Only five days until pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, so there are lots of questions about the Twins entering spring training. Let's get to some in this edition of the Twins Mailbag:
Q: They're bringing back Andrew Albers? Wow, what a thrill. Not sure why we're supposed to care about these signings — are any of them going to be on the Twins? — Jerry Stephen, Minneapolis
A: Individually, the non-roster invitees are long shots, but one or two always seems to make it to Target Field each year. Just a few years ago, in fact, the Twins found an All-Star in this bargain bin, and I'll give you a minute to come up with his name.
Albers is the most recognizable name in this year's crop of invitees, having made his MLB debut in 2013 by pitching 17 innings for the Twins before he gave up his first run. I'll be interested to see how three relatively strong seasons (a 4.02 ERA) in Japan have changed him. And Keon Broxton, known for his speed and defense, hit 20 homers for the Brewers in 2017 and is still only 30, so he could conceivably stick around, or at least play in St. Paul.
Deep, good teams like the Twins have less need to supplement their roster with minor-league contracts, but there are plenty of talented players floating around each winter looking for guaranteed contracts that never come. They're willing to try to make the team in spring training, or at least go to Triple-A and wait for an opening. By definition, they're not sure things and they usually play fringe roles, but some make real contributions.
That's how, for example, the Twins found spare outfielder Ryan LaMarre, who surprised the Twins by making the roster in 2018, or reserve catcher Chris Gimenez and veteran lefthander Craig Breslow in 2017. Fernando Abad turned into a useful member of the bullpen in 2016, as did Buddy Boshers.
And the Twins found substantial value in 2016 when they gave reliever Brandon Kintzler a minor-league contract. He started the season with Class AAA Rochester, was promoted to the Twins in May, eventually took over as closer and saved 17 games. A year later, Kintzler saved 28 more and even pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the All-Star Game in Miami.
Kintzler is still active and by coincidence just signed a 2021 contract with the Phillies on Wednesday. Another minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. Hey, you never know.
Q: I think the Twins are making a mistake in not re-signing [Jake] Odorizzi. He's still young and they don't want to pay him. I don't think what they currently have are good enough. Your thoughts??? — Kerry Knoff, East Grand Forks, Minn.
A: I don't know about "good enough." But I have doubts about "enough."
Yes, I would advise signing Odorizzi, but it's not my money to spend. It's clearly a payroll issue, since the Twins are committed to a little over $125 million now, roughly 10 percent less than a year ago. That's an understandable drop since the Twins didn't sell a ticket, a beer or a hot dog in 2020, and certainly don't expect to rebound to 2019 levels this summer, either.
But pitching depth will be a real issue this season, all over the league. After a season in which no pitcher threw 85 innings, teams will be cautious with those valuable arms this season, ramping up their workload slowly. I'd be surprised if more than a dozen pitchers throw 180 innings all year, and the number of pitchers given spot starts will skyrocket.
The Twins haven't used fewer than 10 starting pitchers in any of the last four seasons, so they'll clearly need more than their current projected rotation: Kenta Maeda, José Berríos, Michael Pineda, J.A. Happ and Randy Dobnak. Expect Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe to be called upon, too. Maybe Andrew Albers earns a spot in St. Paul and is called up occasionally. Prospects Jordan Balazovic and Bailey Ober get mentioned a lot, though neither has pitched above Class AA.
Is that enough? Odorizzi would make a lot of sense, but he's seeking a long-term deal, and president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said the Twins are done adding "big-ticket" items. The plan may eventually be to see how the season goes, and add pitching at the trade deadline if they're in the race (and if they're allowing fans in Target Field).
Q: Another one for you. Many teams trade prospects all the time for established major leaguers. Why do the Twins never trade prospects? Do they really think all their prospects are going to become bona fide major leaguers? Not realistic!!! — Kerry Knoff, East Grand Forks, Minn.
A: Your memory fails you, Kerry. One year ago this week, the Twins traded their top pitching prospect, Brusdar Graterol, in order to obtain Kenta Maeda, who finished runner-up in AL Cy Young voting. A gutsy move, and a smart one.
Plus, you have to acknowledge that the Twins have a pretty good history with prospects. Seven of their eight regular position players last season (all but Josh Donaldson) came up through the Twins' system.
Q: Do you expect the Twins to manipulate Alex Kirilloff's service time and have him start the season in the minors? — Anthony Scoggins, Woodbury
A: I don't know if they will. But everything except their conscience says they should.
This year's season is 186 days long, and a player must be on the roster (or injured list) for 172 of them to be credited with one full season in the majors. After three full seasons, he's eligible for salary arbitration. After six full seasons, he's eligible for free agency. So the loophole is obvious, and has been invoked routinely by major-league teams for more than a decade: Keep a player in the minors for 15 days, and you gain an extra season of control over him.
The players hate it, Kris Bryant sued the Cubs over it (and lost), but it's still the rule.
Kirilloff, the Twins' top hitting prospect, is expected to inherit Eddie Rosario's role as everyday left fielder — but the Twins certainly have plausibility if they decide he needs another month or more of experience before taking that job. After all, except for his major-league debut in the final game of the AL Division Series against Houston last September, Kirilloff hasn't played a professional game since Sept. 2, 2019. He's barely 23, he wasn't as good in 2019 at Pensacola as he was the season before, and he's never spent a day in Triple-A.
They also have Jake Cave, Kyle Garlick, Keon Broxton and newly appointed utilityman Luis Arraez in camp behind Kirilloff, enough to man the position for a few weeks.
There really is little business incentive for the Twins not to open the season with Kirilloff in the minors, unless they decide to earn some goodwill with him by handing him the job starting on Opening Day. But the players' union intends to make an issue of the service-time loophole when the collective bargaining agreement expires on Dec. 1, so this may be the last time they have this option.
Q: What's with all the one-year contracts? Every free agent is signed for only one year. Why do the Twins want to tear apart the roster every year instead of giving fans a reason to embrace our favorites? — Emmett, Minneapolis
Q: Different reasons for different players, but I don't think depriving the fans factors into their decision. In general, short contracts turned out to be the biggest effect of the pandemic this winter. Free agents feared that teams would slash budgets and refuse to pay anything close to what the market had been in 2019, pre-COVID. Except for a few panicky teams, Cleveland chief among them, that turned out not to be the case; free-agent offers dropped, but didn't crash.
Teams were clearly reluctant, however, to lock themselves into long-term obligations, and players seemed to believe that the market will improve once fans return to the stands. So one-year contracts were the vogue this winter.
It makes particular sense for the Twins' five free agents, too. Nelson Cruz turns 41 on July 1, and history says his skills will decline, so adding years to his deal struck the Twins as unwise. J.A. Happ is 38, and though he had an impressive 2020 season, his ERA was 4.91 in 2019; better to wait and see what he has left.
Hansel Robles was terrible in 2020 and his velocity dropped noticeably. At 31, Andrelton Simmons is a good bet to continue to thrive defensively, but he also missed several weeks in each of the past two seasons due to ankle injuries. Plus, the Twins have an elite shortstop prospect, Royce Lewis, nearing the major leagues.
Alex Colomé is coming off a terrific 12-save, 0.81-ERA season, so the Twins gave him an option for 2022. But it's one that both sides must trigger, so the Twins again are playing it safe.
As for embracing the players, the Twins return eight of their 10 regulars from last season, and seven of the eight were on the team in 2019, too. That's a lot to embrace, isn't it?
Q: I bought my nephew a Josh Donaldson replica jersey last summer. Now that Donaldson is changing numbers from #24 to #20, is that jersey a collector's item or a waste of money? — Lex Tollson, Eagan
A: It's a good conversation starter. Just ask the guy who sits near the press box and occasionally wears a Justin Morneau #27 jersey.