The Minnesota Twins knew they had big holes to fill when they finished in last place during the 1990 season. Their nucleus was starting to creep into their 30s. Their pitching staff ranked toward the bottom of Major League Baseball with a 4.12 ERA. Nobody saw the Twins making a turnaround to win the World Series the following year, but there was one move that tied everything together.
Bringing in Jack Morris.
With the Twins in a similar situation this offseason, they need to do everything to find an impact pitcher. All five spots in the starting rotation figure to be up for grabs this season. With Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, and others heading into their late 20s, a mercenary hurler could be the difference between returning to contention and another disappointing season.
The philosophy makes sense when you consider what the Twins did in the winter of 1990. Their starting rotation was in shambles, but they had some promising arms who gained experience.
One pitcher was 26-year-old Kevin Tapani, who went 12-8 with a 4.07 ERA. Another was 22-year-old Scott Erickson, who was breaking into the majors, going 8-4 with a 2.87 ERA. With two young pitchers establishing themselves, the Twins just needed one more starter to tie things together in baseball’s old-school climate.
Enter Morris. At 35 years old, he was entering the twilight of his career and was coming off a rough season in 1990. After going 6-14 with a 4.86 ERA, the Detroit Tigers made him a three-year offer worth a total of $9.5 million. Citing the opportunity to play at home, the St. Paul native opted to sign a 1-year, $3.7 million deal with the Twins.
Remember, this was the winter of 1991 which means the Twins were making a substantial financial commitment. But the deal also had shades of what teams are doing now to lure big free agents.
Morris’s deal was fully guaranteed for the 1991 season but contained two years with a player option. If Morris could re-establish his value, he could hit the open market and sign with a contender the following season.
Morris became Minnesota’s de facto ace, going 18-12 with a 3.43 ERA. Tapani also stepped up with a 2.99 ERA, and Erickson won 20 games as the Twins went from the bottom of the West Division to World Series Champions.
It’s a situation the current version of the Twins can learn from as they look to fix the rotation. The Twins starters were abysmal last season, but Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober showed signs of developing into major league pitchers. While the system has Jordan Balazovic or Josh Winder, who could crack the rotation, the Twins will need to find a player with major league experience at the top. Fortunately, there’s a stacked free-agent market.
If we’re going off age and performance alone, the first name they should call is Max Scherzer. Despite being 37 years old, the right-hander will have a strong market thanks to his sterling track record. Scherzer hasn’t posted an ERA over 3.00 since 2014 and led the major leagues with a 0.86 WHIP last season. With 236 strikeouts in 179.1 innings, Scherzer hasn’t declined and would be a perfect fit at the top of any rotation.
That creates a problem for Minnesota; everyone will want to sign Scherzer. But the Twins can point to their potent offense and give Scherzer a ton of money up front to convince him to come to Minnesota.
However, Scherzer is coming off a season in which he increased his value. Much like when they signed Morris, the Twins could be looking for a pitcher to buy low on, leading them to an old division rival.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery, Justin Verlander missed the entire 2021 season but remains an intriguing name on the market. Verlander was one of the best pitchers in baseball during his last healthy season in 2019, winning an MLB-high 21 games and leading the Houston Astros to the World Series.
There is the concern that Verlander has thrown just six innings over the past two seasons, but the Twins have taken this risk with pitchers on a much lower tier. If Verlander is enticed by a “prove-it” mercenary deal, why wouldn’t you pull the trigger?
Then there’s Clayton Kershaw, who might fit the Morris description to a tee. Kershaw has battled injuries the past several years but is still effective when on the mound. He hasn’t thrown more than 200 innings in a season since 2015, but he’s posted a 2.60 ERA while averaging 141 innings per season.
With the Twins’ conservative approach with pitchers, Kershaw could come to Minnesota, do his thing and become an ace for a Twins team that could use one. All things that Morris did when he came home in 1991.
There are obstacles to any pitcher the Twins decide to sign, but this is the best way to obtain a top-tier hurler. If they can find a pitcher who makes the same impact Morris did 30 years ago, the Twins could experience a similar turnaround and compete in the American League.