The Twins have looked like sellers for much of the season, but as we’ve seen in recent years, most clubs prefer to wait until closer to the deadline to chart a course. As noted here recently, Minnesota faces almost exclusively AL Central clubs leading up to the July 30 trade deadline. If there was a 2019 Nationals-esque surge in this group, now would be the time to set it in motion.
The Twins started off taking two of three against an Indians club whose rotation is in tatters, but they’ve dropped their first two against the White Sox to fall 13.5 games out of first place in the division. For a team that needs to be nearly flawless over this pivotal stretch of divisional opponents — particularly versus Cleveland and Chicago — dropping three of the first five games isn’t a great start.
Given that this was a team most expected to contend for the Central, at the very least, it’s not at all surprising that there are several players who’d interest contenders. In fact, ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote in yesterday’s 20 Questions column that the Twins are “the team almost every contender is waiting on.” Minnesota still plays the White Sox eight times, the Tigers a whopping 11 times and the Royals three times before the trade deadline, so maybe they can pull off the macro version of last night’s staggering Angels comeback, but it’s becoming increasingly likely that this goes the direction most onlookers have expected for awhile now.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the Twins could do as the deadline draws nearer…
Michael Pineda, RHP ($10MM salary): Pineda is currently on the shelf with inflammation in his right elbow. He’s been out since June 14, but he’s slated for a rehab start in Triple-A today. Assuming there are no setbacks, Pineda would be one of the most attractive options on the rental market. He’s an established mid-rotation arm who has performed well with the Twins when he’s been able to take the mound (3.86 ERA, 3.92 FIP in 228 2/3 innings over 42 starts). Pineda did get hit with a PED suspension in 2019, although it was one of the rare instances where the league seems to have believed some of his plea of innocence, as MLB reduced his ban from 80 to 60 games. Many undoubtedly recall Pineda’s pine tar-covered hat in his Yankees days and will wonder about him in connection to the current crackdown on foreign substances. On that note, it’s worth pointing out that his spin rates were below-average in the first place and had actually decreased since signing with the Twins. We can’t know anything for sure, of course, but on paper he doesn’t look like your typical “Spider Tack” case.
Nelson Cruz, DH ($13MM): Happy 41st birthday, Nelson! The Boomstick is still swinging it as well as ever, slashing .307/.378/.585 with 18 home runs, 11 doubles and his first triple since 2018. Cruz has been 57 percent better than a league-average hitter, per wRC+, and he’s cut his strikeout rate from 25.7 percent in his first two years with Minnesota down to 19.1 percent in 2021. His market will be limited to AL clubs unless some NL GM really, really wants an interleague/World Series DH and an occasional pinch-hitter. (We’ve all learned never to rule anything out with A.J. Preller by now.) AL contenders who could use an upgrade at DH include the A’s, Blue Jays, Rays and White Sox. Of course, Cruz’s salary may be steep for the A’s and Rays, and it’s hard to imagine the Twins shipping Cruz to their top division rival.
Andrelton Simmons, SS ($10MM): Simmons hasn’t been great with the bat in Minnesota — .245/.316/.328, 81 wRC+ — but the defense looks sharp. Simmons’ defensive metrics took a tumble in both 2019 and 2020 after he suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain and then re-sprained that ankle a second time. In 2021, he’s third among all players, regardless of position, with 12 Outs Above Average, per Statcast. He’s also notched a plus-2 mark in Defensive Runs Saved after registering minus-2 in that regard in just 265 innings last summer. The ankle appears healthy, and his range has seemingly improved as a result. If you want to upgrade your infield defense, they don’t come much better than this.
Alex Colome, RHP ($6.25MM): Colome was the Twins’ biggest offseason pickup in the bullpen, but the outstanding fortune he had on balls in play with the White Sox went up in smoke in 2021. Teams were surely wary of Colome’s .211 average on balls in play over the past two seasons with the ChiSox, which quite likely why the Twins were able to wait him out and get him for just a year and $6.25MM. Colome immediately stumbled out of the gates in Minnesota, blowing a game in his first appearance and floundering through a poor overall showing in April. He’s posted a respectable 3.60 ERA with a huge 58.1 percent grounder rate in 20 innings since, but he doesn’t look anywhere near as impressive as he did for the South Siders. Presumably, the asking price here wouldn’t be too high.
Hansel Robles, RHP ($2MM): Robles’ numbers would’ve looked better had this breakdown been written before his past two appearances, when he’s been tagged for four runs in two innings. But the right-hander is still sporting a 3.63 ERA and 48.3 percent ground-ball rate — albeit with a slightly below-average strikeout rate and a bloated 13.6 percent walk rate. He’s also experienced a rebound in fastball velocity after a dip in 2020, and he’s on a cheap enough contract that a contending club with luxury tax concerns might be particularly intrigued.
J.A. Happ, LHP ($8MM): Happ got out to a decent start in 2021, but he’s been shelled for most of his past nine appearances. His best performance in that stretch was his most recent, when he held Cleveland to a pair of runs on six hits and no walks with seven punchouts in six innings. If he can string together a few more nice outings like that, maybe some club would pick him up for a negligible return (i.e. partial salary relief) to try to stabilize the back of its rotation.
More Controllable Possibilities
Jose Berrios, RHP ($6.1MM, controllable through 2022): If the Twins were to make Berrios available, he might be the most coveted name on the market. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported recently that the Cardinals have inquired and, unsurprisingly, found the asking price to be quite high. Still, Passan writes that a growing number of executives around the game expect the Twins to be willing to seriously consider a trade. That’s likely indicative of the level of interest in Berrios, as the Twins don’t seem likely to embark on a total rebuild even if they do sell. They’d likely seek young controllable, big-league ready talent in a trade of Berrios, who boasts a 3.41 ERA and matching 3.40 FIP with a career-best 26.5 percent strikeout rate and a 6.4 percent walk rate (the second-lowest of his career). His current salary is eminently affordable, and even with an aggressive raise in arbitration, he’d still be a bargain next year. Any contending club would love to have Berrios — it’s just a matter of how strong the offers are and whether the Twins are willing to compromise their 2022 roster by trading the best pitcher they’ve developed in the past decade.
Taylor Rogers, LHP ($6MM, controllable through 2022): Rogers has put a shaky (by his standards) 2020 season behind him. Through his first 32 innings, he’s sitting on a 2.53 ERA that’s actually higher than his FIP, xFIP and SIERA. Rogers’ 32.6 percent strikeout rate is back in line with his 2019 level, and this year’s 3.9 percent walk rate is the best of his career. He has the fifth-best chase rate of any qualified reliever in MLB. As with Berrios, Rogers could play a key role for the 2022 Twins, so the offer would need to be strong. But relievers with this combination of swing-and-miss ability and command — particularly lefties — are tough to come by, so the demand will be sizable. This is also a Twins front office that generally hasn’t been keen on committing too much to any individual reliever, and Rogers’ final arbitration raise will push his salary into the $8-9MM range. A trade to a contender is very plausible. (As an aside, it’d be quite the fun story to see twin brothers co-closing games for a contending club. We’re all looking at you, Giants.)
Tyler Duffey, RHP ($2.2MM, controllable through 2022): Duffey hasn’t been the dominant setup man he was in 2019-20, but he’s controlled another season on a cheap salary and has still been effective in 2021. There’s no sugar-coating that his strikeout and walk rates from 2019-20 have dropped from 34.2 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively, to 22 percent and 12.6 percent in 2021. He’s improved both a bit over his past 15 outings, though, and only allowed two runs in that time. Overall, he has a 3.52 ERA and 3.84 FIP in 30 2/3 innings. As with Robles, if you’re a contending team with luxury tax concerns, taking a chance on a cheap reliever with a bigger track record probably has some appeal.
Caleb Thielbar, LHP ($700K, controllable through 2024): A Minnesota native and feel-good comeback story from 2020, Thielbar can be controlled another three years beyond the current campaign. That might make dealing him counterintuitive should the Twins be looking for a quick turnaround after a theoretical summer sale, but Thielbar will turn 35 this offseason and relievers are volatile in the first place. The Twins brought him back from indie ball last year, so there’s a “playing with house money” element to marketing him. He’s pitched 50 1/3 innings of 2.86 ERA ball with a 30.1 percent strikeout rate and an 8.1 percent walk rate since returning last summer. Fielding-independent metrics largely support the ERA. With multiple contenders sitting right on the luxury-tax precipice, Thielbar could be an under-the-radar but highly attractive chip for the Twins.
Like Berrios, Rogers and Duffey, Byron Buxton is controlled only through the 2022 season. However, Buxton is on the injured list after an errant fastball fractured his left hand in a recent at-bat, and it’s nearly impossible to envision the Twins moving their most talented player at such a low point. The durability concerns with Buxton are understandable, and his repeated absences in 2021 have been a major factor in the Twins’ current predicament, but trading him doesn’t feel realistic.
It’s a similar story with righty Kenta Maeda, who has been hit hard this season and spent time on the injured list with an adductor strain. The Twins control him into 2023, and even if his struggles as a starter continue, his $3.25MM base salary is plenty reasonable if he’s in a bullpen or hybrid role. He doesn’t need to be the ace-caliber arm he was in 2020 to justify his contract, and the flexibility he provides the Twins moving forward carries more value than what they’d receive by selling low in a trade.
Right fielder Max Kepler and second baseman Jorge Polanco would no doubt attract interest thanks to their long-term deals, but Kepler is in the midst of his own down season and controlled affordably all the way through 2024. Polanco had a dismal three-week slump to open the year but has hit quite well (.275/.345/.483) since that time. He’s signed through 2025, so there’s little reason for the Twins to consider anything there.
Josh Donaldson is hitting .299/.382/.662 over the past month and has homered in three straight games, but he’s also 35 years old and only in the second season of a four-year, $92MM contract that affords him limited no-trade protection. It’s tough to see something coming together with all the money still owed to him.
The Twins might welcome a taker for strikeout-plagued slugger Miguel Sano, who is hitting .195/.280/.435 this season with a 37 percent punchout rate. But Sano is making $11MM this year, $9.25MM in 2022, and is also owed a $2.75MM buyout on a $14MM option for the 2023 season.
With a deep reserve of enticing position prospects, headlined by current big leaguers Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach, plus several key pieces under long-term control and plenty of payroll space this winter, the Twins shouldn’t be expected to completely tear the roster down. It’d make sense to target some controllable arms, however, as they’ve dealt with injuries to several of their top pitching prospects in 2021 (Jhoan Duran, Jordan Balazovic and Matt Canterino among them).
At the end of the day, the Twins might prefer to hold out a bit longer before waving the proverbial white flag, but they’d need a historic rally to overcome a 13.5-game deficit in the division or a 12.5-game deficit in the Wild Card race at this point in the season. It increasingly feels like a matter of time before they start moving some short-term veterans, with the greater question being how aggressively they’ll sell rather than whether they’ll sell at all.