Zulgad: Derek Falvey making his pitch to improve Twins by adding sluggers in draft

Twins Baseball
Derek Falvey, Minnesota Twins Executive Vice President and Chief Baseball Officer, chats on the field as pitchers and catchers report for their first workout at their spring training baseball facility in Ft. Myers, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Twins hired Derek Falvey to run their baseball operation in October 2016 after a 59-103 finish had cost Terry Ryan his job. One of the main selling points had been the role Falvey played in the development of pitching in the Cleveland organization.

Ryan, Bill Smith and then Ryan had struggled in this area and the Twins were paying the price. This was especially true when it came to the early stages of the Major League draft. From 2008 through 2015, the Twins had used 10 of 16 first-round or supplemental selections on pitching and gotten little return. Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson were at the head of a class that included names such as Carlos Gutierrez, Shooter Hunt, Matthew Bashore, Alex Wimmers and on and on.

An assumption was made that Falvey would fix this issue by hitting on pitching early in the draft. That has proven to be an incorrect assumption. It’s not that Falvey has missed on pitching in the first round, it’s that he and Sean Johnson, the Twins’ scouting director, have bypassed it entirely.

When the Twins took North Carolina slugger Aaron Sabato (18 home runs as a freshman and seven in 19 games in 2020 before coronavirus ended the season) with the 27th pick on Wednesday night, it marked the fourth consecutive year (and fifth overall) that the Twins went with a position player with their top pick. In the last draft run Ryan, the Twins selected high school outfielder Alex Kirilloff.

In Falvey’s first draft as the Twins’ baseball boss, he had his choice between high school shortstop Royce Lewis and prep pitching prospect Hunter Greene with the No. 1 overall selection. Falvey elected to go with Lewis and then took Mississippi State outfielder Brent Rooker with the 35th pick. The Twins added Oregon State outfielder Trevor Larnach with the 20th selection in 2018; and went with another shortstop, Keoni Cavaco, with the 13th pick in 2019. The Twins also took right fielder Matt Wallner from Southern Mississippi with the 39th pick last year.

This doesn’t mean Falvey and his staff won’t draft pitching — 18 of the 32 players signed by the Twins out of the 2019 draft were pitchers — but it does speak to an interesting philosophy of when you make an investment in a spot where there is a lot of risk involved.

There are so many things that can go wrong for young pitchers, and pitchers in general. Tommy John surgery has become the norm and that is preferable to shoulder issues. There are the mechanical adjustments that some pitchers struggle with at the professional level. A 100-mile-per-hour fastball is impressive, but if it’s not accompanied by a couple of other quality pitches, success as a big-league starter is unlikely to become a reality.

No draft pick is a sure thing, but Falvey realizes his odds are better if he goes with a position player. There also appears to be another element to the strategy, although we are yet to see Falvey follow through in this regard. That would be drafting position players, especially college sluggers, with the anticipation that he can use them in a package to trade for big-league starting pitching when it’s needed.

Rooker, Larnach, Wallner and Kiriloff are all corner outfielders, with Kiriloff also having played some first base. That also happens to be the position that the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Sabato plays. At last check, the Twins will have Miguel Sano at first base and Max Kepler in right field to open the 2020 season, if and when that happens.

Sano signed a three-year, $30 million contract in January and Kepler’s five-year, $35 million deal runs through 2024. Perhaps, Sano will move to DH at some point, or a spot in left field will open if Eddie Rosario is traded, but at some point the Twins are going to have the ability to move one of their top draft picks in a package.

There was a feeling among many last July that the Twins should have dealt a prospect to strengthen their starting rotation as they cruised to their first AL Central title since 2010, before being swept in the American League Division Series by the Yankees. If things go right for the Twins in 2021, Falvey should be in a position to make the exact type of deal he didn’t last summer.

The shortened 2020 season that’s expected to start at some point this summer, largely has been wiped out by COVID-19 and also the daily bickering between owners and players. The 2022 season appears to be in jeopardy because there’s little reason to believe there won’t be a strike or lockout after the CBA expires following next year.

That leaves the Twins focused on what should be, fingers crossed, a normal 2021 season. The Twins were one of the better clubs in the American League last year, setting the single-season home run record and winning 101 games, and the addition of  free agent third baseman Josh Donaldson would have improved an already dangerous lineup.

Guys like Donaldson and Nelson Cruz, assuming he returns at the age of 40, won’t be getting any younger when next season open. And, if their team needs some help on the mound, Falvey will have put his club in position to acquire it. Especially with there being a real threat that there won’t be a next season.