The Twins used a club-record 28 different pitchers in relief last season. Only 11 remain in the organization just a few months later.
“That’s crazy,” Twins General Manager Thad Levine marveled during spring training. “Gives us something to shoot for, though.”
He was joking — or at least it seemed. Then again, Levine, along with Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey, is one of the architects of Team Temp, a 2018 Twins squad that doesn’t figure to look much like the 2019 Twins.
Even the new guys might merely be passing through. The Twins uncharacteristically splurged on seven free agents this offseason — though go figure, one of them, Anibal Sanchez, has already been cut loose — but committed to only two beyond this season, and none beyond the next. Only in a dairy do you find such rapidly approaching expiration dates.
“Look around,” agreed Brian Dozier, one of eight veterans in the clubhouse who will play this season amid uncertainty about where they will suit up next year. “Seems like half our team is on a one-year deal.”
It’s not quite that lopsided, but his point is a good one. Dozier, Joe Mauer and Eduardo Escobar, the three players who have worn Minnesota uniforms longer than any of their teammates, will become free agents in November.
Staff ace Ervin Santana, who will miss at least a month after finger surgery, will join them if Falvey and Levine choose not to trigger his one-year option.
And then there are the temps, whose acquisitions were a shocking development for a team that had not signed a free agent during training camp in more than a decade. The front office came to camp expecting to make big news by signing some of their least experienced players to long-term contracts. Instead, the headlines were about signing veteran players to short ones.
For instance, the Twins were delighted to add lefthanded slugger Logan Morrison and his 38-home run power to their lineup, but if he regresses, they can allow him to walk into free agency again after just one season. Lance Lynn, Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke, three veterans brought in to buttress the worst pitching staff of any 2017 playoff team, will be free to relocate for 2019, too.
The only contract longer than two years awarded by Falvey and Levine this offseason, in fact, went to Molitor, the 61-year-old manager who has had a stabilizing effect during three up-and-down seasons.
Win now, the feeling goes
All the moving pieces have produced an unusual dynamic during Falvey and Levine’s second season. For a team with a talented young core that some believe could remain in place for a decade — Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios still have yet to turn 25 — there is an odd sense of urgency about the upcoming season, like an era is coming to an end just as a new one takes flight.
After improving by 26 victories over their 2016 bottoming-out and qualifying for their first playoff berth in seven seasons, after all, solidifying those gains and closing the gap on the American League’s elite is a reasonable goal for 2018. Not everyone has that kind of time, however.
“We’re going to bust our tail to win a championship this year. This year. We’re all in,” said Dozier, in the final season of his four-year, $20 million bargain contract. “My whole career here, people kept saying we need to rebuild, and then we shocked people with the fast-forward rebuild. To me, we showed that we’re pretty dang good right now, and we’ve added from there. We’ve got the pieces in place to win this year.”
Even Mauer, instinctively cautious about allowing expectations to become a burden, allows that something is different about what he hopes isn’t his final season in a Minnesota uniform. “There’s a lot of excitement in here. Every year is exciting, but what we accomplished last season has really added to it,” Mauer said. “To go out and get some new pieces like they did, it makes you believe. But we’ve got to go out and do it on the field.”
They do, but just look at all the new folks they can ask to do so. Lynn, who couldn’t find a satisfactory multiyear deal and instead became sold on the Twins’ rising profile, has won 11 or more games and posted an ERA below 4.00 in each of his five full seasons. “I wanted to go somewhere where they had a chance to win, no matter what. … This seemed like a perfect fit,” Lynn said on the day he signed a contract that guarantees him only $12 million. “We’ll see how it goes. Maybe I can be here for longer” than one summer.
Pitching gets an upgrade
Duke, Rodney and Addison Reed are the necessary upgrades to that cast-of-thousands bullpen, their presence expected to bring stability, maturity and perhaps a few more shutdown innings. Minnesota had only 105 relief outings of an inning or more that didn’t come with a baserunner last year; only four AL teams had fewer.
“When we looked where we were as a team, it was no secret that the first priority was to address our pitching, and the best opportunities for us early on were in the bullpen,” Falvey said. “Rodney and Duke were the right fits for us. And then we found an opportunity to add Addison.”
Reed got a two-year deal, a reflection of how eager to add a pitcher with a solid track record as both a setup man and closer — his ERA is 2.66 over the past three seasons — the Twins were. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of identifying the most opportune moments to call upon him,” Molitor said. “He’ll be a crucial bridge between the starter and the closer.”
The Twins also raided Tampa Bay for helpful parts, first by trading a low-level prospect for Jake Odorizzi, a 27-year-old midrotation righthanded starter whose statistics dipped enough for the Rays to shop him. Home runs and walks have been a growing problem for the four-year veteran, but he adds depth and experience to a rotation that lacked both last year.
Michael Pineda was also signed, but had Tommy John surgery last July and, at best, will miss most of the season.
Slugger Morrison joins slugger Sano
Then the Twins convinced Morrison to accept a $6.5 million guarantee, dirt cheap for a player who would have led the Twins in homers last year, to become their regular designated hitter, plugging one of the few soft spots in a Minnesota offense that scored more than 800 runs for the first time in the Target Field era.
That offense took a hit when Jorge Polanco was suspended for half a season after failing a steroid test. But the Twins should benefit from Sano’s restored health, after a leg injury helped limit the cleanup hitter to 114 games. “Miguel’s injury kind of got put to the wayside. Think how much it impacted what we could do in the playoffs,” pointed out righthanded starter Kyle Gibson, who flourished in the 2017 season’s final two months. “We’re really adding Miguel, too, in addition to all the new talent. It’s an exciting thing to think about.“
Especially if all the short-timers can avoid thinking about the clock ticking on their time in Minnesota. Falvey said the lesson of a winter’s worth of short-term contracts isn’t that the Twins intend to acquire and discard players like baseball cards — even though Jaime Garcia, a Twin for one week last July, might disagree. The real point, he said, is that the front office will remain open-minded about whatever opportunity presents itself, and resourceful enough to change the plan.
“Nimble is how we’d put it. I hope that always describes the way we act — nimble, flexible,” Falvey said. “As we go into every offseason, we have a very clear plan, but we can’t be rigid about it. We have to be ready to adapt to whatever makes sense for us.”
This year, it was short contract, late signings — and perhaps the best Twins team in a decade.
“I’m not going to say ‘on paper,’ because those are the worst two words you can say. You have to play the games,” said Dozier, captain of the short-timers. “But the vibes in here, the confidence and the mind-set — I can say this might be the best team I’ve played on. I can’t wait to see.”