The Twins created some Hot Stove buzz this month with the signing of quality free-agent starters in Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. And they negotiated with Bronson Arroyo and Matt Garza at the winter meetings and on Saturday re-signed Mike Pelfrey.
But when a team loses 96 games, as the Twins did last season, pitching usually is just part of the problem. And the Twins so far have done little to bolster one of the worst offenses in baseball.
“Our first priority was starting pitching,’’ Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. “But we struggled scoring runs last season and we need to address that.’’
They did sign Jason Kubel on Friday to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training — and he has a good shot at making the team — but the Twins know they need more than just a player looking to rebound from a down season.
The Twins offense was across-the-board bad in 2013. It ranked 25th in runs scored, 23rd in OPS (on base-plus-slugging percentage) and were second in strikeouts. They were 29th in batting average with runners in scoring position and 27th in stolen bases, the result of little team speed. When they did run, they were 29th in stolen base percentage.
Two free agents who could lift the Twins offense are shortstop Stephen Drew and outfielder Nelson Cruz. Both have played in the World Series, too, a trait the Twins would like to add to their clubhouse. The Twins were linked to Drew — by far the best free agent shortstop — in one report last week at the winter meetings, but nothing since. And there have been no indications that the Twins are after Cruz, who was suspended 50 games last season for his involvement in the Biogenesis PED scandal.
Both players turned down $14.1 million qualifying offers from their teams to become free agents. Teams that sign them would have to give up a first-round draft pick — except teams who had one of the 10 worst records in the league. The Twins are in that Terrible 10 and would lose a second-round pick if they signed a player tied to compensation.
Would Ryan be more willing to give up a second-round pick than a first? “Yes,’’ he said. “In the right situation.’’
But the price might not be right. An agent at the winter meetings pointed out that players who turn down qualifying offers are looking to get as much or more in a long-term deal. Drew batted .253 with 13 homers and 67 RBI for Boston last season. Cruz batted .266 with 27 homers and 66 RBI in 109 games for Texas but will turn 34 on July 1. Is each player worth a three-year, $45 million deal? Both players could end up with their old teams. The Twins could use the offensive upgrade at both positions, and the free-agent pickings at their positions are slim — unless the Twins are ready to offer Shin-Soo Choo a massive deal.
The Twins also are looking for catching help, but not necessarily an offensive catcher. They like the potential of Josmil Pinto, who batted .342 with four homers and 12 RBI during a 21-game late-season call-up. He needs to continue to work on his catching skills, so the Twins would like to bring in a veteran. Ryan Doumit is expected to have a role as well.
“We’re going to have to have somebody that can kind of lead the way for him,’’ Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s a pretty tough kid. We saw some things last year that he needs to work on those things. Offensively he’s strong enough.’’
The Twins have expressed interest in veterans John Buck and Kurt Suzuki, who would appear to be good fits.
Several returning Twins players, like shortstop Pedro Florimon, third baseman Trevor Plouffe, outfielder Aaron Hicks and outfielder-first baseman Chris Parmelee could be better players in 2014, but the Twins aren’t going to wait and see. Ryan is looking at free agents and trades as he addresses the offense.
“Last year about this time I thought our offense would be plenty good enough, and unfortunately enough it wasn’t,’’ Ryan said, “so we have to take a look at everything, both sides of the plate. It’s not just starting pitching. We have to look at that offense. We need a lot of things to happen. We need to fix a couple guys as well.’’