With MLB free agency open for business, the Minnesota Twins have some needs to fill for 2019. Every one of these positions of need ought to be viewed through the lens of a run at the division title this year. That should be the goal for hte Twins as they embark on the MLB free agency path.
This column presents 5 thoughts on the biggest needs to fill for the Twins.
Jorge Polanco holds the keys here. Since he was a prospect, there’s been talk from outside and from inside the organization that he might be best suited to play second base. People always seemed to like his bat – which is why there was so much talk about him in the first place – but the praise for his defensive work wasn’t universal.
The past two seasons he’s shown the Twins enough offensively that they should like their odds of having a good bat at one of the two positions. I think this is the winter they can pick a spot for him and find a replacement at one of the other two positions.
Brian Dozier left in a July trade, and Logan Forsythe (his replacement) is a free agent, too. It’s the first time in four years that second base is uncovered, and the Twins will get to decide if they like Polanco enough at shortstop to see it through, or if now is the first natural opportunity to move him to second base.
One complicating factor: Will shortstop be easy to fill?
Probably it won’t, but remember that the Twins have plenty of money to spend — and plenty of prospect capital if they’re in the trade market. Manny Machado is a free agent and there are a couple other hitters and a couple defenders that should be available in free agency. The Carlos Correas and the Francisco Lindors of the world won’t be available in trades, but maybe the Twins would explore the rest of that market?
The simplest path would be to leave Polanco alone and get a second baseman in free agency. But the higher upside potential would be to move him and sign Machado.
The elephant in the room is Joe Mauer. And at some point if you’re the Twins you probably have to give No. 7 a deadline. Just because you’ll eventually give him a statue outside Target Field doesn’t mean that he should hold up your offseason planning.
If you care about the World Series, sometimes you have to move on from tactfulness in certain situations. Joe Mauer has “earned” the respect to take as long as he wants to make the weighty decision about his future. But the Twins should only be willing to go for so long with a Plan A / Plan B approach. Eventually you’ve got to know your path and focus all your attention on that reality.
If No. 7 does in fact retire, it’s wide open at first base. Some fans want to see Miguel Sano stashed at first base so he can focus more on hitting. I’ve heard from the Twins that they aren’t ready to quit on Sano as a third baseman. And you can understand why. If he’s a masher that plays first base and eventually gets expensive, then you’ve got a fine player on your hands. If you can maximize his value to the team by getting a possibly-plus or adequate defender at third base, add his bat to the equation, and then fill in with a good first baseman to boot – that’s an attractive opportunity. The theory here relies on 1) Sano committing to defense and actually getting better, because he’s not a finished product yet; and 2) that first base is easier to fill than third base, generally speaking.
With the Twins’ current nucleus of mid-20’s players, it’s worth considering how they defend. There’s so much uncertainty with the group overall. Let’s assume for a moment that their best-case outcome is a given. I’d still wonder a bit about the defensive side.
The Twins’ decision makers know they need to improve their run prevention and I just think it’s fair to question at this point how good some of these players can be relative to their peers at the position. It’s a long way of saying that, right or wrong, the Twins view Sano as a third baseman right now. So with no Mauer in the picture and a pause on the Sano-to-first-base discussion, the Twins need a first baseman.
Tyler Austin showed stretches of power. Mitch Garver looks like a good hitter but he came up as a catcher. Willians Astudillo is fun but you wouldn’t play him regularly at first base. Max Kepler could slide into the infield and play some first base, if you’re trying to get tricky.
The Twins declined Logan Morrison’s option after 2018 didn’t work out like they’d hoped. He’s available in free agency, but do you see a reunion happening? Matt Adams is a free agent. Otherwise you’re looking internally or at the trade market to fill the spot vacated by Mauer – unless Mauer decides to return and the Twins will have him, that is.
The Twins need a better bullpen if they want to compete with the superpowers in baseball right now. In fact, the Twins need a better bullpen if they want to be relevant in their own division. The Indians, still the team to beat from my perspective, will likely lose some talent in free agency. Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Josh Donaldson and Michael Brantley are all set to test the market.
From the Twins’ perspective, there are some good relievers available. And don’t forget that Minnesota traded away a good reliever and then watched him become a great reliever, when Ryan Pressly left in a trade with the Houston Astros.
They could have used the upgrade before that trade, and now they’re really banking on some internal development. They’ll also need to supplement that with an addition or two, and there certainly are arms available. (I thought Oliver Drake would make the opening-day roster after his performance last season, but he was claimed on waivers this week as the Twins trim their 40-man roster.)
I’d consider moving a starting pitcher or two to the bullpen, and we’ll go deeper on these topics as the winter unfolds. I’m a big believer in Trevor May, and I think he’d do fine if the Twins left him in the traditional closer’s role. I’d still look to add to that group, which also includes Taylor Rogers, Addison Reed, and perhaps Trevor Hildenberger and Matt Magill. I’m in the camp that would ask Fernando Romero to be a reliever, but I also admit that basing that decision off 10 starts would be a quick hook.
This to me is the second-most intriguing part of the winter. (The most intriguing is how much money the Twins would be willing to put up in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes; go ahead and get creative.)
The Twins could use a better starting rotation. They’re not up to par with the Indians (great), the Astros (also great), and they don’t have the ace power of a team like the Yankees or Red Sox.
But after that let’s not get too carried away. The 2018 Twins were approximately one healthy and productive Ervin Santana away from a top-5 starting rotation in the American League. J.O. Berrios took a nice step, Kyle Gibson continued his breakout that began the summer before, and Jake Odorizzi righted the ship late. If you want to throw out Lance Lynn’s bad April the stats look better, too.
Still, here’s the way I see the Twins’ rotation stacking up right now. You’ve got three guys to rely on and some depth after that, but no crystal-clear picture of the five guys that will open the season in the “rotation” and even with Berrios’ step forward, they don’t have an “ace” in the classic sense of the word.
J.O. Berrios – contract extension candidate
Kyle Gibson – in the final year of team control; extension candidate, trade candidate, or just good starter on a good team
Jake Odorizzi — in the final year of team control; mid-rotation starter
After that it’s a bunch of pitchers that you could see filling out a big league rotation. None of those guys are written in pen in my own estimation. Even Michael Pineda, a guy you thought they’d pen in the 2019 rotation, dealt with another injury this year, calling into question his abilito to shoulder a 30-start load.
And oh, there are good pitchers available.
Patrick Corbin is the most attractive free agent starter in my book. Dallas Keuchel has the cred and the ability to pick his next employer. Clayton Kershaw and his low-90’s fastball might choose to stay in Los Angeles, or the ace of his generation might elect to forego the final two years of his Dodger contract to hit free agency right now. J.A. Happ, Charlie Morton and Hyun-Jin Ryu are free agents. Nathan Eovaldi’s triple-digit fastball saw a resurgence this year. Wade Miley came out of nowhere to star for the Brewers before hitting free agency again. C.C. Sabathia is out there. So is Ervin Santana. So is Anibal Sanchez. So is Lance Lynn and I think I need to stop so I can make my point.
If the Twins are going to add a starting pitcher, they should aim for the very top of the market. They’ve got all that freedom to spend, and they could fill some positions or they could swing hard for a big pitcher.
If they’d rather point those financial resources toward fixing other problems, there’s another option. They could simply roll with this rotation, count on their depth to get them into first place – or at least within striking distance – by mid-July and then trade prospects for the best available starting pitcher. In one way it’s riskier, but you see teams try this model every year.
This is a real question mark to me. How many games will Jason Castro catch after knee surgery? Is he going to jump right back in as Prime Jason Castro? If he does, the picture gets brighter. If he doesn’t, you’re left to wonder.
Will Mitch Garver be needed elsewhere? Were the defensive improvements he made down the stretch sufficient enough to think that he could be the starter? How many games could he handle back there? And will he help elevate the pitching staff?
Is Willians Astudillo a catcher? Is Willians Astudillo even real?
I’ve been talking about J.T. Realmuto as a trade candidate for a year now, and this week his agent apparently said that it’s time to get out of Miami, according to reports. That’d be an interesting target for the Twins. Short of finding a trade partner willing to give up a good catcher, it’s either roll with what you’ve got internally or find a free agent to your liking.
Castro’s injury really adds to the uncertainty here, in my book. And at such a critical position, I’m just left wondering if the Twins can afford to hope for the best-case scenario.