The narrative heading into the 2019 Twins season was a case of perception and reality diverging.
The Twins won 78 games in 2018, and fans spent much of last winter grumbling that they hadn’t done much to upgrade their roster. In reality, they had made a lot of medium-sized moves (and one that looks larger in retrospect with a deal for Nelson Cruz) that revamped their batting order and helped lead to an MLB-record 307 home runs, 101 wins and their first AL Central title since 2010.
That raised expectations higher for this offseason, and so far there has been plenty of grumbling about the results of the Twins’ free agent pursuits.
The complaints are justified on a base level. The Twins’ biggest area of need going into the offseason was upgrading their rotation with as close to a sure thing as possible, and they have not done that.
Free agency is a tricky two-way street, but missing out on the top tiers of free agent starting pitchers is a failure of execution.
Of particular concern is the casual approach the front office appears to be taking toward the first two months of the season.
Still, what looks disappointing in mid-January can look shrewd as the summer lingers on. Here are some ways the Twins can still salvage both the perception and the reality of 2020:
*Add another impact player via trade or free agency: Yeah, that’s pretty vague. And it seems like the Twins are out of the free agent market, at least for now, on both starting pitchers (after signing Homer Bailey and Rich Hill) and third baseman Josh Donaldson. The latter still hasn’t signed elsewhere, but the Twins were reportedly pessimistic about landing him as recently as a week ago.
The positional flexibility of Marwin Gonzalez means the Twins could still push Miguel Sano across the diamond and give Gonzalez more regular work at third base, but that feels unsatisfying given their status. This is a team that won 101 games. A bold signing or trade feels like it would be a game-changer.
*Survive the first quarter of the season: Michael Pineda signed a two-year deal, but he will miss the first 39 games while serving the rest of his suspension. Rich Hill is a true wild card who could end up defining this season, but he won’t be available for the first couple months while recovering from an elbow injury.
That puts a lot of pressure on Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi to start strong and take the pressure off the cast of characters at the bottom of the rotation early on. Remember, the Twins had a double-digit division lead by the end of May last season. Some of that was bombas. But plenty of it was good starting pitching.
*Prove that Hill was the bargain of the offsesaon: Hill is 39-19 with a 3.00 ERA and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings in 82 starts over the last four regular seasons and had a sterling 2.70 ERA in 50 playoff innings in that span. Those numbers rank right up there with almost any available pitcher this offseason. But he also turns 40 before the season starts and has an injury history.
His incentive-heavy $3 million deal could be a steal if he comes back midyear and pitches like an ace. A postseason rotation with Hill, Odorizzi, Berrios and Pineda would have a chance to succeed — if the Twins can get there again.
But as much as I like the idea of high upside, that’s a big if for an organization and a fan base that would have preferred more sure things coming off of 101 wins. Hope is not a plan, as we’ve learned many times and with many iterations of the Vikings offensive line.
Fans can only hope that more of a plan is yet to unfold this offseason for the Twins.