Pitchers and catchers report for the Minnesota Twins in less than a week, yet the pile of free agents looks as picked over as a Thanksgiving buffet after the first pass.
In short, there are plenty of leftovers — and primo ones, at that.
The Twins have already signed four pitchers to MLB deals, but could still stand to stock up on the remaining goods — all of which are likely to come at a lower price than when the winter started.
It also isn’t a perfect roster for the Twins at this point. Sure, it’s a perfectly decent one that prior to the Ervin Santana injury was very similar to the one that won 85 games last year, but there are numerous avenues the team could take to shore up depth across the board.
Let us take you down that road.
Insurance for the Miguel Sano situation
If it wasn’t enough that Sano was sidelined with a stress reaction in his left shin down the stretch last year, the threat of the third baseman missing games from a possible suspension due to sexual assault accusations throws another wrinkle into the situation as well. While Sano has been working out in Fort Myers to get ready for the season for most of the winter, there’s still no guarantee he’ll be 100 percent to start the season, and manager Paul Molitor told MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger in late December that it’s a stretch to believe Sano will play 150 games at the position in 2018.
Now with that said, 150 games is a huge bar to clear, and those comments were made the day before the allegations came out. Now it’s a virtual certainty Sano won’t come anywhere close to those numbers for one reason or another, and to that end, it makes sense for the Twins to pick up the pieces in free agency and get some insurance.
Eduardo Escobar did a fairly good job replacing Sano down the stretch, hitting .252/.298/.529 with 10 of his 21 homers coming in that 39-game stretch. But expecting anything like that again — or Escobar to be able to outrun a .298 OBP for a long stretch — is a fool’s errand. Escobar is a terrific utility infielder and occasional starter, but there’s a chance for the Twins to make a move here to shore up the infield, and in the meantime make sure there’s as little of a dropoff as possible from Sano.
That means signing Eduardo Nunez. The last time Twins fans saw Nunez, he was the team’s only All-Star just before being traded to the San Francisco Giants. The last time the rest of the baseball world saw him, he was being carried off the field in the playoffs after suffering a flare-up to a previous injury to his right knee. He did not need surgery in the offseason, and has since been working out for teams in hopes of signing a new deal.
If he’s willing to sign a two-year deal for something like $15 million, the Twins should run, not walk, to him to get it done. He’s great insurance for Sano at third base — not only to start the season, but all year — and gives the team added depth across the infield. That would be very valuable for a team that, in this case, would be leaning heavily on Robbie Grossman at designated hitter. In that case, days where Nunez spells guys like Brian Dozier means the latter could slide into the DH role.
Nunez hit a solid .313/.341/.460 between the Giants and Red Sox last year (2.2 fWAR) which is pretty much in line with what he was doing for the Twins in 2016 with a bit more power. He frankly should be starting someplace, but as a utility player starting anywhere from 3-to-5 times per week would be an absolute luxury.
This makes too much sense not to be seriously considered.
Signing someone to get significant DH at-bats
If Thad Levine and Derek Falvey don’t want to go down the Nunez path, there are still plenty of hitters available who can help the team at DH in a fairly regular role. If the Twins prefer to have Grossman in more of a fourth outfielder role while cycling through some at-bats at DH, there is no shortage of options on the market right now who can give the team added thump.
The two guys who jump off the page — for different reasons — are Lucas Duda and Logan Morrison. Duda is terrible defensively and can’t hit left-handed pitching, but he absolutely mauls righties. He’s coming off hitting just .217/.322/.496 with the Mets and Rays last year — including fading hard with Tampa (.306 wOBA) — but the power makes up for the low batting average and OBP for the most part, and again, he crushes righties. Duda is a career .249/.356/.486 hitter against righties, and will come extremely cheaply on just a one-year deal most likely.
Morrison’s track record is a bit more spotty and he was once the purveyor of a strange Twitter account, but he absolutely crushed for the Rays last year. Morrison hit .246/.353/.516 with 38 homers as he went from a groundball-hitting machine with low strikeout rates and average walk numbers to a fly-ball fiend with more walks, more strikeouts and a heck of a lot more power. What he did was almost identical to Yonder Alonso, who scored a two-year deal at just under $20 million from the Indians. At this point, it doesn’t seem like Morrison will even get that — and he could be a good pickup for the Twins to DH, play some first base and give them insurance after Joe Mauer’s deal expires and before Brent Rooker makes it to the big leagues.
Either one of these guys would help the Twins immensely at DH, but another plan could be in the works as well, and…..
…this includes perhaps looking at some cheaper right-handed bats, too
The prevailing theme from last year was that the Twins did not hit left-handed pitching very well, though they got markedly better as the season went on. By the end of the year, the Twins hit .260/.332/.412 against southpaws for a 96 wRC+ — the 13th-best mark in baseball. In other words, they were about in the middle of the pack, and are bringing back almost exactly the same offense.
But there’s certainly room for improvement. The offense will again be pretty lefty-heavy, so adding a right-handed bat — preferably cheap or on a short-term deal — again makes sense. J.D. Martinez can help literally anyone, but we’re not looking that direction at this point. Nor does it really seem like Jose Bautista is a fit — Target Field numbers be damned. Keep in mind that if he did sign with the team, he wouldn’t be feasting on Twins pitching like he did with the Blue Jays.
Anyway, the two guys who make some sense who can be had for almost nothing are Mark Reynolds and Mike Napoli. Reynolds hit a ridiculous .267/.352/.487 with the Rockies last year, but that comes out to just a 104 wRC+ due to park factors and that sort of thing. In other words, he hit 30 homers but it wasn’t all that impressive because of the offensive environment he played in. Still, for a couple million bucks he could pop a few homers and see time at first base and DH. Napoli is regarded as solid in the clubhouse — nobody would know this more than Levine — and while he hit just .193/.285/.428 last year with the Rangers, he still provided some (though still not much) value against lefties. He battled some nagging injuries last year, and between the price, fit and a few other factors, it almost seems like a foregone conclusion that Napoli will garner strong consideration from the Twins.
Then again, it felt that way last year and he picked the Rangers — a better team at the time that still finished seven games worse in the standings.
Additionally, Jayson Werth is no spring chicken and hasn’t put together a good season in what feels like forever, but he can still hit lefties and might be worth a look on a minor-league deal with an eye on the Michael Pineda 40-man spot when the season starts. Higher up on the totem pole would be Matt Holliday, who almost makes too much sense. He’s going into his age-38 season, probably can’t play every day anyway and hit .267/.366/.477 against lefties last year. I believe he’s regarded as a really strong clubhouse presence as well — like Napoli.
Signing a legit fourth outfielder
This probably isn’t a huge need with Grossman in tow, an entire starting outfield cadre of guys who can handle center at least in a pinch and Zack Granite just a call away, but there are some impressive candidates for this job still out there as well. Jon Jay filled the role admirably for the Cubs last year, posting plus-1.6 fWAR and hitting .296/.374/.375 while working in center field with the likes of Albert Almora Jr., Jason Heyward and Ian Happ. Jay’s never been flashy, but just steady throughout his nearly 1,000-game MLB career. He’s hit .288/.355/.383 over that stretch (106 wRC+) and is a decent defender in center and capable in the corners.
Perhaps the best option is Jarrod Dyson. Twins fans are no doubt familiar with him from his time with the Royals, and he’s been about a plus-2.0-to-3.0 fWAR player for the last five years. With that said, he’s heading into his age-33 season, has never made more than $3 million in any year and somehow has never broken the 400 plate appearance barrier. It’s largely because his skill set is predicated on speed and defense, and as a result he has lost out to more capable offensive players as far as playing time is considered, most likely because their offensive contributions — though inferior to Dyson’s on the whole — are more easily seen. Dyson is an interesting fit, though it’s possible — if not probable — that Granite could do pretty much the same thing for probably about one-sixth the cost.
A reunion with Carlos Gomez could make sense too, but he’s coming off hitting .255/.340/.462 in 105 games with the Rangers. If they’ll have him back to start over Delino DeShields Jr., that makes a lot more sense for him. There’s really no reason for him to settle for anything other than a starting role, but this offseason has us turned upside down as far as thought processes go.
Signing a top-three starter
How are we 1,800 words in and still haven’t talked about pitching? This one is pretty easy, though. If the Twins want to make waves in October, they need to add another starting pitcher who would start a playoff game for them.
Here’s how I see things right now:
- Yu Darvish (Game 1 starter)
- Jake Arrieta (Game 1 or 2 starter)
- Lance Lynn (Game 3 starter)
- Alex Cobb (Game 3 starter)
Cobb and Lynn probably take a back seat to a healthy Santana and Jose Berrios when Molitor would line up a playoff rotation — no, we aren’t printing tickets just yet….calm down — but it seems pretty clear the Twins need three guys of this caliber to have any chance of moving on in the playoffs. Having an improved bullpen will/should help, too.
Taking a flyer on a lower-tier starter
This possibility existed beforehand, but now is even more clear with Santana on the shelf for as few as one or as many as three starts to open the season. There are a lot of interesting guys across a few different levels. Friend of Zone Coverage Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press tweeted on Tuesday that the team is still interested in Jaime Garcia, and he probably is near the top of that lower-tier pool. A one-year deal for a guy who can be moved around based on how guys like Kyle Gibson, Adalberto Mejia and Trevor May fare would be the ideal fit, but it seems like Garcia is probably going to command at least a two-year deal at this point. But as a No. 4-5 starter on a team with playoff aspirations, it’s easy to do worse than Garcia. Other guys who make some sense as a flyer include:
- Brett Anderson – Never healthy but has grounders and pedigree on his side. Only 30.
- Clay Buchholz – Name has always been bigger than game, but for a flyer maybe?
- Trevor Cahill – Only 30, grounders and strikeouts in need of health and defense. Legit swingman potential.
- Andrew Cashner – Always had big arm and meh results, but 2017 was the low-water mark as far as peripherals. Seemed like prime candidate for second-tier, multi-year deal.
- Jesse Chavez – The game’s quintessential swingman has fallen on hard times the last two years. Needs to get back to A’s mojo.
- Scott Feldman – Serviceable. Nothing more, nothing less. Will remind you of a Terry Ryan signing.
- Jeremy Hellickson – 2017 was a disaster, but just one year removed from getting a QO — and accepting.
- Drew Hutchison – Just 27, over 400 so-so MLB innings with peripherals indicating more potential. Was OK, not great at Triple-A last year (3.56 ERA, 4.13 FIP).
- John Lackey – He’s 39 and took a step back last year, but has been a horse dating back to pre-Ervin Angels days. Absolute spitfire on the mound.
- Jeff Locke – Zero NFL punts. Coming off disastrous 2017 with Marlins, but showed promise with grounders as recently at 2015 with Pirates. Only 30.
- Wade Miley – Literally throwing something at the wall to see if it sticks. He’s 31, has MLB success with Diamondbacks, Red Sox and even Mariners/O’s in 2016.
- Ricky Nolasco – just kidding.
- Chris Tillman – Turns 30 in April, was a disaster in 2017 but has always been decent No. 4-5 type on a team that needed him to be more than that. Bounce-back potential for days, as long as you mind the ceiling.
- Jason Vargas – Original Twins draft pick but did not sign, started very hot — even made All-Star team — but faded hard, finished with 4.16 ERA in 179.2 innings (4.67 FIP). Another TR special, but the guy just knows how to pitch. Missed most of 2015-16, resumed throwing innings like nothing happened.