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Zulgad: On the way out? Twins might have little choice but to begin shopping Jose Berrios

MLB: Houston Astros at Minnesota Twins
Jun 12, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Jose Berrios (17) throws against the Houston Astros in the fourth inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Berrios was pitching in the early innings of what would become an outstanding outing on Saturday night against the Houston Astros at Target Field, when MLB Network insider Jon Heyman hit send on the following tweet.

It wasn’t the first time in recent weeks that a plugged-in national reporter had mentioned the Twins righthander as a potential trade target for a pitching-starved contender. As much as some Twins fans might not like it, this speculation doesn’t figure to go away anytime soon.

The Twins, even with two wins in their past three games, including a 5-2 victory over the Astros on Saturday night, remain 12 games under .500 (26-38) and are tied with Detroit at the bottom of the AL Central. That makes Minnesota a prime candidate to be sellers before the July 30 trade deadline and Berrios qualifies as one of the most valuable pieces they could move.

Berrios, who is making $6.1 million this season and will be eligible for arbitration after 2021, is set to become a free agent following 2022. This is why the sooner the Twins can make a decision on his future the better off it will be for the club.

The Twins have made attempts to sign Berrios to a team-friendly deal in recent seasons, but the 27-year-old isn’t about to give the franchise a discount. Berrios likely is going to want to be paid like an ace, even if he probably is more of a No. 2 starter. What the Twins need to find out before the trade deadline arrives is if they can find common ground with Berrios’ representatives when it comes to an extension.

If they can’t it will in the best interest of president of baseball operations Derek Falvey to start making calls and see if someone will give him the farm — or at least part of their farm system. The Berrios that the Astros saw Saturday could command an impressive return. He improved to 7-2 with a 3.49 ERA in 13 starts by giving up two runs (back-to-back solo shots in the seventh innings), on five hits with a walk and eight strikeouts in seven innings. Seventy-four of his 99 pitches were thrown for strikes.

It marked the third time in his past six starts that Berrios has gone at least seven innings and the eighth time he has given up two or fewer runs in a start. The Berrios who handed the game to Hansel Robles (who handed it to Taylor Rogers for the save) after seven innings on Saturday is the guy whom you are tempted to call a staff ace. But is Berrios that guy often enough to give him the type of contract he’s almost certainly going to demand?

The righthander has had issues in August the past two years that could be considered cause for concern. In a four-start stretch last August, Berrios posted a 4.71 ERA and didn’t get past the sixth inning. The Twins lost three of those four games. In 2019, Berrios had an 8.07 ERA in a six-start stretch that began in August and did not end until early September. Berrios, again, did not go more than six innings in any of those starts.

Kenta Maeda and Berrios established themselves as an effective one-two punch last season as the Twins won a second consecutive AL Central title in the pandemic-shortened season. But Maeda, who finished second in the AL Cy Young voting, has been on the injured list since late May and had a 5.27 ERA in nine starts before being sidelined.

That has left Berrios as easily the Twins’ most effective starter. The wise move, of course, would be for the Twins to find a way to keep him. This team hasn’t developed nearly enough pitching to think it has the luxury of trading established starters away like Cleveland has done.

The Twins must find out what Berrios wants. The starting point might be the five-year, $85 million extension the Astros gave to righthander Lance McCullers Jr. last March. McCullers was 3-1 with a 2.96 ERA in nine starters this season before being sidelined by right shoulder soreness. He also missed all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in November 2018.

That’s something else the Berrios camp is going to point out. Berrios has been durable since being called up by the Twins in 2016. He made 12 starts last season in the short year and 32 starts in the previous two years. There is always concern that an arm issue could be around the corner, but right now Berrios’ durability is hard to argue.

There is another factor that goes into making this decision, although Twins fans aren’t going to want to hear this. Center fielder Byron Buxton, a marvelous talent who is anything but durable, also will be eligible for free agency after 2022. While Berrios is going to want to be paid as if he’s a No. 1 starter, Buxton is likely to be looking for a pay day that assumes his injury issues are behind him.

Will the Twins pay enough to keep both? That’s probably a long shot. With the threat of an MLB lockout and long work stoppage in 2022, the reality is that Berrios or Buxton are probably going to be at their most valuable in the coming weeks. That’s assuming Buxton can successfully return from a right hip strain. That’s why quietly opening extension talks now is so important.

If both players say no, Falvey’s only option might to begin exploring potential deals. That’s why it’s impossible to dismiss the informed speculation of baseball insiders that we might be watching Berrios’ final weeks in a Twins uniform.