An all-out, exhaustive Minnesota Twins offseason blueprint is coming at some point here on Access Twins, but for now, we’re just going to take a look at the moves they could make that would be a big win this winter.
Quite a bit will change between now and when players start signing, too. That’s typically around Thanksgiving or later,
Sign Kiké Hernandez
It hasn’t been pretty for Hernandez the past two seasons, but he’s a terrific clubhouse guy who scratches a couple of itches for the Twins — one they had in 2020 and one they’ll have in 2021.
The 2020 issue he addresses is that he hits left-handed pitching. He’s a career .263/.345/.474 hitter against lefties (120 wRC+). The Twins hit just .236/.309/.349 against southpaws last season — a .658 OPS which ranked 27th in MLB.
For 2021, he gives the team a capable utility player with Ehire Adrianza and Marwin Gonzalez slated to hit free agency. Hernandez is a capable defender at multiple positions — including, most notably, shortstop and all across the outfield.
That not only gives the team ample protection against Jorge Polanco’s health as well as Byron Buxton’s, but won’t cost an arm and a leg.
And again, he won’t cost too much because he hit just .235/.296/.410 over the last two years, but he does a lot of things the Twins can use and allows them to not rush Royce Lewis to the big leagues as well.
If the Dodgers weren’t so flush with depth, they’d honestly probably be more likely to keep him. I suspect a two-year deal in the $8-10 million range gets it done.
Trade for Jon Gray
I’ve been on this train for a long time now, and this might be the time to pounce. Everything in Gray’s peripherals the last couple years suggested a breakout could just be around the corner.
Instead, he was dreadful in 2020 — 39.0 innings, 6.69 ERA/5.06 FIP, 5.1 K/9 — and will probably be slated to make something like $6 million or so in his final year of arbitration eligibility.
That makes him a potential non-tender candidate, though it also makes it possible the Twins could work out a fairly low-risk trade for him and find out if Wes Johnson and co. could work their magic on him.
There’s no shortage of pitchers who are cut from this cloth available in free agency this winter, either. It doesn’t have to be a trade, and it doesn’t have to be Gray. But he might be the easiest to pry given his salary situation and where he’s at in proximity to free agency.
I don’t think the Twins are going to sign Trevor Bauer, so they’ll turn their attention to pitchers they can “coach up” so to speak, coming off down years like Mike Minor, Robbie Ray and that type.
But as long as the health checks out and the price isn’t too prohibitive, the Twins should be in on Gray. When he’s right, he does everything a pitcher is supposed to — strikes guys out (9.2 career K/9), doesn’t walk anyone (2.9 BB/9) and keeps the ball on the ground (46.3 percent GB rate).
If the Twins are going to non-tender Eddie Rosario anyway — and I don’t know how good the odds of that truly are — maybe there’s the potential for a swap here? If David Dahl isn’t going to be healthy, there could be a need there.
Sign Kevin Gausman
Gausman turned things around in a 12-game stint (10 starts) with San Francisco this year, fanning nearly 12 batters per nine with a 3.62 ERA and solid peripherals. He’ll be 30 just after the new year and has been good, but not great over his entire career, but he could be the discount version of Zack Wheeler this offseason.
He’s not quite as good as Wheeler was coming off 2019, but he won’t cost as much, either:
Gausman career numbers after 2020: 4.26 ERA/3.06 FIP/3.91 xFIP, .265/.320/.433 slash allowed, 22.3 percent K rate, 7.1 percent BB rate
Wheeler career numbers after 2019: 3.77 ERA/3.71 FIP/3.93 xFIP, .247/.316/.371 slash allowed, 22.8 percent K rate/8.5 percent BB rate
That landed Wheeler well in excess of $100 million; I suspect Gausman could be had for three years and less than $50 million. His fastball peaked at 95.1 mph on average this season — his best mark since 2015 — according to Fangraphs and his swinging-strike rate was a career-high 15.2 percent.
This is a good chance to get a potential No. 2 starter on the upswing below the going rate he might cost a year from now if he’d posted these stats in a full season.
Non-tender Eddie Rosario, but sign a veteran to replace him
It would be easy to want to bring up one of the kids — Alex Kirilloff or Trevor Larnach — to fill this spot, but it’s hard to promise a ton of playing time to an unproven rookie without much of a fallback if things go sour. After all, not many rookies hit the ground running the first time they’re called up.
Kirilloff feels like the kind of player who’ll hit from the moment he joins the team on a full-time basis, but is that enough to keep Jake Cave or LaMonte Wade Jr. as the only contingency plans on this roster if he doesn’t? And are the Twins really going to hand him a full-time job when the only baseball he’s played in the last year — save for the elimination game against the Houston Astros — came at the alternate training site in St. Paul?
What makes a lot of sense is to sign a bridge outfielder who won’t cost a ton but can play left field until one of the prospects is ready, and be a capable 3.5ish outfielder who can spell each of the guys on a regular basis — and provide insurance in center if Buxton is unable to stay healthy.
Jackie Bradley Jr. might be a good candidate here, as would Brett Gardner. They could go cheaper and lower-ceiling with Cameron Maybin or Kevin Pillar, but the first two seem to make a bit more sense.
Bradley was very good this year for the Red Sox, hitting .283/.364/.450 (119 wRC+) which was good for a plus-1.4 WAR via Fangraphs — or in other words, identical to what he provided in nearly three times as many games (147) last season.
This was the first year since 2016 that he posted a wRC+ over 100, but he’s a good defender who’ll be 31 early in the 2021 season. It’s hard to know what his market might look like. He could probably get a starting job with a lot of second-tier teams — or maybe even return to the Red Sox, though it seems Alex Verdugo might get that job — or maybe he’ll settle in with a team who’ll let him on a fairly regular basis with a chance to be on a winning club.
In that case, the Twins would fit the bill.
Gardner might be the better fit — but it’s hard to know for sure if he’ll want to keep playing if the Yankees don’t bring him back. He’s been a career Yankee for 13 seasons, and he’s coming off an age-36 season where he hit .223/.354/.392. He’s just a year removed from hitting .251/.325/.503, and even his line this year was still a more than representative 110 wRC+.
He only played 78 innings in center this year, but he’s generally been good out there and wouldn’t be asked to do it much in Minnesota anyway. He’d also most likely get just a one-year deal — making him a good bridge to the kids.
As for Rosario — boy, how’s that for burying the lede? — he hit .257/.316/.476 with better defense than the last few years and a walk rate nearly double than what his career rate is (4.2 percent career, 8.2 percent in 2020).
He’s likely to get about $10 million in arbitration.
This complicates things a little bit. Can the Twins capably replace Rosario for less than that? Maybe not. Is his walk rate improvement legit? Possibly. If so, could he put together a solid final season before being eligible for free agency? Without question.
There’s a lot to think about here. Before a tough 2019, Jake Cave was a career .262/.329/.466 hitter — pretty much what Rosario does, and he played much better defense in 2020. He also strikes out a lot and went in the opposite direction walks-wise as Rosario. He also is slated to make near minimum for one more year before hitting arbitration.
Maybe I’m talking in circles here. If the Twins think some combination of Wade and Cave can hold things together until one of the kids is ready, they can non-tender Rosario and use that money elsewhere. That’s probably the smart bet. If they want a built-in cushion for a little bit longer, then they probably look at one of the previously-mentioned free agents.
If Nelson Cruz isn’t retained, that veteran needs to be a very good one
Yeah. If they can’t retain Cruz, they could pull the C.J. Cron move on Rosario and target a bigger fish in free agency. That’d be someone like Starling Marte (depending on what the Marlins do with his option), Michael Brantley or George Springer.
Of that bunch, Brantley seems like the most likely fit.
He’s basically an automatic .820-.850 OPS bat who can play either corner outfield spot semi-capably but also not embarrass himself as a regular DH. He never strikes out (10.8 percent career), walks a fair amount (7.9 percent) and is fairly adept at using the whole field (39.0 percent pull, 35.7 percent up the middle and 25.4 percent oppo in his career).
He’s good for 35-40 doubles a year, and would be a terrific No. 2 hitter who at 34 (in May) would probably not require too long of a deal.
Don’t get me wrong; Springer or Marte would be great gets for this team, but unless they plan on flipping Kirilloff or Larnach for high-end pitching, it isn’t happening.
Also: don’t sleep on Shin-Soo Choo as a short-term option. He’s not much of an outfielder these days but he still takes his walks and is coming off a down 2020 season. In fact, the smart money might be on him as the bridge to the young guys.
Retain at least one of Sergio Romo and Tyler Clippard
It feels like the price to retain Trevor May will leave him as good as gone, but Romo and Clippard still pitched capably and give veteran stability to a bullpen that’ll probably skew a bit younger next year.
Jorge Alcala will no doubt pitch in higher leverage next year. So will Cody Stashak. Beyond that, some kids like Edwar Colina, Jhoan Duran and Dakota Chalmers will get chances, but it’ll be imperative that the Twins have a support system in place should they hit turbulence along the way.
Romo wasn’t terrific in 2020; he was merely decent. Bringing him back at his $5 million option is probably off the table, but if he’ll come back somewhere in the $3 million range — roughly what Clippard was going to be paid this year pre-COVID — that’s probably a good number for both sides.
Clippard was brilliant and had no platoon splits to speak of. He’s not a velocity guy but was arguably better than ever, posting a plus-0.8 fWAR in 26.0 innings after totaling just under that (0.7) in 2019 in 62.0 frames.
If the Twins can bring back these two at roughly $6 million or so combined, that’s probably about 65-70 percent of what May will get per year on a new deal wherever he signs, and still allow the Twins to chug along with some cheap young guys who are finding their way.
Of course, finding the next Matt Wisler would help, too.