Gloomy rain clouds weren’t the only thing looming over Target Field on Tuesday night as the Minnesota Twins fell 4-1 to the Chicago White Sox. While the Twins continue to slip down the hill that is the 2021 season, the MLB trade deadline has to be lurking in the minds of the team’s top brass.
They have no shortage of options in terms of how deep they want to cut into a rebuild mid-season. Will they go for a soft-retool, sending veteran players on expiring contracts away to the highest bidder? Or will they go full-on rebuild and trade their premier players like staff ace José Berríos and injured superstar Byron Buxton?
The ideal path may be somewhere down the middle, similar to what the Boston Red Sox have done in recent years. If anything, that could present a best-possible outcome for this club: Boston owns the top record in the league after finishing 12 games under .500 a year ago.
The Red Sox split up their offensive core and had to make some tough choices. They bet on some buy-low free agents who turned into key contributors, and they also had to show patience by hanging on to their best starting pitcher even as he entered his contract year.
If the Twins want to turn their fortunes around in a hurry, this may be the blueprint. But they better decide soon, because those dark clouds hanging around the stadium look rather imposing.
While a losing record wasn’t expected heading into the season, the possibility was always there for this collection of Twins. The same could have been said for the Red Sox after they won the World Series in 2018. Boston fell back to reality a year later with a so-so 84-78 record, then stumbled into last place, going 24-36 in 2020.
The Twins find themselves in a similar situation, and many frustrated fans are calling for an overhaul. This hand isn’t winning the jackpot, so they should fold and start with brand new cards.
That’s understandable given the state of Twins Territory at the moment. But the Red Sox decided to split up their championship core by strategically keeping select members for the next phase.
Designated hitter J.D. Martinez, shortstop Xander Bogaerts, and third baseman Rafael Devers were kept in the fold. However, star outfielders Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi were traded for prospects and salary relief. For what it’s worth, all three of the players they ended up keeping are headed to the All-Star game next week.
The Twins’ offensive core from two years ago — Buxton, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Miguel Sanó, Mitch Garver, and Luis Arraez — presents a decent comparison. Minnesota’s decision makers could move on from Buxton, Kepler, and maybe one more player from that group and still have a foundation for a high-end offense.
Granted, those trades tend to sting. Buxton, especially, would be tough to swallow. But he would almost certainly bring back the best possible return, and that could be enticing if the Twins aren’t confident in signing him long term.
Boston also took a flyer on some buy-low free agents who have provided value to their contending team. Outfielder Hunter Renfroe had a forgettable season with the Tampa Bay Rays last year, but the Sox took a chance on the powerful slugger.
Last season, he batted just .156, good for sixth-lowest in MLB among qualified hitters. His batting average for balls in play (BABIP) was a lowly .141, meaning only 14% of the balls that he put in play would land for hits. While Renfroe was hardly a spectacular player, he was due for better luck.
That change in fortune has given the Sox a reliable right fielder who is above average in the field (five Defensive Runs Saved so far) and at the plate (107 wRC+), all on a minimal financial commitment of $3.1 million.
The Twins could look to fill some of their holes with similar buy-low contracts in the upcoming free-agent market. Possible candidates to receive these deals include Kansas City Royals outfielder Jorge Soler (.247 BABIP, sixth-lowest in baseball) and Cleveland Indians infielder Cesar Hernandez (.250 BABIP, eighth-lowest).
Are these guys going to carry the team to World Series contention on their own? Probably not, but they present value options to fill holes in the lineup while remaining star players take a leading role.
Another area where Boston zigged instead of zagged involves their best starting pitcher, Eduardo Rodríguez. Even though he was heading into a contract year, the team decided to hang on to him rather than test the trade market.
Part of that could be because he missed all of last season while recovering from COVID-19, but nevertheless the team stuck with him even if it meant getting little to no return for him down the road. While E-Rod’s ERA is an unsightly 5.42, underlying numbers indicate that he’s a valuable pitcher. His Fielding Independent Pitching is 3.40 and he’s only walking 2.23 batters per nine innings, both career-lows. Pair that with the highest strikeout rate he’s ever had (10.52 K/9), and it’s no surprise that he has already accumulated 1.8 Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs.
Maybe this shows the upside of Minnesota hanging on to Berríos as they head into his contract year. Sure there’s the risk that he leaves at the end of the year, but an already pitching-starved team could lean heavily on their ace for one last dance in the hopes of finding similar success the Red Sox had with Rodríguez.
No matter which route Twins management ends up going down as we approach the trade deadline, one thing is crystal clear: Changes are coming. While many are hoping for a far different roster come Aug. 1st, it may be beneficial for this club to follow the path of the best team in the league. With a solid core, a shrewd signing or two, and faith in the ace, the Twins could turn their fortunes around relatively soon. Now they just need to decide whether they want to seek shelter in a full rebuild or ride out the storm like Boston did.