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Twins 5 pack of offseason issues: Will the Twins keep Nelson Cruz? Will Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario be moved?

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Minnesota Twins’ Miguel Sano reacts after swinging and missing for a strike during the fourth inning of Game 2 of an American League Division Series baseball game against the New York Yankees, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The Twins’ 2020 season was anything but usual. The team reported to spring training last February in Fort Myers, Fla., looking to defend its AL Central title but players were sent home as mid-March neared because of the coronavirus pandemic. The regular season did not start until July 24 and lasted only 60 games.
Manager Rocco Baldelli’s club succeeded in repeating as division champs, but the circumstances were most unusual on and off the field. Ballparks with no fans allowed in them, seven-inning doubleheaders, placing a runner on second base to start extra innings and players having to stay in their hotel room on the road (at least they were supposed to) were just some of the oddities of COVID ball. About the only thing that ended up being business as usual came in the expanded playoffs as the Twins were swept in two games by the Houston Astros. A 3-1 loss on Wednesday ended the season.
That put the Twins’ postseason losing streak at 18 games, not just an MLB record but a record for the NFL, NHL and NBA as well. Derek Falvey, the Twins president of baseball operations, general manager Thad Levine and Baldelli have established they know how to achieve regular-season success. The postseason is another story.
There are plenty of decisions to be made in the coming months. Here are five important issues that will be facing the Twins’ brass this winter.
Designated hitter Nelson Cruz will turn 41 on July 1, 2021, but he has hit 57 home runs and driven in 141 runs in two seasons as the Twins’ designated hitter and has made it clear he wants to continue to play. There was dialogue between Cruz’s camp and the Twins last winter about a contract extension but it has not resulted in a deal.
Cruz battled a knee or hamstring issue late in the season, but his two doubles in the playoffs drove in the only two runs the Twins scored over two games. Cruz keeps himself in fantastic shape and his pregame nap routine is one reason he has been able to access The Fountain of Youth. The question isn’t whether the Twins will want Cruz back, it’s what will they be willing to pay him? Cruz might have more options, too, if the National League keeps the designated hitter after adopting it this season for the pandemic-shortened schedule.
Cruz has provided the Twins with tremendous leadership in the clubhouse and power at the plate, but the reality is Minnesota is likely to look to cut payroll (as will many teams) because of revenues that were lost in 2020 because of COVID-19. There might be a team willing to offer Cruz more money and more years than the Twins, especially if there is concern that Cruz’s age is going to catch up with him sooner rather than later.
A year ago, Miguel Sano hit .247/.346/.576 with 34 home runs and 79 RBIs in 105 games and appeared to turn a corner as far as beginning to fulfill his potential at the plate. He also struck out 159 times in 380 at-bats. That success earned him a three-year, $30 million contract last January that contains a team option in 2023.
Moved to first base this season after the Twins signed free agent third baseman Josh Donaldson, Sano had a disappointing 2020. He slashed .204/.278/.478 with 13 homers and 25 RBIs in 53 games and led the majors with 90 strikeouts in 186 at-bats. Sano had a miserable month of September, slashing .148/.179/.383 with six homers and 10 RBIs in 21 games, striking out 39 times in 81 at-bats.
He also was a non-factor in the playoffs for a second consecutive year and is now 2-for-19 with one homer and one RBI and nine strikeouts in five postseason games. Sano did test positive for COVID-19 upon arriving for the Twins’ summer camp, but it’s not certain what type of impact that had on him.
Sano, 27, has completed six big-league seasons and appears to be going backward. The Twins spent countless hours and great effort on making sure Sano got himself into decent shape and began to show some level of consistency at the plate. Cruz was considered to be a key part of this process. But what Baldelli and Co., saw in this shortened season had to worry them as Sano often lacked any approach at the plate other than trying to pull the ball as far as he possibly could.
There is no question that when Sano connects, he can hit the ball a mile. But it’s the connecting part that has to concern the Twins. His strikeout totals have become alarming. If Falvey isn’t convinced this story will have a happy ending, it will be interesting to see if he shops Sano.
Eddie Rosario again will be eligible for arbitration this winter, but it will be interesting to see if the Twins decide to move on from their longtime left fielder. Such a decision could make sense on several levels, including the team’s likely desire to cut payroll.
Rosario is coming off a season in which he slashed .257/.316/.476 with 13 home runs and 42 RBIs in 57 games. The 29-year-old, who is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2021 season, certainly brings value at the plate and has a good arm in the outfield. But he also has been known to make perplexing plays in the field and on the bases.
Baldelli doesn’t call out Rosario for his miscues but you have to wonder if he has tired of them? The Twins have the advantage of having a few major league ready outfield prospects, such as Brent Rooker and Alex Kirilloff, who could step into the left field spot if Rosario is dealt.
The lasting image of Rosario for 2020 will be of him getting booted from Game 2 of the Twins’ playoff loss to Houston by plate umpire Manny Gonzalez in the sixth inning for arguing a called second strike after he struck out swinging.
The question is how much could the Twins get for Rosario, or would they be better off trying to trade right fielder Max Kepler, who has four years remaining on a team-friendly contract? This depends on what the Twins might be looking for in a trade and also how tired they have become of Rosario’s ways.
The Twins felt they had strengthened their infield and added more power last winter when they signed Donaldson to a four-year, $92 million contract. Donaldson, who will turn 35 on Dec. 8, was coming off a solid season with Atlanta in which he hit 37 home runs with 94 RBIs in 155 games.
The contract seemed a bit long for a guy nearing his mid-30s — it was the most money the franchise had ever paid to an outside free agent — but the Twins felt it was a chance worth taking. These days they must be holding their breath.
One thing Donaldson brought with him to Minnesota was a history of calf injuries and that became almost an immediate issue when the Twins began play. Donaldson hit the injured list in late July after suffering a strained right calf and missed 30 games. He aggravated the problem late last week and wasn’t on the team’s playoff roster.
Calf problems kept Donaldson out for a substantial amount of time in 2017 and 2018, and he posted on social media this summer that he had torn both of his calves a total of seven times in two years. Donaldson finished this season slashing .222/.373/.469 with six homers and 11 RBIs in 28 games.
The Twins are clearly going to have to work on a plan to keep Donaldson in the lineup as much as possible in 2021, if they are going to get their money’s worth from this contract. That might not be easy given Donaldson’s age and issue with this particular injury.
If Cruz doesn’t return, one answer might be to use him more frequently in the DH role. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it’s better than having him on the IL for extended periods.
This is an interesting one as the Twins consider what to do with a rotation that figures to have Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios and Michael Pineda at the top. Righthander Jake Odorizzi had an opportunity to become a free agent last winter, but decided to accept the Twins’ qualifying offer of one-year, $17.8 million so he could hit the open market this coming offseason and not have draft-pick compensation attached to him.
Odorizzi had gone 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA in 30 starts and figured he would build off of that in 2020. But then the pandemic hit, the season was shortened and, when it did start, Odorizzi battled injury issues that put him on the IL three separate times and limited him to four starts in which he posted a 6.59 ERA. The 30-year-old was on the Twins’ playoff roster but never got into a game.
So what’s his value going to be on the open market? Given that many teams likely won’t be spending at the usual levels, Odorizzi might have to accept a short-term, smaller-money contract and then hit free agency again in the coming years. This could put the Twins in a position to keep him for the short term.
He’s a pitcher who is certainly dedicated to his craft and, when healthy, is a valuable member of the rotation. The Twins are familiar with him and he with them, so don’t be surprised if they decide to make an attempt to retain his services on a short-term contract.