If there was an offseason in which the Twins could fish in the deep waters of free agency, this is it.
There’s a sense of urgency, as the team is coming off a 101-victory season and an AL Central title. General Manager Thad Levine, during an end-of-year news conference, admitted the club is “feeling a breeze” when asked about the window of opportunity being open.
Barring trades, the powerful Twins lineup will remain intact. No one can predict another major league home run record, but the team’s young core of position players has matured into a force at the plate.
They also have the makings of a capable bullpen, with Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May and Zack Littell.
And they have the financial muscle to add what Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey referred to last month as “impact pitching.”
With free agency set to begin Tuesday, Falvey and Levine are in a desirable position as they look to construct a starting rotation that can take them deeper into the postseason. Agents know the Twins have money to spend. Players know there’s a BombaSquad to back them up. And if the Twins can’t fill out their rotation through free agency, they can explore trading options because of their solid prospects.
The rotation, beyond two-time All-Star Jose Berrios, is one big question mark. Righthanders Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda are all free agents, and the club isn’t expected to pick up the $7.5 million option on Martin Perez’s contract, instead paying the lefthander a $500,000 buyout.
But their recent success and payroll flexibility are aligned, putting the Twins in position to be a little splashy this offseason.
The price of quality starting pitching on the free-agent market is extreme. Gerrit Cole should receive a contract that easily tops David Price’s seven-year, $217 million contract with Boston in 2016 as the richest for a pitcher. And other free-agent pitchers won’t come cheap, either. This might be the only time this offseason the Twins and Cole will be included in the same sentence. They don’t have enough line to cast that far into the sea and still fill out a roster talented enough to win the AL Central again. But pitchers such as Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler and Hyun-Jin Ryu look to be more affordable fits as well as legitimate upgrades.
So how much can they spend?
Adding it up
The Twins will pick up Nelson Cruz’s $12 million option for 2020. Marwin Gonzalez will make $9 million in the second year of a two-year deal. Max Kepler will make $6.25 million as part of the five-year deal he signed before the 2019 season. Jorge Polanco will earn $3.83 million as part of the five-year deal he signed the same day as Kepler. That’s the first $31.1 million in salary commitments for 2020.
Several players — Berrios, Rogers, Duffey, May, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, C.J. Cron, Ehire Adrianza and others — figure to receive raises through arbitration. The Twins plan to start Luis Arraez at second base, so they likely will let Jonathan Schoop leave as a free agent. Cron is projected to get $7.7 million through arbitration after a 25-home run season and thumb surgery. There’s an outside chance the Twins could nontender him, as Tampa Bay did in 2018 after he hit 30 homers, but as of now, the Twins plan to keep Miguel Sano at third base and would like to keep Gonzalez in his role as an everyday multi-positional player.
Berrios and Rogers could be approached by the club about multiyear deals. The Twins have been unsuccessful in attempts to lock up Berrios in each of the previous two offseasons. Neither Berrios nor Rogers is eligible for free agency until after the 2022 season.
The arbitration group — using figures from the salary-tracking website Spotrac — would cost the club anywhere from $33 million (without Cron) to $41 million (with Cron). So the Twins are looking at $64 million to $71 million in payroll before they add in the salaries of players with less than three years of major league service time. That group includes Mitch Garver, Jake Cave, Willians Astudillo and others. It could take another $7 million or so to fill out the roster.
The Twins’ payroll was roughly $120 million in 2019, a year after it was a club-record $128 million. Using that 2018 number as a guide, the Twins figure to have around $50 million to spend on upgrades. That’s enough to re-sign Odorizzi and still have some flexibility to lock up an impact pitcher.
By Tuesday, the Twins should know if they have a chance to retain Odorizzi or if they will have to alter their plans. It’s unclear if they are considering bringing back Pineda, who has to serve 39 more games of his 60-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy, meaning he cannot pitch until mid-May.
With their window of opportunity clearly open, perhaps owner Jim Pohlad is willing to push the payroll even higher.
“I think,” Levine said at the end-of-season meeting, “we feel like we’re getting to a place now where we feel a little bit more emboldened to sit down with Jim Pohlad and [team President] Dave [St. Peter] and talk about being a little bit more aggressive. We feel like we’re progressing for sure.”
Trades are possible. The general managers’ meetings are this week, and deals will be discussed. Major questions for the Twins include: Will prospects be enough to land a top-notch starter? And are they willing to deal someone off the major league roster?
The Twins still have what is considered to be one of the better farm systems in baseball. They attempted to land a starter before the July 31 trade deadline, speaking to Toronto about Marcus Stroman and the New York Mets about Noah Syndergaard, but could only add bullpen help in Sam Dyson and Sergio Romo. The starting rotation was effective for much of the season, but Perez and Gibson fell off in August and September, and Pineda — who was 5-1 with a 3.04 ERA in nine starts after the All-Star break — was lost for most of September and the playoffs following his failed drug test.
The Twins’ lack of starting depth hurt them in the Division Series, when they had to start rookie righthander Randy Dobnak at Yankee Stadium in Game 2.
Dobnak is on a list of players in the farm system would could be starters in 2020, along with lefthander Devin Smeltzer. Both could also start the season at Class AAA Rochester.
Righthander Brusdar Graterol — and his fastball that can exceed 100 miles per hour — should be in the mix for a starting spot, but it’s complicated. He missed 2016 because of elbow surgery and has not thrown more than 102 innings in a season, having missed two months this year because of a right shoulder impingement. Most teams believe that it’s dangerous to increase a young pitcher’s workload by more than 20% a season, so the Twins might have to proceed through the offseason as if the 21-year-old Graterol will not be an option in their major league rotation.
All of this should be cleared up by the time pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla., on Feb. 12 … or maybe not. Landing a quality pitcher can take time, as agents hold out for the best deals and teams often have to wait until one domino falls before other players sign or are traded.
If the Twins are ready to head out into the deep waters of pitching free agency, it likely will require a lot of patience.