Forecasting the 40
The free agents have been freed -- but who is next?
On Wednesday, eight Minnesota Twins from the 2020 team became free agents: starting pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Rich Hill, relievers Tyler Clippard and Trevor May, infielders Marwin Gonzalez and Ehire Adrianza, catcher Alex Avila and designated hitter Nelson Cruz.
A ninth joined the list Wednesday evening when Sergio Romo’s $5 million team option for 2021 was bought out for $250,000.
Some teams have already begun the business of tidying up their 40-man rosters in advance of the player movement part of the offseason, but the Twins are not yet one of those clubs.
It’ll be hard to know for sure how additions and subtractions will be made this winter. A lot of it — from this standpoint — is guesswork based on not knowing how teams internally evaluate specific players, but this year is way different as well. None of these non-roster guys played in affiliated ball in 2020.
Add to that the fact that teams will likely be looking for cheaper options to fill out rosters in 2021 after a 2020 season with diminished revenue, and the comings and goings might be a little murkier than usual.
Let’s try to make some sense of it:
RP Taylor Rogers
What can we really make of Rogers’ 2020? Was he bad? Was he unlucky?
Could it be possible he was…both?
Baseball-Reference has him pegged with a minus-0.7 WAR this past season, while Fangraphs says 0.5 on the plus side. The peripherals almost universally beam: 10.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 0.90 HR/9.
Well, then there’s the nearly 10 percent drop in groundball rate, .400 BABIP in 60.3 percent strand rate. As far as peripherals go, those are about as bad as the previous three are good. Opposing batters averaged an exit velocity of 89.5 mph against Rogers — a bit higher than his career mark of 88.7 but in a small sampling it’s hard to know how much to make of it.
Here’s what we do know: regardless of how luck would have it, opposing batters hit .302/.341/.465 off Rogers in 2020. Basically, that’s what Eddie Rosario does to opposing pitchers yearly OPS-wise. That’s not ideal — Rosario’s a pretty good hitter!
None of this would matter under ordinary circumstances. Rogers has two years of club control left and a strong enough track record to suggest a bounce-back season is possible, if not outright likely in 2021. But he’s also going to command a raise to somewhere in the neighborhood of $5-6 million. And again, under normal circumstances that probably wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar screen.
But this offseason is about to get weird.
Washington’s Adam Eaton and St. Louis’ Kolten Wong both had very reasonable team options declined for 2021 — and that seems to be a harbinger of a harsh winter to come for free agents big and small.
I don’t think the Twins will cut Rogers loose. With Romo, May and Clippard hitting free agency, it doesn’t make sense to me to let another key piece of the bullpen hit the market. Rogers on the free market would still almost certainly be worth $5ish million for one year.
By comparison, Blake Treinen’s 2019 was far more disastrous than Rogers’ 2020, and he still got $10 million from the Dodgers before COVID wrought havoc on the season. Rogers hasn’t been as good as Treinen was in 2018, but he also hasn’t been as bad as the righty was in 2019, either.
I think Rogers stays.
Estimated likelihood of 40-man retention: 75 percent
SP/RP Devin Smeltzer
Smeltzer far better fits into the box of “player on a cheapish contract who can be used successfully in a multitude of roles” than he does as “potential waiver fodder.” His raw numbers weren’t particularly good in 2020 — 6.75 ERA in 16.0 innings, 1.50 WHIP, .829 OPS against with no discernible platoon splits — but again, it was a small sample size in a really weird year, and he’s not due any sort of arbitration-based raise for a while yet.
He’s got options. He’s young. He’s funky from the left side. He’s (probably) not going anywhere.
Estimated likelihood of 40-man retention: 75 percent
RP Caleb Thielbar
Thielbar didn’t get nearly enough love for just how good his return to the big leagues was. Seriously — he hadn’t pitched in the big leagues in five years and posted the best big-league season he’s had, bar none, after that long of a layoff.
It was the rejuvenation of Thielbar’s curveball that gave his career a second life. Thielbar’s swinging-strike rate spiked to 12.7 percent in 2020 — well above his career rate of 9.2 percent — and the 11.7 percent whiff rate on his curve helped considerably. He’d never posted a swinging-strike rate above 3.6 percent on it before.
And the fastball was also really, really good — like, almost 15 percent (14.9) whiff-rate good. That’s astonishingly good for any fastball — let alone one that seldom breaks 90 mph.
Thielbar turns 34 in January. He’s nowhere near eligible for free agency. He has one more option left. He was really, really good in 2020 and the Twins won’t be hard up for roster spots unless they make a ton of waves this offseason both in free agency and with internal 40-man additions.
Could Thielbar be outrighted and brought back on a minor-league deal? Maybe. He’s never pitched in the big leagues anywhere other than his home state, though he did spend some time in the Atlanta and Detroit systems.
But again, the Twins aren’t likely to need the spots. I think he stays. He’s like a souped-up Craig Breslow at this point of his career — and that’s by no means a slight.
Estimated likelihood of 40-man retention: 65 percent
SP/RP Lewis Thorpe
It’s coming up on 50 big-league innings to this point for Thorpe, and the results just aren’t there. His ERA is over 6.00 — and FIP is nearly 5.00, for what it’s worth — and the peripherals are all, frankly, kinda funky.
With that said, there was plenty to like in 2019, and 2020 was a mess for everyone — including Thorpe, who took some time off to tend to a personal issue during spring training. He, like Smeltzer, won’t be slated to make a ton of money and could be used in a swingman role that might be valuable as, at least to start, a lower-leverage bulk guy who can eat up innings if things get hairy early in games. With a 26-man roster, those should still have some value.
Thorpe’s velocity was down in 2020 as well, so that’s something to consider. If there’s reason to believe he can get back even to the 91.3 mph he averaged in 2019, there’s still something to work with here.
Estimated likelihood of 40-man retention: 25 percent
C Willians Astudillo
Astudillo still has an option year left, but it just sort of feels like the whole thing has run its course. He’s not going to get playing time behind Mitch Garver or Ryan Jeffers, and the Twins brought in Avila ahead of him to get playing time this last year as well.
Maybe it’s a total misread of the situation. He could easily slot in as the third catcher on the depth chart with a frequent-flyer card between Rochester and Minneapolis next year behind Garver and Jeffers or maybe a veteran if they decide that’s not an ideal platoon situation. But Astudillo got into just eight games this season and it doesn’t exactly feel like the Twins trust him behind the plate for any sort of extended period.
After all, they went to Jeffers when they needed a longer look at someone behind the plate when Garver went down this season. Keep in mind that Jeffers wasn’t even playing actual games — just training at the alternate site. Now I don’t know how well the action over there replicated real minor-league games, but it’s just extremely impressive Jeffers was able to do it, and do it well.
I think it’s time for La Tortuga to pack up his shell and head for the other side of the highway. I’m willing to be wrong on this.
Estimated likelihood of 40-man retention: 25 percent
IF Nick Gordon
Gordon’s last few years have been a mess, quite frankly. He was great in Chattanooga and then really struggled when bumped to Rochester in 2018. He was fairly good in 2019 in Rochester but dealt with stomach issues to start the season and an abductor strain shortly thereafter. His season ended in early August when he was hit by a pitch on the lower part of his left leg.
Then in 2020, he wasn’t cleared from the COVID protocol until late August, nearly two months after he was initially sidelined.
In other words, 2020 was a completely lost season for Gordon, whose prospect status was already flickering plenty. He wasn’t drafted by the current regime. He doesn’t project as an everyday shortstop. He won’t hit for much power. Will he field enough to be a utility guy? Will he hit enough to compensate for however well he fields?
This feels like someone who’ll get a longer look from someone else, sort of like Niko Goodrum did with the Detroit Tigers. Even with Adrianza and Gonzalez having one foot out the door, it still doesn’t feel like Gordon’s high on the priority list here.
Estimated likelihood of 40-man retention: 10 percent
LF Eddie Rosario
Eaton’s bought-out option for 2021 was worth $10.5 million. It comes down to personal preference, but when both players are at the top of their game, Eaton is probably the better player. He’s a capable defender, has shown fairly good plate discipline in the past and can swipe some bags, as well.
He’s also about to turn 32 and is coming off a shaky season offensively (75 wRC+) and defensively (minus-3.5 runs below average via Fangraphs).
None of this is to say that Eaton is headed down a steep, age-related decline. The reality is he could really go either way. He might be a dynamite one-year grab for someone in 2021 and vault himself into a guy who can get one more multi-year deal for a few bucks before all is said and done.
But his plate discipline cratered in 2020 — 6.8 percent walk rate was his worst since 2013 — and a fair portion of his game is dictated on speed, a skill that ages notoriously poorly. In some ways, I could see him aging like Shane Victorino — staying a fairly decent player until the bottom just completely falls out all at once.
But anyway, we aren’t here to talk about Eaton. Nor are we here to talk about Wong’s $12.5 million team option being declined. He didn’t hit a ton in 2020, but he was a 5.2-win player via bWAR in 2019 and 3.7 according to fWAR. He’s an elite defender at second base who doesn’t strike out, can swipe a bag and drive one into the gap often though to be a respectable performer. In a way, he can be Eaton-lite at the plate.
This is the long way of saying that if these guys aren’t valued as $10-plus million per year guys, Rosario almost certainly won’t either. And if that’s the case, he won’t be tendered by the Twins.
Alex Kirilloff came up and got playing time in the playoffs. There was a story about him in The Athletic in the last day or two. MLB’s finances are going to take a deep dip — at least to start the offseason.
It’s possible there could be a reunion later in the offseason, but it’s hard to see this ending any other way but Rosario being non-tendered.
He’s among the most physically-gifted hitters I’ve seen as long as I’ve watched the Twins — nearly 30 years — but he’s not a good defender and his game is just not well-rounded. If everything clicked for him, he’d be Kirby Puckett. That hasn’t happened yet, and he’s already 29.
After Kirby’s age-29 season, he had 1,243 career hits and a .323/.357/.469 slash line (122 OPS+). Heading into his age-29 season, Rosario has 738 career hits and a .277/.310/.478 slash (109 OPS+). The ceiling just doesn’t seem to be there anymore, even if his improved walk rate felt like it should have been a true sign of evolution.
I’ve said it all along, but I think he resurfaces wherever James Rowson is next year.
Estimated likelihood of 40-man retention: 20 percent
OF LaMonte Wade Jr.
Honestly, I don’t really see it. I just put Wade here because his career numbers aren’t terribly impressive — .211/.336/.347 in 113 PA — and he’ll be 27 on New Year’s Day.
But with that said, it wouldn’t be stunning to see him or Jake Cave on Opening Day in left field if the Twins for any reason — uncouth or otherwise — don’t think Kirilloff and/or Trevor Larnach are capable of starting there right away in 2021.
The longer-term role for Wade or Cave on this team is as a fourth outfielder. Cave is probably scratching the surface as a solid second-division starter on a team on the upswing — I’m thinking Detroit or Kansas City — but he just doesn’t really have a fair shot at getting that opportunity in Minnesota. Wade’s skillset is harder to read since so much of it is predicated on getting on base and playing competent, but not flashy defense.
Maybe Wade’s roster spot would be more in jeopardy if Gilberto Celestino had played any in 2020. But as things stand now, Wade’s far more likely to crack the 2021 roster as the fourth outfielder than he is to don another jersey.
Estimated likelihood of 40-man retention: 85 percent