The Winter Meetings have come and gone and a few impact players have changed hands via trades and free agency, but so far the Minnesota Twins have been fairly quiet — at least in terms of spending a ton of cash.
The Twins claimed first baseman C.J. Cron off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays, gave him a right-side-of-the-infield mate in Jonathan Schoop and signed a little infield insurance in the form of Ronald Torreyes. That’s a respectable starting point but by no means a guarantee that it his will be a successful offseason in the eyes of most Twins fans.
It also comes at a time when the division appears ripe for the taking. The Twins may have just won 78 games last season, but it’s largely the same core of players one year removed from a surprise playoff berth and 85 wins in 2017.
The seven-win dropoff from one year to the next shows the volatility of young talent — and that’s largely still true heading into 2019 as well — but also helps paint a picture of just how good this team could be if it catches a few more breaks this upcoming season.
Since development in baseball isn’t linear, adding capable veterans around developing youngsters seems to be the preferred route to take to make the transition from the minors to the majors as seamless as possible.
And with Joe Mauer’s $23 million per year off the payroll — along with Ervin Santana, Brian Dozier and a few others — it’s no surprise that fans are chomping at the bit to see the team reinvest that money into making the team a playoff contender again.
One of the positions the Twins can most easily upgrade is designated hitter. Twins DHs hit just .252/.333/.388 last year — a 96 wRC+ that was 14th among 15 AL teams. Only Detroit (63) was worse, and for a power position, slugging under .400 just won’t cut it at DH over the long haul.
The position is a bit of an enigma in today’s game. Teams don’t usually put a ton of money into their DH, yet still expect a significant offensive contribution. Some teams use it as a means to cycle players through for a half-day of rest, while other teams have the luxury of paying up big for a mauler like the defending World Series Champion Boston Red Sox do with J.D. Martinez.
There’s an obvious difference-maker in free agency this year in the ageless Nelson Cruz. While he was popped for PED usage early in the 2013 season, he’s still hit a tremendous .279/.352/.537 since returning from that suspension in his ages 32-37 seasons. Also, Cruz played in 150-plus games in every year from 2014-17, and only got into 144 last year as he dealt with minor back, elbow and foot issues.
Despite his advanced age, Cruz still has fans among the projection community. Steamer pegs him to hit .272/.353/.513 next season (132 wRC+) with 30-plus homers for the sixth straight year.
With numbers like that, teams should be lining up to sign him — especially with the years likely to be minimal due to age — right?
Well, that’s where things get a bit strange.
Here are the current DH situations in the American League:
- Yankees – Some combination of Luke Voit/Greg Bird/Giancarlo Stanton/Aaron Judge
- Red Sox – Martinez
- Rays – OPEN (Ji-Man Choi/Yandy Diaz at present)
- Blue Jays – Not contending as presently constructed, and thus not interested
- Orioles – Not contending as presently constructed, and thus not interested
- Indians – Carlos Santana
- Twins – OPEN (Tyler Austin/Cron at present)
- Tigers – Not contending as presently constructed, and thus not interested
- White Sox – Some combination of Jose Abreu/Yonder Alonso
- Royals – Not contending as presently constructed, and thus not interested
- Astros – Some combination of Yuli Gurriel/Tyler White but a dark horse in this conversation
- A’s – Khris Davis
- Mariners – Not contending as presently constructed, and thus not interested
- Angels – Some combination of Shohei Ohtani/Albert Pujols/Justin Bour
- Rangers – Not contending as presently constructed, and thus not interested
The interesting wrinkle here is that Mariners GM Jerry DiPoto has a face card in his back pocket in Edwin Encarnacion, who came over from Cleveland in the Carlos Santana trade. The Mariners pretty clearly have no interest in paying Encarnacion $21.67 million to do anything this year — in addition to the $5 million buyout he’s due on a $20 million option for 2020 — and are just biding time to find a landing spot for him.
So that leaves two teams and two holes. The Rays normally wouldn’t be in the conversation for a bat like Cruz — who I suspect will get something like two years and $28 million total — but their surprising 2018 and largely young, cheap roster has allowed them to be a little more proactive on the free-agent front. They’ve already signed Charlie Morton to an almost identical deal to the one above, and have been mentioned many times when Cruz’s name comes up in rumors online.
So what does this mean for the Twins?
Well, first, they have to decide if they truly have a preference for one hitter or the other. Cruz is older, likely to command an extra year of control but also is coming off a much better season. Encarnacion hit .246/.336/.474 (115 wRC+) and saw spikes in his strikeout rate (up) and walk rate (down). Steamer forecasts a fairly stable performance this year — .237/.337/.463 (122 wRC+) — but heading into his age-36 season, it’s not like there’s any sort of guarantee he gets close to his pre-2018 form.
If the Twins don’t have a strong preference, they can wait for one of the shoes to drop. Cruz signing with the Rays, for instance, would put the Twins clearly in the driver’s seat for Encarnacion, and then it would just come down to negotiating how much Minnesota is willing to trade and how much money Seattle is willing to pick up on Edwin’s deal.
If the Twins could get Encarnacion plus cash for something like Tyler Austin — who would make the world’s greatest DH platoon with Dan Vogelbach, most likely — does that make more sense than giving Cruz two years at something like $14-15 million?
Furthermore, how long do the Twins want to tie up the DH spot? Miguel Sano could still end up there eventually — though the club certainly hopes not in the next two years — and there will be ample opportunities to fill the spot internally with Brent Rooker or whichever outfielder doesn’t start on a given day in the field. That becomes even more accurate if Jake Cave repeats his 2018, LaMonte Wade takes a step forward or Alex Kirilloff hits his way into the big leagues sooner rather than later.
So while the fans’ inclination is often to get something done as soon as possible, this feels like a situation where the Twins can afford to wait. The longer the Twins wait, the more prices come down — both on acquiring Encarnacion and signing Cruz.
And in the meantime, they can figure out who will fill the four open starting pitcher spots behind Jose Berrios heading into 2020 with Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda all entering walk years in 2019.