Any time I’ve spoken about the Minnesota Twins and their desire to upgrade their roster and improve their 2020 World Series odds, I’m met with a few different variations of response.
If it’s a pitcher, I get subdued nods of agreement, ‘Yes, that pitcher will do. More would be nice, though.’ And if it’s not a pitcher, I get asked if that player will transition to the mound in 2020. That’s been true if we’re talking about a backup catcher or a star player like Anthony Rendon, Yasmani Grandal or Matt Chapman.
Two bits of good news for that crowd that is convinced the Twins will have only narrowly enough bandwidth to focus on pitching and pitching alone this winter: 1) This highly capable and newly extended front office is going to be asked in these parts to walk and chew gum this winter; and 2) They’re allowed to target pitching in addition to other roster upgrades that will be available to them.
We could take the easy route. Step 1 to upgrading the pitching staff of the Twins: Sign Gerrit Cole. Step 3: Profit. Another column for another day. Today, we focus on preventing runs in 2020. The Twins permitted 754 runs in 2019, and five A.L. teams were better in that department. If you were worse than the Twins in that category, you were not a good A.L. club in 2019 (Sorry, Red Sox).
This column presents 5 ways the Twins can cut down on the number of runs that other teams score against them.
Buxton is crucial to the run prevention program, and his value in centerfield is not to be understated here. If it feels to you like Buxton again missed a lot of time in 2019, you would be right about that. The Gold Glove centerfielder — one of the best in the world at that craft — staffed a little less than half of the team’s innings in center this year.
Max Kepler filled in almost one-third of the time, and the rest of the CF innings went to a combination of Jake Cave, and a trio of other backup options in 2019.
I have been told that the Twins have discussed and will continue to talk with Buxton the ways in which he can play a great centerfield, while also preserving his body. It’s a challenging errand, for sure, but it’s one worth pursuing because of those other 53% of defensive innings.
Not all of Buxton’s injuries would be preventable by simply easing off the gas. And besides, who knows if that’s even an achievable outcome based on continued talks with an elite athlete. But I can’t be the only one who holds my breath every time Buxton crashes into a wall at 30 feet per second.
The point that the Twins should try to drive home to Buxton, once his shoulder is fully healed and he’s ready to rock: You are very good at what you do, and it would be better for you and the team if you’re out there doing it a lot more often. The math of it is clear. I’d gladly give up two extra doubles a month if it meant having Buxton healthy and available for a full season.
The other names that the Twins should “kick the tires” on and “express interest” in pursuing are Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler, Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-jin Ryu. That is, if Stephen Strasburg tells you no-thank-you and Gerrit Cole tells you to your face that he’s only pitching on the west coast next year.
I get a kick out of the idea that both of those things are a fait accompli, because that’s what we were told when it was only a matter of time before Bryce Harper was a Cub and Patrick Corbin was a Yankee.
The Twins currently have José Berríos and Odorizzi in the fold again for next year. They can look to find a trade partner that will give them an arm for the rotation, a rare but always possible avenue to find a great starter. They can hope for some internal development. And/or they can go sign someone who is looking for work.
If you’re going to sign one of the pitchers who rejected the Qualifying Offer (Bumgarner, Wheeler, Strasburg and Cole), then you’ll be giving up your third selection in the 2020 June draft (and the associated pool money). I’m not losing sleep over that tradeoff, and if you’re going to jump in that water once, you might consider double-dipping because the penalty is less severe for the second such free agent.
THE TWINS GOT THEIR PITCHING! pic.twitter.com/5rqH7veo6a
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) November 15, 2019
This is not a hot take. I would really approach Grandal and pitch him on my plan to keep him healthy and productive as a star catcher into his thirties, teaming him up with Mitch Garver as the best catching tandem in baseball on a club with World Series aspirations.
Is that too much to ask?
A scarcity mindset could hinder this path. It’s the one I’d take, and having Odorizzi locked in for next year would further embolden me to make the unconventional play here.
For the curious, I’ve written about my reasoning in greater depth, but essentially he’s a good switch-hitting catcher who makes his pitching staff better. And with Garver emerging into star territory, I think the Twins should look for a way to keep the balance of defensive innings and plate appearances in check to maximize performance (Rest and Recovery, baby).
Source: @dwetmore on Instagram
This one is trickier to pull off than just offering a player like Grandal a bag of money to work for your company. Consider a few options here.
If the Red Sox are really intent on getting worse this year in the name of becoming more affordable, then Mookie Betts is a great trade target. He’s only got one more year before free agency, so don’t go overboard to trade for that single year from a team that somehow worked its way into a spot of lousy leverage with a former MVP.
Or, if Betts to the Twins isn’t happening, what about Jackie Bradley Jr.? Maybe Boston’s new baseball boss will be trade-happy, and as far as centerfielders go, it’s hard to do better than JBJ. He would help prevent runs if he played in Minnesota, especially if he shared an outfield with Byron Buxton.
Or, my recent favorite from the Why-Would-They-Do-That department, if the A’s will trade Matt Chapman, you make sure you stay on the phone until the deal is done and then you pay the phone company whatever they need at the end of the month. Spring for the unlimited plan next time around.
There are more defensive stalwarts out there. These are just a few to get your wheels turning.
The way I see it, Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez are good baseball players. I think it’s also fair to say that if that will be Minnesota’s primary middle infield combination, the defense up the middle leaves something to be desired. Throw in Miguel Sanó as the primary third baseman and you’ve got some question marks defensively.
So barring some significant changes in those locations, the Twins should alter their pitching approach away from the ground ball as much as possible. As a concession, this infield would make me more inclined than a typical club to accept a tradeoff of flyballs for strikeouts. There’s probably some more sophisticated math to compute here, but in general terms I’m saying that I’m willing to give favor to non-groundballers because of the composition of the Twins’ infield. (If they trade for Andrelton Simmons or prime Omar Vizquel to move Polanco to second base, I’d adjust this theory.)
In practice, that means shying away from guys in the 50%+ groundball rate territory (Kyle Gibson, Martín Pérez and even Randy Dobnak) in favor of more pitchers like Odorizzi and Trevor May.
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