Zach Duke is a lot of things, the Twins figure. Shrewd lefthander. Veteran leader. Tommy John success story and role model.
But he’s probably not a dam-breaker.
Duke passed a physical on Tuesday and signed a one-year contract to be part of the Twins’ bullpen in 2018, an interesting but, in the context of the rest of the offseason’s class of free agents, not exactly a high-profile acquisition. Not with pitchers such as Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish still hunting for contracts, with position players like J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer unsigned, and with virtually every top-dollar free agent biding their time as the new year approaches.
“It’s difficult to identify exactly why the market has taken so long to develop. Timing may have shifted back beyond the holidays,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer. “Maybe this is the new normal. But I think we’ll start to see deals starting to get done before long.”
That has to be true, considering pitchers and catchers report to camp in a mere 48 days. But there have been notably few major transactions this winter; the largest free-agent contract signed so far has been the $60 million that Carlos Santana received from the Phillies. Last Christmas, six contracts bigger than that had already been signed.
“This particular market was unique because of the [Shohei] Ohtani considerations, and then the potential for big trades, [Giancarlo] Stanton or otherwise, that turned everything into a slow play,” Falvey said. “Since then, teams are addressing needs through different means, and waiting out the market. I don’t sense there is any urgency, on either side. Certainly nothing to break the logjam seems imminent. Everyone just has to be patient, because sometimes what can lead us down a path toward decisions we regret is momentum.”
In the past, that momentum sometimes spurred teams with big budgets into offering huge contracts they eventually regretted. But even big-market teams have gotten smarter about projecting value and avoiding sunken costs, which also may be slowing down negotiations for the highest-priced players.
The Twins addressed one major area of need by signing Fernando Rodney as the winter meetings ended, then on Tuesday adding Duke, a lefthander who Falvey believes has the potential to handle setup duties for the new closer, if necessary. Duke, 35 next April, will make about $2 million with the Twins, with the potential to earn more by reaching incentives.
The Twins aren’t necessarily done adding to the bullpen, Falvey said — and they’re making inquiries every day in hopes of stocking other areas, too, particularly starting pitching.
“We have not stopped fielding or placing calls. Whether or not we succeed in adding a player is something we’ll find out in due time,” Falvey said. “We know we have the support of ownership. We view free agency as a supplement, but we recognize that if the right situation in free agency presents itself, we’re not going to be blind to it. You can’t win games in January, though.”
He hopes Duke helps win a few next summer, though. The lefthander, a former All-Star as a starting pitcher with the Pirates, had “two or three” other serious suitors, Falvey said.
The Twins’ interest, he said, developed because “he’s a guy who fits our clubhouse, a high-character guy, and also has a skill set that will be helpful.” Falvey said he, GM Thad Levine and their scouts were particularly impressed when he returned from Tommy John elbow surgery in July — just nine months after the operation.
“That speaks to who he is, the desire and work ethic,” Falvey said. “We think he can get back to being the dominant Zach Duke. When he’s right, he can get anybody out.”