The Twins fell three games short of a wild-card berth in 2015 with a lineup filled with promising youngsters who should get better with age. But Twins General Manager Terry Ryan knows outside help is needed in a couple of key areas — the bullpen and behind the plate — if the Twins are to make another playoff push in 2016. ¶ So he’s poised to dive into the hot stove league, which begins Friday with the start of the free-agent signing period. ¶ “We have some work to do and we have some holes we need to fill,” Ryan said. “We are in decent shape, but we have some areas of concern, just as every team does. And we’ll address those as we go through the next several months.” ¶ One thing Ryan won’t have to worry about is finding starting pitching after entering the free-agent market the past two offseasons and signing Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco and Ervin Santana. Those three, along with Kyle Gibson, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, Tommy Milone and rookie Jose Berrios give the Twins more rotation depth than they’ve had in years.
But where the Twins need the most help are in two areas that will be difficult to fill via free agency.
The Twins need relievers, preferably a couple of strikeout pitchers. Twins relievers fanned 392 batters in 2015, the fewest in baseball. This year’s free-agent class of relievers isn’t very deep, with righthander Darren O’Day in a position to get a big offer because he might be the best arm of a small group. The Twins might have to cross their fingers that relief prospects Nick Burdi — who has touched 100 miles per hour during Arizona Fall League action — or Jake Reed can contribute next year.
“Missing bats at the back end of that bullpen is a nice piece to have,” Ryan said.
Catcher Kurt Suzuki is headed into the final guaranteed year of a two-year, $12 million contract, but he might spend 2016 in more of a time share after batting .240 with five home runs and 50 RBI while throwing out only 15 percent of would-be base-stealers.
“That’s an area we are going to address,” Ryan said. “Kurt, on his behalf, had a very nice 2014. This year was a bit of a struggle. And that’s an area I feel like I need to help the cause. Maybe take some of the workload down a bit. But we need to improve back there. I would think Kurt would tell you the very same thing, or I would hope he would acknowledge that we need to do better.”
Ryan made it clear he’s looking for someone to help Suzuki, not only back him up. That could mean they once again take a look at former Twin A.J. Pierzynski. The Twins traded Pierzynski to the Giants following the 2003 season but pursued him as a free agent following the 2013 season and inquired about him during the trade deadline this season.
Pierzynski, 38, batted .300 — his highest average since 2009 — with nine home runs and 49 RBI for the Braves last season.
While it doesn’t look like the Twins will make Suzuki a backup, privately they might have an interest in Matt Wieters, the top catcher in free agency. He’s a switch hitter with some power and solid receiving skills, and his signing would signal the Twins are serious about moving up.
Baltimore is expected to make a $15.8 million qualifying offer to Wieters, so a team that signs him would lose its first-round draft pick — unless it’s in the first 10 overall picks, which are protected. The Twins would have to give up the 17th overall pick if they signed Wieters.
Another interesting layer to the Suzuki situation: He has a vesting option for 2017 at $6 million if he reaches 485 plate appearances. He had 479 plate appearances last season. Sharing the position certainly would nix any chance of having that option kick in.
With Torii Hunter retiring, the Twins might also look for a veteran hitter who could add to the chemistry in the clubhouse. They know going in that there’s no way they can replace Hunter’s personality.
Twins President Dave St. Peter repeated what owner Jim Pohlad said at the end of the season — Ryan has some money to spend. The Twins finished the season with a payroll of about $108 million.
“Terry knows he has flexibility,” St. Peter said. “Jim Pohlad has expressed that to you and he has expressed that internally. At some point, there’s limitations. But I don’t expect that to come into play. We feel pretty strongly that we have adequate resources here.”
Teams have until Friday to sign their own free agents. The Twins have five free agents, but one of them is Hunter, who is holding a retirement news conference Thursday at Target Field. Another one is righthander Mike Pelfrey, who isn’t expected to be brought back. The other three are lefthanders Brian Duensing and Neal Cotts and righthander Blaine Boyer, and the Twins must decide if they want them back.
While free agency begins this week, the GM meetings begin on Monday in Boca Raton, Fla. Agents will be working the lobby, but clubs also will have the opportunity to talk about trades.
Given the lack of free-agent depth among catchers and relievers, some believe the Twins’ best route to a better roster is through trades. The Twins have prospects they can deal, or they could move one of their starters for the right piece.
Ryan predicted the start of the GM meetings will signal that “[trade talks] are about to start heating up.”