A few late-January thoughts on the Twins…
There’s no question the tenor of the offseason completely changed with the Josh Donaldson signing. Acquiring a player of Donaldson’s caliber is always going to reshape an offseason narrative, of course, but getting Donaldson allows all of the smaller moves the Twins made to be viewed in proper perspective. None of the players signed early in the offseason constituted anything resembling a “splash,” but they all now look like savvy secondary moves that added value at a relatively low cost.
Yes, the Twins got lucky Jake Odorizzi accepted the qualifying offer. Odorizzi and his agent probably anticipated a meandering offseason similar to the previous two, when pitchers like Dallas Kuechel, who like Odorizzi had draft pick compensation attached to him, had to wait until June to sign. Instead, it was a robust offseason in which Odorizzi likely would have gotten far more in guaranteed money than the $17.8 million he’ll earn in 2020. Baseball’s system for compensating players is broken and needs to be addressed, but that’s a conversation for another column.
The bottom line is the Twins got their No. 2 starter from last season back. They also got their No. 3 (Michael Pineda), two solid role players (Alex Avila, Ehire Adrianza), two strong relievers (Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard), a back-of the rotation starter (Homer Bailey), and an oft-injured starter who’s flashed ace upside in short stretches (Rich Hill) and could really help in September and October. Oh, and they signed Miguel Sano to a team-friendly extension.
Yes, they’ve yet to acquire an “impact” starter (though Hill could be that guy late), but the Twins have gotten significantly better this offseason. To do so, they spent the fifth most money in MLB in an offseason that’s seen a lot of teams spend money. The “cheap Pohlads” narrative is dead.
The Donaldson signing clearly signals the Twins are all-in on 2020. You don’t sign a 34-year-old to a nearly $100 million deal, knowing age-related decline is likely on the back-end, unless you’re all-in on the present. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine promised they’d pounce when the window was open, and after failing to do so at the trade deadline last year, they’ve now delivered on that promise.
Going all-in now does suggest they’re not done. There is, without question, still a need for another starter. Getting an ace is unlikely. Aces don’t grow on trees, and the 15 or so that are out there are incredibly valuable assets and unlikely to be moved for anything less than the moon and the stars. But there is a bevy of No. 2/3 types who could slot in around Odorizzi. Jon Gray, Matthew Boyd, Sandy Alcantera, Caleb Smith, and Robbie Ray are among the names to keep an eye on in the trade market.
In my view, acquiring another starter before spring training–rather than waiting until the trade deadline–is the move, even though it means giving up more in prospect capital. The White Sox are legitimate contenders, and until they trade Francisco Lindor or Mike Clevinger, so is Cleveland. The Twins don’t want those teams hanging around and feeling like they can take the Central when the deadline rolls around in late-July, and they don’t want to rely on a pieced-together rotation until Pineda comes back in Mid-May and Hill comes back in June or July.
A rotation of Berrios, Odorizzi, Bailey, Randy Dobnak, and Devin Smeltzer/Lewis Thorpe for a month and a half is a risk, and there’s no guarantee Pineda is going to immediately pitch like he did at the end of last season when he does return. Bailey had a nice 13-start stretch at the end of last season (4.30 ERA), though six of those starts were in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the league, Oakland. He also had an ERA over 6 from 2016-2018. Dobnak, Smeltzer and Thorpe have plenty of upside and all pitched well in stretches last season, but are largely unproven. Dobnak should have the inside track for a roster spot among the three, given what he did at four different levels last season. He deserves a chance to prove he belongs in the big leagues. In my view, though, it’s too big a risk to have uncertainty in three-fifths of your rotation when you’re trying to win a World Series. Acquiring one more starter alleviates those concerns, and none of the starters listed above would require the Twins to decimate their rich farm system.
I found this tweet from MLB.com’s Do-Hyoung Park interesting.
Wes Johnson says that Brusdar Graterol will continue to work in a bullpen role for the time being as he builds a physical and mental routine for the Major Leagues.
— Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark) January 21, 2020
This suggests the Twins will keep Brusdar Graterol as a reliever, at least at the start of 2020. The reasoning behind this move may be that Graterol only has so many bullets this season after missing most of last season with shoulder issues. Including the playoffs, Graterol threw just 71.2 innings last season in the majors and minors, meaning he’s likely in line to throw somewhere in the neighborhood of 100-120 this year. As a reliever, he can impact the major league team throughout the season, and potentially still be available in October. If the Twins converted him back to a starter and he began the season at Triple-A, he’d eat up a lot of those innings before re-entering the big leagues, and would almost surely hit his innings limit before October (see: Stephen Strasburg, 2012).
Keeping Graterol a reliever would be another move in line with the aforementioned “all-in” mentality in 2020. It’s not what’s best for his long-term development as a starter, but it would give the 2020 team maximum value from their top pitching prospect. It would also give the Twins a pretty formidable bullpen. If Graterol indeed begins the season in the ‘pen, it could look something like this:
Taylor Rogers (LHP)
Tyler Duffey (RHP)
Sergio Romo (RHP)
Tyler Clippard (RHP)
Trevor May (RHP)
Brusdar Graterol (RHP)
Zack Littell (RHP)
Lewis Thorpe (LHP)
There’s a lot of strikeouts and power arms in that bunch, and with the exception of Graterol and Thorpe in small sample sizes, all of those pitchers had ERAs of 3.50 or below in the big leagues last season, and five of the eight had ERAs below three. That group also doesn’t include a plethora of intriguing arms like Cody Stashak, Fernando Romero, Jorge Alcala, Matt Wisler, Danny Coulombe and Ryne Harper. Bottom line: The Twins sure look like they have a strong ‘pen, and tons of depth, heading into 2020.
Willians Astudillo makes a ton of sense to be the 26th man on the roster if the Twins are looking to get Mitch Garver more at-bats in 2020. Garver, of course, had a phenomenal year last season, slashing .273/.365/.630 with 31 home runs in just 311 at-bats. Garver’s season doesn’t get enough credit, given the enormity of the production he provided at catcher. If he can come close to replicating those numbers, getting his bat in the lineup more frequently should be a priority. The problem, though, is how to do that while keeping him healthy at catcher.
If the Twins were willing to give Astudillo one start a week behind the plate, and another two to Avila, Garver could essentially be a part-time catcher, starting roughly half the team’s games. Theoretically, that would allow him to get another 20-30 games at DH (when Nelson Cruz needs a day off) and 1B and still get the rest and recovery every catcher needs. Garver’s started four games at 1B in the big leagues, and made 38 starts at the position throughout his minor league career, so it’s not an entirely foreign position to him. His defense may not be great there, but the bat should more than make up for it. Astudillo and Garver both offer something few catchers do–defensive flexibility–and the Twins would be wise to take advantage of it in 2020.
Astudillo is one of the few players who will have to fight for a roster spot in spring training on the position player side. Adrianza, Avila, and Marwin Gonzalez (barring fallout from his time with the Astros) are locks on the bench. Jake Cave and LaMonte Wade Jr. will likely battle for the fourth OF spot. Other than that, if everyone makes it through March healthy, the roster is essentially set on the offensive side. The offense, of course, should be incredible in 2020. There may not be a better one in baseball.
After two seasons of playing a ton of cold-weather games in March/April, the Twins finally got a bit of a break in their schedule. Although they do have 16 home games in April, most of their road games in March/April are in warm-weather cities. The Twins open with seven at Oakland and Seattle, and also play at Toronto and the Dodgers. A three-game set against the White Sox in Chicago represents the only possibility for cold-weather road games. There are also fewer scheduled off-days at the start of the season, meaning if they can get their April home games in, they’ll finally get a reasonable number of off-days in August and September, when the players need them. The past two seasons, the Twins have had both a high number of scheduled off-days at the start of the season, and cancellations that have forced them to use up many of the scheduled off-days late in the season for make-up games.