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Zulgad: Big spenders? Twins’ pitch will need to involve opening their pocketbook

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine did a good job of talking a big game Wednesday when it came to their potential pursuit of starting pitching for the Twins this offseason.

“In free agency, we’re going to have a lot of conversations with a lot of players who are freely available to talk to us,” said Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer. “We’re also going to talk to a lot of clubs about players that are on other teams and potential trade targets for us. I can’t put a number or where a guy is or what that means, but we’re going to target pitching. I think that’s going to be a big part of our focus, and try to figure out if we can get there.”

Falvey and Levine really have no choice but to “get there” considering a franchise that won 101 games and the AL Central title this season is set to return only one starter (Jose Berrios) and could lose three (Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda) or four (Martin Perez), if Perez’s team option isn’t picked up.

The Twins figure to lose little from a lineup that hit a big-league record 307 home runs this season — catcher Jason Castro and second baseman Jonathan Schoop will be free agents — and Sergio Romo is the only key member of the bullpen who could walk.

But if the Twins want to take the next step, and they really have no choice at this point, they are going to need to go all in on getting starting pitching help. That likely begins with re-signing Odorizzi but also needs to include targeting two other arms, including one  that can be considered a staff ace.

You don’t get that type of pitcher without it hurting either financially or by taking away some top-level prospects from a rich farm system. But after being swept by the Yankees in the ALDS — the other three series went five games — the Twins know exactly what they need to do.

Starting former Uber driver Randy Dobnak in Game 2 at Yankee Stadium was a great story for the national media, but it was a nightmare scenario for a franchise that actually wants to compete for a championship.

Falvey and Levine seem to understand this but there’s a difference between knowing what needs to be done and actually doing it. Until the Twins make a significant investment either via trade or the free-agent market in a starting pitcher, Minnesota fans are going to be skeptical that it actually will happen. They can’t be blamed.

A year ago, the Twins made some savvy free agent moves by signing designated hitter Nelson Cruz, Schoop and Perez, who got off to a great start before slumping. They also claimed C.J. Cron off waivers from Tampa Bay. Cruz, who had the $12 million team option on his contract for 2020 picked up by the Twins on Wednesday, turned out to be one of the best free agent signings in franchise history. The 39-year-old hit .311 with 41 home runs and 108 RBIs.

All of those acquisitions were very reasonable, in part because Falvey and Levine weren’t ready to take any risks. They did not know if their team was ready to pop. Levine, the Twins general manager, admitted as much in late January at TwinsFest.

“I would just tell you my view of it is, the best time to acquire players of that magnitude is when your window to win is wide open – not when you’ve got your fingers underneath the window and you’re trying to jam the window open,” Levine said at the time. “I want to do it when we are projected to win the (AL) Central and we are ready to put our foot on someone’s throat. That’s the time to make those types of moves. I think we’re really close to that, so I think that’s once again the balancing for us, is the who and the when.”

One-hundred-and-one victories later, there is no question about the status of the Twins’ window and what it should be for the coming years. That sucker is wide open and the only way to reach the ultimate goal is to make aggressive moves that a year ago might have seemed too risky.

The biggest name on the free agent pitching market will be 29-year-old Gerrit Cole. The Houston Astros righthander led baseball with 326 strikeouts and led the American League with a 2.50 ERA this season. He also did not lose a regular-season game after the Chicago White Sox beat him on May 22, going 16-0 with a 1.78 ERA in his final 22 starts.

Cole is going to break the bank of some team and it’s likely he will end up in his home state of California, either with the Los Angeles Angels or San Diego Padres. It’s beyond a long shot that Cole ends up in Minnesota, but just because he likely will land elsewhere doesn’t mean the Twins shouldn’t be involved in the bidding.

The Twins also need to be very competitive for the next level of free agent pitchers. That includes lefthander Madison Bumgarner, 30; lefty Dallas Keuchel, 31; lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, 32; righthander Zack Wheeler, 29; and lefty Cole Hamels, 35. It also could include 31-year-old righty Stephen Strasburg, who will have the chance to opt out of the final four years and $100 million of his contract with the Washington Nationals.

The trade market also could be the place for the Twins to land a top-line pitcher but that means they will need to be willing to part with a top prospect or two (think Royce Lewis and/or Alex Kiriloff) or even a guy like Miguel Sano. This might not be ideal but the necessary moves to improve the pitching are going to come with some pain. That’s the price that must be paid when the window of opportunity is this open.

“I think we feel a breeze,” Levine said Wednesday when asked where things stood now compared to last winter. “We’re feeling a breeze right now. I think we feel like we’re getting to a place now where we feel a little bit more emboldened to sit down with (owner) Jim Pohlad and (president) Dave (St. Peter) and talk about being a little bit more aggressive. We feel like we’re progressing for sure.”

That sounds good but it’s nothing more than lip service at this point. It will be Falvey and Levine’s actions that will be cause for genuine excitement or harsh criticism.


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