So certain of the answer, Paul Molitor interrupted the question. Can next year’s Twins con- … ?
“Sure. Absolutely,” the manager blurted, eager to contemplate future playoff contention as a way to bulldoze the rubble of a disappointing year. “There are things players can do to get back into a more competitive situation, hurriedly. The opportunity is there.”
Maybe Molitor is right. Maybe the foundation of a contender has survived a cyclone of a losing season and a stock exchange’s worth of trades. But his optimism leaves a critical question unanswered: Which players?
A year ago, the Twins walked into the winter, disappointed by their one-game cameo in the playoffs but confident a longer stay was inevitable, with one of the most settled, secure lineups in baseball. Indeed, if not for the abrupt 80-game suspension imposed on shortstop Jorge Polanco, the position players who took the field on Opening Day in Baltimore last March would have been the same eight projected to hold each of those jobs six months earlier.
But if forecasting the 2018 lineup was tic-tac-toe, projecting the 2019 batting order is three-dimensional chess. Questions, doubts, options and outright vacancies exist at seven of the Twins’ eight defensive positions — let’s go ahead and pencil in 2018’s chief standout, Eddie Rosario, as next season’s left fielder — and the pitching staff appears as muddled as ever. Heck, there’s no certainty at the moment that the position of starting pitcher will even exist.
Welcome, then, to the Winter of Decision for this genre of Twins. While Joe Mauer agonizes over whether he will be in a Minnesota uniform next March, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have dozens of similar calls to make about a roster still afloat on potential but adrift on results.
Is Max Kepler guaranteed a job? Will Miguel Sano move to first base? Is Nick Gordon ready for the major leagues? And who can be trusted in the bullpen?
So many questions, even after the Twins spent a summer gathering evidence.
“Some people have shown that they have a place on a good team, and other guys, maybe the jury’s still out or maybe they’re not quite there yet. That’s all part of the mix,” Molitor said. “Sometimes you have the information you need to move forward, with or without that player. Sometimes it takes a few seasons — more often than not, it does. So you just have to trust the particular process you’ve put in place.”
One factor the Twins won’t have to consider, at least relative to most seasons: money. Mauer’s eight-year contract is about to expire, as is Ervin Santana’s four-year deal — that’s $37 million a year off the books.
The Twins are committed to only $24.5 million (to Addison Reed, Jason Castro and Michael Pineda, the latter two coming off major surgery) in contracts for 2019, plus $1 million buyouts to Santana and Logan Morrison and about $6 million of Phil Hughes’ salary. That’s just over $32 million in obligations before they start assembling next year’s team, less than every team but the Rays, Athletics and White Sox.
And talk about good timing: It just so happens that money, lots of it, is all it would take to add a middle-of-the-order superstar or a top-of-the-rotation starter. One of the strongest free-agent classes in years is about to go shopping for new contracts, such superstars as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw and Craig Kimbrel. Would the Twins, with payroll room available, shock the world with a franchise-altering, franchise-defining signing?
Eh, don’t count on it.
“We certainly have the payroll flexibility, but I don’t know if you can ever go out in the offseason and sign a face-of-the-franchise player,” said Twins owner Jim Pohlad, who authorized a $129 million Opening Day payroll last spring, a record for the Twins, albeit just the 16th highest in baseball. “Everybody knows my aversion to long commitments. Most often, they do not turn out to be successful, in terms of getting your return on them.”
That said, Pohlad added, “a commitment to a player or a few players, we’re totally open to. You can figure out how you define that commitment, but in our view, we’re willing to make a significant commitment.”
Who’s out there?
Shop smart, in other words. Then again, the Twins thought they did that last season, and their one-year investments in Logan Morrison, Lance Lynn, Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke produced mixed results, at best.
But with a vacancy looming at second base, perhaps the Twins would have short-term interest in DJ LeMahieu or Daniel Murphy — or even a former All-Star named Brian Dozier or a utility man named Eduardo Escobar. With no everyday designated hitter, perhaps 38-year-old Nelson Cruz, who hit 37 homers in Seattle this season, might be worth a look. And pitching? Patrick Corbin, Hyun-Jin Ryu or one of a half-dozen established starters could supplement the rotation; relievers looking for contracts will include Andrew Miller, David Robertson and Tony Sipp, among many others.
Then again, Falvey and Levine believe the best use of free-agent money is to supplement a core that’s ready to contend. Addressing a Baseball Prospectus event last month, Levine said the Twins had intended, if the 2018 season had been more successful, to “pursue the hell” out of a few targeted veterans on the free-agent market. Now?
“We may actually shift our attention to the trade market,” said Levine, the Twins general manager. “This might not be the perfect time for us to invest in a guy who’s 30 years old and would need to perform today in order for us to realize his true potential.”
Molitor said this week he intends to return, although Pohlad said he would leave that evaluation up to Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey.
The Twins have one of the stronger farm systems in baseball, and added to it with six deadline trades that brought back prospects. But while a few pitchers may be ready to graduate to the majors in 2019, most of the best position players are in the lower minors, at least a couple of seasons from Target Field. Gordon, the 2014 first-round pick, is the exception, and the shortstop reached Class AAA in 2018, but he batted only .212 in 99 games and probably needs more time.
And while the infield is full of question marks, the starting rotation is a mystery behind Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson and Jake Odorizzi, and the bullpen figures to undergo yet another overhaul, 2019 might well hinge upon the same players that 2018 did: Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano.
For five years, they have been considered the heart of a future champion. A year ago, that destiny seemed within reach.
But now, after Buxton hit .156, Sano .199, and they combined to play only 99 games?
“We have to have faith in their innate ability, and the promise they showed at every level on the way up,” Molitor said. “How we can help them realize that up here, to make the [positive] results that they’ve already shown more standard, it’s about as important an objective as we can have.”