Warne: Trying to Find a Fit for Brian Dozier

The Minnesota Twins don’t have to trade Brian Dozier. If there’s any takeaway from the rumor mill that is churning fast and furious this time of year, that should be it. There’s no guarantee the Twins will move their second baseman, and the report from the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ Mike Berardino suggests the club would be more than happy to keep him.

There are myriad reasons for a team to maintain this publicly. In fact, it could mean quite the opposite in terms of the chances of a team moving a player. Reiterating out loud that you place a high value on a player can easily be a leverage ploy, telling teams they’ll need to shoot for the stars to land one of yours, so to speak. It’s just like any negotiation tactic, aim high, counter low and settle in the middle.

But if you take the new Twins brass at its word, they’re basically saying “We’re happy to keep Dozier in Twinstripes if it comes down to it.” It’s not hard to believe them. With a team not necessarily destined for greatness in the near future, it’s not unfathomable for the Twins to hang onto Dozier for another year while seeing how well Jorge Polanco adapts to an offseason and entire spring to prepare to play shortstop. The Twins can afford patience with Polanco at short if it means keeping Dozier, who is a great player on an affordable contract and a great community presence, whether that means clubhouse community or out in the community at large.

But with all that said, there’ll never be a better time to move Dozier, either. He’s coming off hitting all those home runs. He’s still signed cheaply for multiple years. He’s not as young as a player with his relative service time might usually be. Maybe the Twins won’t be good again before he departs. Maybe Polanco can fill his shoes relatively well at a lower cost while allowing the team to stock up in other areas of need.

There’s a lot of ifs and buts for the new brain trust to navigate, but should they make Dozier available, in which direction might they look? It can be hard to gauge what teams might be in the market for a second baseman. A lot of teams view second base sort of like the Twins did with Dozier. That is, the stop after short. Teams sign and develop up-the-middle talent because it can be easily moved over. Got a good-hitting center fielder who might not hack it defensively? How good is his arm? That’ll dictate whether you take a left or right at Albuquerque. Have a shortstop who can’t make all the throws or maybe isn’t fleet afoot? Second base is the next stop.

And for that matter, since it’s down the defensive spectrum, teams aren’t typically going up and down the marketplace looking for talent at the keystone. Furthermore, a lot of the contenders or those who fancy themselves as contenders have their answers at second base. You know, the Jason Kipnises, Robinson Canos, Ian Kinslers and Jose Altuves of the world. Teams just don’t view themselves as a “second baseman away” from who they’re trying to be.

That doesn’t mean that Dozier won’t have ample value. He just might not have super elite value, which he’d have if he could still play short and was maybe 1-2 years younger. If that were the case, he’d be among the most valuable commodities outside the super elites like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

So what teams might be in on Dozier and what might they be able to offer? A lot of this is spitballing — we aren’t in the room with Thad Levine and Derek Falvey, obviously — but it’s pretty easy to get a concept from this neutral location a. which teams need second basemen and b. what the Twins need.

So with that said, let’s take a look at some of the teams that could use Mr. Dozier, and what he might fetch in return that could interest the local nine.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Only the Oakland A’s got less production out of second basemen last year than the Angels, who got a collective .237/.275/.342 batting line with a .268 wOBA and 68 wRC+. For some context, that’s not terribly far from what Danny Santana gave the Twins last season — .240/.279/.326 with a .265 wOBA and 60 wRC+. The need to add talent around Trout is urgent and there may be no better place than at second base, where the incumbent is Cliff Pennington. One option might be to sign former Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe and move Yunel Escobar to second base. That would give the Angels a respectable infield of C.J. Cron-Escobar-Andrelton Simmons-Plouffe moving right to left, but it might make some sense for the team to look for a more natural fit at second than Escobar, who has played only 21 MLB games at second base and none since 2007, when he was a 24-year-old rookie with the Atlanta Braves.

The other tough fit here is that the Angels have one of the worst farm systems in the game. Minor League Ball’s John Sickels ranked the Angels 30th out of 30 teams with the designation of “UGHHHH: The Angels get a special category of badness all their own” prior to the 2016 season. He goes on to say that their best prospect — a catcher named Taylor Ward — wouldn’t “be a top-10 guy in most other systems.” Ouch. Their 2015 ranking wasn’t a lot better (28th) and what they added to it was catcher Matt Thaiss, who was taken out of the University of Virginia one pick after the Twins selected Alex Kirilloff. Under the old rules prior to the Trea Turner situation, teams couldn’t trade a player until one year after they had been drafted. Now the rule states that the player can be traded the day after the World Series. All of this is a too-wordy way of saying the Twins could trade for Thaiss — if they wanted to.

But even so, how else are the Angels coming up with the capital necessary to grab Dozier? By trading from the MLB roster they’re looking to upgrade? That doesn’t seem terribly likely. Starting pitchers Andrew Heaney and Tyler Skaggs as well as reliever Cam Bedrosian are interesting, but the first two have had injury woes which have waylaid their careers and the Twins aren’t working out a deal around a reliever. A fit here is pretty unlikely.

The Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers are the sexy and trendy pick in this whole scenario. And why shouldn’t they be? They have an obvious need and deep enough pockets to do pretty much whatever they want. They may maintain publicly that they’d be interested in bringing back Chase Utley at the right price, but the honest to goodness truth is that the Dodgers got below-average production from the combination of the former Phillies star, Howie Kendrick, Charlie Culberson and everyone else who saw time at second base for the team in 2016. The Dodgers got a collective .300 wOBA and 88 wRC+ from their second basemen. That’s the same wRC+ that Juan Centeno had for the Twins this year. A team this good and this rich doesn’t need to settle for that sort of production and it also helps that they’ll most likely be searching for offensive help to replace the departing Justin Turner, who is probably in the conversation as the best position player left on the market following the re-signing of Yoenis Cespedes by the Mets on Tuesday.

So there’s an obvious need and an obvious fit, and the Dodgers are a team that obviously have the pieces to get a deal done. Sickels rated the Dodgers system No. 1 heading into 2016 — the Twins were eighth, if you were wondering — and despite the graduations of Corey Seager and super teenager Julio Urias, it’s still a farm that has tons of players who can help get a deal done.

The current Dodgers top-30 prospect list at lists the top remaining prospect in the system as Cody Bellinger, a first baseman by trade who could transition to the outfield while waiting for first base to open up. That applies not only in Los Angeles, but Minneapolis as well. Bellinger hit a tremendous .314/.424/.557 with Glendale in the Arizona Fall League and is coming off a fantastic season at Double-A Tulsa (.843 OPS) as a 20 year old. If the Twins are targeting a position player in return for Dozier — and hot take alert: they probably should be — Bellinger would absolutely be atop their list. Other players who make sense on the position side of things are outfielders Andrew Toles (.870 OPS, five-plus years of control) and Trayce Thompson (Klay’s brother, .792 MLB OPS through two seasons, five years of control). If the Dodgers deem the cost of Bellinger to be too steep — and that is certainly possible — one of those outfielders would make some sense for the Twins as well. Upgrading on Eddie Rosario — or at least pushing him into a prove-it role as a fourth outfielder who plays all over — should not be simply shrugged aside.

Another bat who could make some sense is Gavin Lux, the team’s first-round pick out of Kenosha, Wis. He’s a shortstop who’ll have a good chance to rocket up some prospect lists starting this winter. He had an impressive debut season between two levels of rookie ball — .296/.375/.399 — but would the playing the long game. He just turned 19 last week. Would the Twins be willing to dig into the lower levels if it meant a better return? It would be hard to turn that down, most likely.

There’s ample pitching in the Dodgers system as well, and what team needs pitching more than the Twins, who were dead last in rotation ERA in 2016. The names that dot the list here are Jose De Leon, Yadier Alvarez, Walker Buehler, Jordan Sheffield. Berardino mentioned worries about De Leon’s shoulder, though it’s unclear if the Twins would share those concerns. Alvarez was a big-dollar acquisition on the Cuban market — $31 million after bonuses and penalties were paid — who has a big arm and pitched very well in his first limited taste of the Midwest League (12.6 K/9, 2.29 ERA in just under 40 innings). Buehler went to Vanderbilt and is on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery. He’s only thrown five innings as a professional — no earned runs, for what it’s worth — since being drafted in the first round in 2015. Sheffield was a first-round pick in the 2016 draft — a competitive-balance pick that the Dodgers got for not signing Kyle Funkhouser. Sheffield, who also went to Vanderbilt, had a decent debut season but was brought along slowly, throwing just 12 innings across two levels.   

The pieces are in place for a deal to happen with the Dodgers, but is it too good to be true? That’s a possibility.    

The Arizona Diamondbacks

The DBacks have to be considered a wildcard in all of this. After trading away Jean Segura, the Diamondbacks will turn to the unproven Ketel Marte at short with Chris Owings penciled in at second base, and perhaps more aptly behind the former at short. Marte (.266 wOBA) struggled in Seattle last year and may need more seasoning, and there’s no guarantee that Owings — a career .254/.294/.376 hitter — is the answer at short…or even second. That could open the door for Dozier at second. The rest of the Diamondbacks roster is pretty sturdy, with solid or rapidly developing players across the board, so it might make sense to push in their chips with Dozier as one final acquisition to see if they can unseat the Dodgers.

The Segura trade brought back interesting young righty Taijuan Walker, and created a bit of a logjam in the rotation. As of right now, the depth chart for the DBacks has pitchers like Patrick Corbin and Braden Shipley on the outside looking in. Most likely, that won’t be the case. It’s unlikely Zack Greinke is going anywhere and beyond that it’s a bunch of question marks. Corbin is the most senior of the rest but is coming off a pretty rough 2016 season (5.15 ERA). Shelby Miller is younger than Corbin but has thrown more big-league innings. He’s also coming off a disastrous 2016 season, and has had an up-and-down MLB career to this point to say the least. Robbie Ray is also interesting, as he’s become an incredible strikeout pitcher (11.3 K/9) despite still not pitching all that well (4.90 ERA, 1.47 WHIP).

Basically every pitcher who could be possibly available on the Diamondbacks has some level of merit. Corbin is left-handed and has had success in the past. Ray is also left-handed, while Miller was a former top prospect who could be a buy-low candidate as long as he’s healthy. Beyond that, there are intriguing youngsters like Shipley and Archie Bradley — both of whom were highly-regarded prospects not that long ago.

Where the Diamondbacks may be able to set themselves apart is major-league talent. Wait, what? That’s right. Might it make more sense for the Twins to target MLB-ready or MLB-tested talent in return for Dozier? In the case of Bradley and Shipley, both of these guys have taken their lumps in the big leagues, but have also cleared the hurdle of simply getting there. As Berardino attested in Tuesday’s episode of Midwest Swing, plenty of future all-time greats took their lumps on the road to greatness. “Take a look at the Braves rotations of the 90s,” Berardino said. “Guys like Glavine, Smoltz, Avery….even Maddux had times early in their careers where they got their brains beat in.”  

Berardino’s point resonates soundly, as each of those pitchers had at least one season with an ERA over 5.00 to start their careers. The same thing is true of Bradley and Shipley to this point. That’s not to say either of them are guaranteed for greatness on that alone — that of course would be foolish — but rather to caution that greatness isn’t always blatantly obvious from the get-go, and the Twins could be the benefactors in such a situation.

The Diamondbacks also have some interesting guys on the position player side of things. David Peralta battled wrist issues in 2016 but was fantastic in 2015, hitting .312/.371/.522. Basically speaking, he’s the kind of player Rosario wishes to become. He’s a lefty swinger with four years of control who’ll turn 30 near the end of next season. He’s not the kind of guy the Diamondbacks will call untouchable, yet doesn’t need to be the centerpiece of a deal.

To aim higher, the Twins would target Brandon Drury. Drury hit a solid .282/.329/.458 as a 23-year-old for the Diamondbacks last year while moving all around the diamond. Drury got into more than 130 games last year, and started 52 in left field, 27 in right field, 25 at third base and eight at second base. Now that jack-of-all-trades ability might also be why he wouldn’t be available — in addition to being an above-average MLB hitter at age 23 — but the team’s outfield is pretty crowded with Peralta getting healthy, A.J. Pollock ready to go and Yasmany Tomas out there as well.

Might it make sense for the Twins to target one of the outfielders and a pitcher — preferably Bradley — in a deal? How about Peter O’Brien as a third piece? He’s got no real fit on a National League team, and could fall into the DH mix for the Twins as a masher who still hasn’t proven he could hit MLB pitching. As a third piece in the deal, he could make some sense. It would seem unlikely a deal with Drury and a pitcher would have a third piece, but perhaps a deal with Peralta and a pitcher might.

All of it is guesswork, really. It’s fun guesswork though, isn’t it?

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