If the Twins win the American League Central for the third time in four years, and perhaps even break their 18-game postseason losing streak, Derek Falvey should get credit for the quick moves he made after the MLB lockout ended in mid-March.
The lockout wiped out much of the offseason and created chaos once it ended. Spring training camps got underway as teams hurried to set their rosters. Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations, made two trades and a signing that have been a big reason Minnesota is in first place in its division.
Falvey sent catcher Mitch Garver to the Texas Rangers on March 12 for shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa and pitching prospect Ronny Henriquez. The next day, the Twins shipped Kiner-Falefa, third baseman Josh Donaldson (and the remaining two years and approximately $42 million of his contract) and catcher Ben Rortvedt to the Yankees in exchange for catcher Gary Sanchez and third baseman Gio Urshela.
The same day, Falvey acquired veteran righthanded starter Sonny Gray from the Reds for righty Chase Petty, the Twins’ 2021 first-round pick. Minnesota also acquired minor league pitcher Francis Peguero.
The acquisition of Kiner-Falefa made sense since it had been unclear who would be the Twins’ Opening Day shortstop? So why move him so quickly? That question was answered a week later when star shortstop Carlos Correa agreed to a three-year, $105.3 million deal that included opt-outs after the 2022 and ’23 seasons. Without the Yankees taking Donaldson’s entire contract, it’s extremely unlikely the Twins could have afforded Correa.
The Twins are 37-28 after taking of three from the Mariners this week in Seattle and will open a three-game series on Friday in Arizona. Minnesota was 2.5 games ahead of Cleveland entering Thursday.
Gray returned from a strained right pectoral muscle that landed him on the injured list and pitched five scoreless innings in a 5-0 victory over the Mariners on Wednesday. He threw 65 pitches and gave up only three hits, while striking out three. Gray didn’t get the victory but his performance was the latest positive from a guy who has provided the rotation with a veteran presence and a pitcher who embraces the craft of his job.
Gray, who is 3-1 with a 2.09 ERA in eight starts, has yet to surrender more than two runs in any of his starts. His ERA is third best in franchise history (minimum of 35 innings) through eight starts trailing Dave Goltz (1.97 in 1972) and Bill Krueger (1.98 in 1992).
Correa, whose agent, Scott Boras, played a major role in getting his client to Minnesota, is slashing .304/.371/.458 with five home runs and 20 RBIs in 42 games. Urshela has played what appears to be a solid third base — although the defensive analytics aren’t very kind to him — and is hitting .262/.315/.379 with five homers and 24 RBIs in 58 games. Sanchez, meanwhile, has shared catching duties with Ryan Jeffers and also spends time at designated hitter. He is hitting .218/.279/.419 but is tied for second on the team with seven home runs and tied for third with 28 RBIs in 49 games.
Donaldson’s departure, and just as importantly Correa’s arrival, also seem to have had a positive impact in the clubhouse. No question that has been a help to manager Rocco Baldelli.
The next question is what Falvey will do as the Aug. 2 MLB trade deadline approaches? The 2019 Twins were in first place and had a record power-hitting season but needed pitching help. Falvey added an injured reliever, Sam Dyson, and a journeyman reliever, Sergio Romo, but failed to make a splash move. The Twins were swept in three games in the first round of the playoffs by the Yankees.
Correa is likely a one-year gift to the Twins, the type of free agent this franchise never gets, and not making substantial moves to strengthen the rotation and bullpen would be a mistake. Falvey proved in March that he’s willing to make big moves. He shouldn’t stop now.
- The one springtime trade that can be questioned is Falvey’s decision to send reliever Taylor Rogers to San Diego for starter Chris Paddack and reliever Emilio Pagan. Paddack is lost for the season after having Tommy John surgery in May. Although he remains under team control through 2024, that doesn’t fill any immediate need. Pagan tends to make things interesting, but does have nine saves and a 2.45 ERA in 22 games. Rogers, who is in the final season of his contract, has 19 saves and a 2.77 ERA in 27 games.
- Given how much Kevin O’Connell seems focused on making sure his team enters the season as fresh as possible, it will be interesting to see how many of his starters the new Vikings coach uses in the three preseason games. O’Connell’s old boss, Rams coach Sean McVay did not play quarterback Matthew Stafford in the preseason last year, even though the veteran was learning the Rams’ offense. It wouldn’t be surprising if O’Connell does the same with Kirk Cousins and Co. Part of the reason is because the Vikings are only going to show vanilla looks on offense and defense during the preseason. So why risk Cousins, or Justin Jefferson, or Danielle Hunter, or anyone else getting injured if there’s no upside to it? The feeling used to be that getting actual contact was important, but that’s what O’Connell wants to avoid.
- If Cousins doesn’t play in the preseason, it will be interesting to see how much work second-year quarterback Kellen Mond gets. Sean Mannion figures to be the backup to Cousins, but the Vikings know what he can do. Mond, a third-round pick in 2021, is an unknown and O’Connell is likely to want to get a long look at him in game conditions.
- The Gophers men’s basketball team won’t play at rival Iowa this coming season as part of their 20-game Big Ten schedule. Minnesota will play host to Indiana, Iowa and Penn State but won’t travel to face those teams. Ben Johnson’s club will play at Michigan State, Northwestern and Ohio State but won’t face those teams at Williams Arena.