The Twins are interested in free agent starting pitcher J.A. Happ and catcher Robinson Chirinos, according to Jon Morosi of MLB.com.
We’ve said for weeks that if the Twins are going to address their 2019 starting rotation this winter, it should be with an eye toward the very top. And last year when Jason Castro’s injury was more severe than originally believed, we said that the Twins should dial up the intensity in trade talks for a catcher. (Chirinos was on our short list of solutions.)
So how do these early winter rumors match up with what we’ve suggested?
Let’s make sure the first thing is first: Reading two names in whom the Twins have shown interest is a little misleading. I’m not trying to mislead anybody, and neither is Morosi, obviously. The Twins likely have cast a wide net and a few names slipped out with Twins connections, for one reason or another.
Happ is a good pitcher and as such he’ll have a number of teams interested in him. His former employer, the Blue Jays, apparently are fond of him. The Yankees traded for him this summer and didn’t win the World Series, so they could use some pitching (couldn’t everyone?). The White Sox, Reds, and I’m sure other teams have had interest in Happ, per reports.
The past four seasons the veteran lefty has run ERAs of 3.61, 3.18, 3.53 and 3.65, with an average of 172 1/2 innings per season. Those are surface-level numbers and they’re good. Happ also dialed up the strikeouts this year to a rate that was solidly above average, after years of looking like he was fairly average in that department. Strikeouts are a good indication of ability, even though we’d never argue that they’re the only thing that matters to a starter. Happ’s 26.3% strikeout rate put him at No. 11 on the list of American League starters who pitched at least 150 innings in 2018. That’s one spot behind Cleveland’s stated ace Corey Kluber and Minnesota’s J.O. Berrios.
And Happ’s walk rate (7.0%) is also lower than the A.L. average, and the Twins aren’t afraid of pitchers who walk a lot of guys (Lance Lynn, Fernando Rodney, Jake Odorizzi, to name a few). The one downside to Happ, if you’re hunting for one, is that he just turned 36 years old.
I get a kick out of this time of year. Every fan wants their team to get better. Contenders need to add good players to catch up with the Boston Red Sox. Non-contenders need to get a lot better to get into that conversation. And yet, a lot of fans only want to add a good player if it comes at a bargain of a contract.
I don’t get it. Happ is a good pitcher. And the Twins are trying to reimagine themselves as a good team (read: contenders in 2019). So the pairing makes sense from that standpoint. Sign him to a 2- or a 3-year deal if you want to — or if there are not more attractive upgrades available elsewhere. Wouldn’t you rather have Patrick Corbin or Corey Kluber? But failing that, if money was no object would you rather have Happ or Stephen Gonsalves in the opening day rotation?
Personally, I’d shoot higher but I also need to stress that Happ is a good pitcher and that the Twins ought to be able to absorb something like 3 years and $40 million or whatever Happ will be seeking this winter.
On the catching side of things, the Twins are in a tough spot.
Jason Castro had major knee surgery and is under contract for one more season. He’s the best the Twins have defensively, which they missed dearly after his surgery last season. But how much can you count on a catcher with a repaired knee squatting behind the plate? Will he catch 110 games this year? What percent sure are you?
Mitch Garver had a long ways to go defensively when he first took over. To his credit, he showed strides toward the end of the season, but it’s fair to say that he’s been more of a hitter with a catcher’s mitt. (Castro on the other hand has been more like a good catcher with a bat.)
Willians Astudillo is one of the most interesting players on the Twins’ 40-man roster. He makes contact and hits for some power, skipping the whole walk-or-strikeout bit in favor of putting the ball in play. I assumed that he’d be a terrible catcher based on the fact that he played just about every other position first, while the Twins under Paul Molitor split catching time between Mitch Garver and Bobby Wilson. To my surprise, I didn’t think Astudillo was a wreck behind the plate. He surpassed my expectations, and yet I don’t think you could reasonably count on him to shoulder a starter’s load. That’s fair, right?
We discussed catcher at length on a recent Twins podcast and catcher came up as an area of concern that has flown under the radar. The Twins have players there, but there’s also uncertainty.
Chirinos, 34, was starting for the Rangers last year and then they fell out of it. To me, he represents more of an insurance policy than an out-and-out upgrade. Look past the low batting average; Chirinos is a solid hiter for his position. (I’m biased by watching Garver and thinking that there’s more in the bat than what his final numbers showed, but I would rate Chirinos’ hitting somewhere in between Castro and Garver.) I’d need to dig a lot deeper on Chirinos defensively to make an informed decision on a multi-year contract from the Twins’ perspective.