Now that the Minnesota Twins season has concluded, the front office will be looking at how they can improve the roster to try and compete next year. The lineup will see more turnover than the last few seasons, but the most significant change in the batting order may be at designated hitter.
Up until recently, the DH role was filled by the big bat of Nelson Cruz over the bulk of the last three seasons. The man known as Boomstick hit .304/.386/.598 and smacking 76 home runs during his time in a Twin uniform. But when Cruz was dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays at the trade deadline, it left a big gap to fill. Who will be the next guy to take his former spot on Rocco Baldelli’s lineup card next season?
There are several options the team can pursue this winter. Cruz is potentially one of them, and he’d be welcomed back. But they’d have to negotiate a fair salary for his age-43 season, given his production will eventually tail off. J.D. Martinez, Jorge Soler, or Khris Davis could also be free agent options at DH. All of them could fill in the role the Twins would be seeking for some extra thump in the lineup.
While each player would be a solid option for next season, the Twins could instead be saving some of their payroll flexibility to use in other areas. We’re talking about a potential Byron Buxton extension or adding starting pitching or a bullpen arm. They will need pitching to complement a powerful lineup that was top-five in the league in home runs. Given that there are limited options in free agency, the Twins should get creative with how they use the DH spot next year. That includes using a DH-by-committee approach.
The Twins almost have too many internal options to use at DH. The first route could be to give the spot to veteran Josh Donaldson. The former MVP is still productive defensively, but he has experienced some regression at the hot corner. However, his bat has still been productive. Last year he slashed .247/.352/.475 and hit 26 home runs.
Donaldson played 135 games last year, but he has been injury-prone, and it’s in Minnesota’s best interest to keep him in the lineup. And prospect Jose Miranda’s breakout season in the minors has Twins fans clamoring for him to take over at third soon. Donaldson is still set to make $21 million next year, and the Twins won’t get value on his bat alone. He still should be used at third, just less frequently, to keep him healthy.
Miguel Sanó and Alex Kirilloff could be locked into a position battle on the other side of the infield. Sanó is a more established hitter, but he’s had rough slumps recently that caused him to ride the bench during parts of last season. The Twins paved the way for Kirilloff to take over at first base by sidelining Sanó, only to see him suffer from a wrist injury. With Kirilloff’s return next year, would the Twins want to use Sanó in a full-time platoon role or move him to DH when he’ll be 28 years old in April?
Brent Rooker, 26, is another option at DH. Rooker hasn’t found his home on the field and has mainly played in a reserve role in the corner outfield spots. Those positions appear to be filled, but it would be unwise to move a player his age strictly to a DH role.
Donaldson, Sano, and Rooker could all be the DH of the future. However, moving any of them there full-time to start the season wouldn’t benefit the player or team. Instead of shifting several players around the diamond, the Twins should use the DH spot for a hitter who’s on a hot streak or facing a favorable matchup.
Going DH by committee would help out all three players. Donaldson could be the primary third baseman while taking some time at DH to keep him healthy. This would allow Miranda to get settled in the big leagues by playing part-time at third. Sanó wouldn’t be the starting first baseman, but he would still be used in the lineup in a way that balances out his high and low stretches during a season. It would also allow Rooker to continue developing at the big league level without labeling him as a permanent DH so early in his career.
The DH by committee would also help Baldelli continue getting all of his big bats time to hit and allow him to ride a hot hand during the 162-game season. All three of the previously mentioned hitters are right-handed, but the revolving door at DH could allow lefties at other parts in the lineup to join in as well. This doesn’t have to be a permanent option for Minnesota, but it could be used to keep guys in the field as much as possible until someone like Donaldson or Sano eventually takes over the spot full-time.
There is precedent for the DH-by-committee approach. The Rays toyed around with the idea under Joe Maddon in the early 2010s. Although the concept didn’t become a permanent fixture, it still has enough upside to be used occasionally.
Additionally, Minnesota has used a DH by committee approach before. They didn’t have a prototypical DH in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, so Paul Molitor got creative and used the spot as an opportunity to keep his lineup flexible and give more at-bats to players with a hot bat. Robbie Grossman made a living doing just that.
The Twins haven’t been afraid to be creative in the past. Sometimes getting too clever can lead to a regrettable mistake (moving Sano to right field *cough cough*). But it can allow an organization to make the most of the pieces they have and allow them to win in a game-changing way.
The Twins have no shortage of good hitters in their lineup. Instead of keeping one guy in that role and limiting others, they could use this as an opportunity to maximize at-bats for their heaviest hitters and keep everyone productive and healthy to try and make a playoff run next year.