in 285 1/3 innings, settling for a series of one-year contracts in free agency while dealing with previously unseen levels of susceptibility to home runs; Wacha averaged a whopping 1.83 home runs per nine innings pitched in that three-year span after previously surrendering just 0.86 long balls per nine frames from 2013-18.
The fit with the Twins is at least a bit muddled, if only due to the number of comparable options Minnesota has in its rotation already. The Twins’ starting staff currently projects to include Sonny Gray, Joe Ryan, Tyler Mahle, Kenta Maeda and Bailey Ober, with depth options including prospects such as Louie Varland, Josh Winder, Simeon Woods Richardson and Matt Canterino (among others).
That said, each of Gray, Mahle, Maeda and Ober dealt with injury issues in 2022. Gray had multiple IL stints due to hamstring strains. Mahle twice landed on the injured list due to shoulder troubles. Ober, meanwhile, was out roughly half the season due to a groin strain. And Maeda, of course, didn’t pitch in 2022 as he recovered from 2021 Tommy John surgery. Given that protracted layoff and a complete lack of innings in ’22, Maeda figures to have his workload monitored in 2023.
Adding Wacha to the fold would provide some injury insurance, though Wacha himself comes with a lengthy injury history. He’s been on the injured list four times due to shoulder injuries in his decade-long MLB career, including an absence spanning more than a month just this past season. He’s also been sent to the injured list by oblique and intercostal strains, patellar tendinitis in his left knee and a hamstring strain. Most of the injuries were overcome in relatively short order, but a 2019 oblique strain and a stress reaction in his shoulder back in 2014 did result in stints on the 60-day IL.
A signing of Wacha or any other veteran starter would give the Twins another capable arm to help piece together the starting staff, but it could also further embolden the front office to pursue upgrades on the trade market. Much of Minnesota’s offseason hinged on its efforts to re-sign Carlos Correa, and while that ship perhaps hasn’t technically sailed just yet — Correa and the Mets have yet to announce a deal while working through concerns on the infielder’s physical — it’s decidedly unlikely he’ll return. In the meantime, the majority of the game’s top free agents signed elsewhere, leaving few alternatives for the Twins to pursue now that they’ve missed out on their top target.
The Twins have signed catcher Christian Vazquez and outfielder Joey Gallo, so they haven’t been completely dormant to this point in the winter. Still, there’s a need for further upgrades at various spots on the roster. Just as signing Gallo seemed to further create the possibility of a trading one of the organization’s many left-handed-hitting outfielders, an addition in the rotation could lead to the possibility of a trade involving some of that pitching depth.
As far as payroll is concerned, the Twins can afford virtually any free agent or trade target they like at this point. Byron Buxton, Gray, Gallo, Vazquez, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Maeda are guaranteed a combined $67.625MM in 2023, and the Minnesota’s projected arbitration salaries add up to just under $32MM. Suffice it to say, the Twins aren’t particularly close to the more than $140MM they spent on 2022 payroll.
It’s been a generally quiet offseason with regard to Wacha, as the Orioles have been the only other publicly linked team to the veteran righty. However, he’s one of the few remaining free-agent starters who’s coming off a solid season, joining Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke and Zach Davies in that regard. At this point, Wacha is arguably the top free-agent starter remaining based on his combination of age and track record, so it’s easy to envision his market picking up some steam in the weeks ahead.