The 5 Best Starting Pitcher Fits in Free Agency for the Minnesota Twins
I know it. You know it. We all know it — the Minnesota Twins need starting pitching.
But while Twins fans are licking their collective wounds over Jose Berrios signing the mythical extension that for some reason or another evaded him with the Twins, it’s time to get over it and look forward to 2022.
We have a pretty good idea of how the Derek Falvey-Thad Levine brain trust is going to view pitching, but that’ll be put to the test with the entire rotation basically wide open heading into next season — assuming everything goes off without a hitch and they get in a full 162.
Let’s hope so.
Are Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober promised rotation spots? If so, are they Nos. 3-4? Are they Nos. 4-5? If they’re any higher than that, is there any reason for the Twins not to just scrap it, trade Byron Buxton, Tyler Duffey and Taylor Rogers and do a soft reset?
It shouldn’t really come to that — even with the (relatively) bare cupboard for starting pitching. The Twins have some reinforcements within who aren’t that far off, as well as a few guys on the periphery who could certainly push through with a breakout season.
Can Randy Dobnak grab the No. 5 spot and stabilize it? Maybe. Who is this year’s Ober? What more can Griffin Jax do? How close are Jordan Balazovic, Jhoan Duran, Matt Canterino or any other prospect in the upper minors?
Right now we’re going to look to free agency, but that’s only part of the puzzle. This front office has shown a pretty respectable tendency to make a trade and supplement the rotation, as it did with both Kenta Maeda and Jake Odorizzi.
But will the front office do its thing and wait around and see who is left standing late this winter, a la Lance Lynn? They can ill afford to do this based on the gaps in their rotation, and that’s before considering the unpredictability of this offseason’s market in addition to the San Francisco Giants seemingly signing everyone.
As a brief preamble — haha, right — Eduardo Rodriguez would have been a reasonable fit for the Twins, even at the dollar figure he signed for. Is he worse than Berrios? I don’t particularly think so. So too would have been Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani and even Alex Cobb, who isn’t signed yet but appears destined to land elsewhere.
Here are, in my opinion, the top five fits in free agency for your Twins. Maybe we’ll do a trade version, too (read: yeah, we will):
Teams are going to dream on the idea that they can help Kikuchi suppress home runs and become a solid No. 2 starter. There’s some reason to believe them.
He’s fanned a batter per inning the last two seasons and can induce plenty of grounders (46.6 percent career rate). He throws unusual gas from the left side (95.2 mph on his fastball) and has a cutter/slider combo that, at least to me, is screaming for one team or another to have him pick one over the other.
And if that were the Twins, it’s probably the slider, right?
There are some aspects to like with the slider, as it induced a swinging-strike rate of 17.0 percent last season. It did, however, come with a .266 average and .468 slugging percentage against. Perhaps focusing on just that and scrapping the cutter (.889 OPS allowed) could allow for some improvement on the pitch.
Also: he should throw his changeup more. It allowed just a .457 OPS last season and induced swinging strikes 21.6 percent of the time. In 2020, all four of Kikuchi’s pitches resulted in a swinging-strike rate of 10-plus percent.
There’s plenty to work with here.
This is probably the best chance for the Twins to add a potential ace in free agency, though they’d have to bid high on what’s likely to be a short-term deal. A pitcher coming off the kind of season Rodon just had would almost certainly command a deal of five-plus years with a better track record.
But Rodon has battled shoulder issues throughout his career — and those can be the death knell for starters.
Rodon remained healthy enough to make 24 starts while pitching 132.2 innings — both the most he’s totaled since 2016 — but those aren’t exactly screaming durability for a guy with just four seasons of more than 100 innings and none over 165.
With all that said, he’s still just 28 — pairing with Rodriguez as the two youngest high-caliber starters available this offseason. Then again, if he hasn’t been healthy by age 28, what’s to say he’s going to be after that age?
So that’s where the Twins can pounce. A two-year deal worth, say, $40 million might get it done. Is it a risk? Sure. But he fanned more than 12.5 batters per nine innings last season and was pumping high-90s gas in the playoffs.
The Twins don’t have anyone who can do that. They’ve never had anyone who can do that.
The Twins can not contend in 2022 without taking chances. What better way to take a chance than to weaken your strongest division rival?
The Cleveland connection seems too simple to ignore. Regardless of how high the Twins shoot to fill the top of their rotation, adding a grizzled veteran on a one-year deal to lock down the middle of the rotation seems like a slam dunk.
But instead of doing it with guys like J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker, they can shoot a riskier shot with Kluber — with the payoff being much higher if things click.
Sure, Kluber turns 36 in April. He hasn’t thrown even 100 innings in any season since throwing 215.0 in 2018, but again that’s all baked into the contract he’s likely to get.
Would he sign for one year and $8 million with innings-based incentives? Would that base need to be as high as $11 million as it was last year? I tend to think not as he threw 80.0 innings — albeit, fairly solid ones — last season.
And if he hits the incentives that push his salary into double digits, that probably comes with the territory that he’s pitching well, and thus worth it.
This feels kind of like the Rich Hill gamble before the 2020 season, with perhaps even more reason to believe it may work out.
Again, it’s much higher upside than a Shoemaker or Happ, and it’s not as though the team doesn’t have protection in the form of Jax or any number of young guys who can come up and get their feet wet. If it devolves into a tough season, those guys are going to need to soak up innings like Jax and Charlie Barnes did this season.
I sort of view this like how the Astros found a new gear with Gerrit Cole. Getting a pitcher out of Coors and frankly out of Colorado’s player development environment seems to have big-time boom potential.
Gray has shown the ability to get strikeouts and grounders while limiting walks — for my money, the holy trinity for starters — and he’s already posted five (!) seasons of plus-2.0 or better WAR via Fangraphs. He’s done a respectable job limiting home runs over his career — especially considering the environment — and he just turned 30 earlier this month.
I suspect it’ll take something like three years and $45 million to land him. But that could pay off handsomely if he finds another gear — which seems to be a virtual certainty just by leaving Denver, right?
Also: he’s not tied to a qualifying offer, which not only helps the Twins on the front end but also could help on the back end if they unlock his potential. On that note: why the hell did he not get a qualifying offer?
Sure, he’s coming off a tough season but he’s only 29 and was very good in 2020 and showed some signs in 2019 that it wasn’t just a short-season thing. He throws lots of sliders, isn’t tied to a qualifying offer and again is fairly young.
And while he’s dealt with some arm issues in the past, that cuts both ways. He’s thrown just 770.2 big-league innings — and is another starter cut from the “get me out of Baltimore” cloth.
That’s not to say he has a Jake Arrieta-in-Chicago gear left in him, but this feels like a classic Twins gamble — from this front office, not the last one — in that sure, it may crash and burn but the payoff could potentially be huge.
I like the chances here — especially since they were reportedly interested when he was possibly available in 2020 at the deadline with the Angels not in contention.
Honorable Mentions (no specific order):
Michael Pineda - Feels like the most likely fit overall, but isn’t going to make anyone jump for joy. He should not be higher than their No. 3.
Robbie Ray - Sure he’s a stud, but he’s got a limited track record and is going to get paid. It’s probably not going to be here.
Kevin Gausman - See Ray, but add a (short) year of stability and subtract a Cy Young. With no qualifying offer, he is also going to get paid. I see both getting well in excess of $100 million.
Marcus Stroman - Stroman could be a good guy to form the team’s identity of their rotation around, but is he a No. 1? Can he become one? How much does a guy of his caliber make? Is it a deal worth $75-80 million or more than $100. Can a team with him as the ace make noise in October?
Michael Wacha - He’s 30 and had a few interesting underlying metrics in Tampa. With that said, Tampa did not unlock much here.
Garrett Richards - Throws pretty hard, has gotten strikeouts and grounders in the past and is 33. Decent flier potential.
Brett Anderson - Can do worse from a No. 5, but he’s not exciting. Think “less frustrating Mike Pelfrey.”
Danny Duffy - Was quite good last year with Royals but did not stay healthy down the stretch. Fly ball guy at Target Field with Byron Buxton in the outfield could be a nice fit, especially since it won’t be a big financial or year-wise commitment.
Zack Greinke - Of all the olds available in free agency this season — Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer as well — he’s probably the only one who makes sense. It doesn’t feel super likely, as he really wants to get the last home run and stolen base he needs for a 10-10 career. Then again, it might not matter if this CBA adds the universal DH. Either way, don’t really see it.
Jakob Junis - Only 29, intriguing stuff but needs to fix homer issue. A project that most enterprising pitching coaches would like to get their hands on, I think.
Rich Hill - You already know.
Carlos Martinez - The deepest of dart throws for a potential top-end starter. He’s been a mess for a while. Feels like Chris Archer 2.o.
Nick Martinez - There’s a fairly strong track record for pitchers coming back from overseas and pitching respectably, and there’s the Levine/Texas connection here. He was excellent for Softbank in Japan last season: 1.62 ERA in 149.2 innings, 1.03 WHIP, nearly a strikeout per inning (8.8 K/9).
Steven Matz - A lot of Twins fans are seemingly upset they weren’t on the list of teams interested that came out on Monday, but two things here: 1. the Twins rarely leak interest and 2. is Matz even very good?
James Paxton - He threw 21 pitches last season. Yes, the potential is super tantalizing but is it even in there anymore?
Vince Velasquez - Has (live) arm, will travel.
Drew Smyly - He’s only 32 but feels like he’s been around forever. If he gets people out, it’s going to be via strikeout. But his effectiveness is largely tied to this ability, and it was good but not great last year (8.3 K/9, 4.48 ERA) after being terrific in for a brief spell in 2020 (14.4, 3.42).