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Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Astros, Nationals players the Twins should target (MLB free agency 2020)

The Twins scored 201 more runs in 2019 than they did the year before. That’s easily the biggest improvement in the Majors this season, and it’s what helps get hitting coach James Rowson plucked for greener (?) pastures in another organization. The other biggest improvers were the Astros (+123), the Diamondbacks (+120), the Mets (+115) the Orioles (+107) and the Nationals (+102). The Twins are out there in their own zip code in terms of the jump they made scoring runs.

Health, hitting coaches, Nelson Cruz and juicier-than-normal baseballs all played a factor. Maybe naps did, too. As good as the offense was, most of us are left to wonder what the Twins will do to improve their pitching staff this winter. Will they swing for the big-ticket items? I too think pitching should be the top priority, followed by upgraded fielding and more hitting. You can never have too much hitting.

This column presents 5 thoughts on winter targets for the Twins, plucked from the rosters of the two World Series teams, the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals.

1. Anthony Rendon

Bet you thought I was going to say Gerrit Cole. When you’re making bets on 29-year-olds in the free agent market, it just feels to me like the safest and most logical play is to put your chips on a position player. They get hurt, sure, but they don’t grab elbows in June and run you a bill for a year-and-change on the trainer’s table for something completely outside of their control in the way that pitchers do. I’m not even blaming pitchers. They get hurt. It sucks. It’s what makes betting on bats the safe play, for my money.

Do you know who leads the Major Leagues in Wins Above Replacement (per FanGraphs) over the past 3 seasons? Mike Trout. The rest of the top-5? Mookie Betts, Christian Yelich, Anthony Rendon and Alex Bregman. These are MVP candidates. And one of them is a free agent this winter.

And yet, the talk nationally has been so centered on pitching that we forgot to pay attention to the third baseman in Washington D.C. Or maybe it’s just that Rendon continues to be baseball’s best kept secret, the most underrated superstar this side of Matt Chapman.

Nolan Arenado got paid big bucks (8 years, $260 million) in a similar situation, though not exactly identical. Betts will absolutely get paid some good coin, although there are doubts whether it’ll be in Boston. (Hey Twins, want to make that trade?)

Since the start of 2017, Rendon has hit .310/.397.556, with 83 home runs and a glove at third base that is widely respected. That’s a superstar in my book.

What will that cost you? The Nationals offered a late-season contract extension worth as much as $215 million over 7 years, according to a report in the Washington Post. That feels light to me. But who knows, the way MLB free agency works these days it’s hard to say what will be the highest offer for a 30-year-old star when the dust settles.

If the Twins decide that they have one bullet to fire on a contract for an incoming superstar, in addition to marrying “the best of today with the best of tomorrow,” would this be the winter to take that shot? Could Rendon be that shot?

2. Gerrit Cole

His ace stature is firmly cemented. And visually, if you’re going to bet on a hard-thrower with strikeout stuff, you could do a lot worse than Gerrit Cole at age 29. Actually, it’s hard to imagine doing any better. Cole just finished his third consecutive season (including one in Pittsburgh) with at least 32 starts and 200 innings. He won 20 games for people who still makes notches on belts for such things, he posted a 2.50 ERA, and he set an MLB record for starting pitchers by striking out 39.9% of the hitters he faced. (He walked 5.9% of batters.) Simply put, Cole is an excellent pitcher who is capping off an incredible season right before free agency.

When you’re picking between great aces, years spent on the planet becomes the default tiebreaker.

Gerrit Cole is 29 years old and has been a monster at times this postseason. He will command big bucks in free agency. The Twins need pitching in a bad way – hey, get in line – and that’s especially true when it comes to the top-end variety.

I’ve heard the line a lot from my friends and followers this summer and fall that the Twins stand a 0.00% chance of signing Cole. This is based mostly on years of conditioning. I didn’t talk to Scott Boras for this column – maybe I should have, since he reps the top-3 guys on this list – but I do expect this free agency to pan out like every winter for Boras clients. If you’re good, you get top dollar somewhere, and it might take some patience. There will be laughable quotes along the way as the showman that represents you throws himself to the media to give the goods to the big outlets, and we’ll all eat it up.

I’ve also seen speculation that Cole will get $300 million. I’ll believe it when I see it.

I’ve seen speculation that David Price’s 7 years, $217 million will be the “floor” for Cole’s negotiations. OK, then point me to the teams that are looking to spend $30+ million on a starting pitcher in his thirties, and we’ll start the conversation with those teams. (Make sure that it’s not a club looking to duck under the luxury tax, or one that believes it can create the next Cole, or one that won’t try to win next year, or one that’s been shown to be afraid of long-term commitments, or one that’s in an early phase of its “sustainable winning” multiyear plan to keep costs down and telescope timelines.)

Give me that list of teams and then tell me why the Twins can’t be one of the ones still standing.

If Cole chooses to sign elsewhere for non-money reasons, that’s one thing. But the notion that Minnesota and Cole don’t fit together, that just doesn’t make sense to me.

One reason the Twins will miss hitting coach James Rowson: He spoke the language(s)

3. Stephen Strasburg

Note: Strasburg would need to opt out of the final 4 years and $100 million for this to be a realistic free-agent target. Again, I didn’t reach out to Boras for this column, so we’ll just make some guesses. In one hand, $100 million is a lot of money, especially when $45 million would be on the books in 2023, Strasburg’s age-34 season – and considering that we don’t know what’s going to happen between now and then in baseball’s labor market. So maybe he says Let’s Go Nats and bags the hundred-million dollars.

On the other hand, wouldn’t you pay more than that, and easily into the 9 figures, to grab an ace like Stephen Strasburg? If he were made available on the ‘free’ market, wouldn’t you pay out the nose for a now-healthy former No. 1 overall draft pick who is totally fulfilling the promise that comes with that prominent draft position? Strasburg made 33 starts this year for the Nats before this postseason run began. He pitched 209 innings, the second time in his career he’s surpassed the round-number we all like to use to judge workloads for starters.

He had a 3.32 ERA (career 3.17 in the N.L. East). He struck out 29.9% of hitters (career 29.1% strikeout rate). And he’s been a legitimate sensation for the Nationals as they marched all the way to the World Series this year. In 5 outings, including once in relief in the Wild Card game, the Nats’ co-ace has a 1.93 ERA and a 40-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28 innings. Forty-to-two!

Entering Tuesday night’s start, Washington is 5-0 in games that he’s pitched, and all of those are against good teams. He’s the biggest reason why.

His teammate, Patrick Corbin, is the only starter who cleared $100 million in free agency last winter (6 years, $140M), and the year before that only Yu Darvish (6/$126M) got that much. Strasburg likely would get that much. Is he willing to bet on himself and open up a bidding war? Would the Twins sit down at that poker table?

Instagram: @dwetmore

4. Colin McHugh

It’s easy to forget about a guy when he’s not a part of the latest postseason run for the best team in baseball. An elbow injury has kept McHugh on the sideline, and in September the club shut down his throwing/rehab program, at least temporarily, according to reports.

After impacting the 2017 World Series team, McHugh had a great year statistically in 2018. This season was not as kind to him, and now he’s an injured 33-year-old likely reliever who might be out there looking for a job this winter.

After spending a lot of ink focusing on the $100M+ crowd, how about a decent value buy on a bounceback candidate with talent in his arm?

5. Other value plays in a pitching role:

In general, the Twins under Derek Falvey have sat out the top-tier reliever market, opting instead to target and develop their own lower cost items. That has led to signing — and subsequently punting on – pitchers like Fernando Rodney, Blake Parker and Addison Reed, the most notable exception to the Twins-Don’t-Buy-Relievers rule.

They didn’t win the Craig Kimbrel bidding. They didn’t go in for the most on Wade Davis two winters ago. They haven’t done a 3-year free-agent reliever contract in Falvey’s time running the show. That has meant they were out on Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino, Joe Kelly, and Andrew Miller landed elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Twins have helped develop Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Zack Littell and Trevor May, which looks to me like the start of a 2020 pitching staff on the Super Affordable.

Will they target veteran relievers? Will Sergio Romo return? Those are questions to be answered.

And if the answer on pursuing veteran relievers is yes, I’d have varying levels of interest in Daniel Hudson, Will Harris, Héctor Rondón, Joe Smith, Chris Devenski if his option is not picked up, and ditto for Sean Doolittle ($6.5 million club option).

Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Twins storylines for the 2019 World Series

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