Twins

Can the Twins Turn Their Surplus Of Bats Into Pitching Depth?

Photo Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Johnson was pleasantly surprised that Brooks Lee was available at pick 8. The Minnesota Twins’ president of amateur scouting also didn’t expect Kumar Rocker and Cade Horton, two pitchers, to go at No. 3 and No. 7. It doesn’t matter, given that MLB teams cannot trade picks, and the Twins got their guy.

The Twins have focused on position players, typically from college, early in the draft under Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. It’s sound logic: Get players who are likely to reach the majors. They’ll either help the team, or Minnesota can use them in trades. The downside? The Twins need pitching. However, drafting pitchers, especially high school pitchers, is incredibly risky.

Therefore, the Twins have mostly drafted position players since Falvey and Levine took over in 2017:

  • Royce Lewis (1st overall, 2017): High schooler from Southern California. Looks like a franchise player despite many setbacks in his development, including two ACL injuries and the canceled 2020 minor league season.
  • Brent Rooker (35th, 2017): Bat-first player from Mississippi State. Reached the majors in 2020 and had 213 plate appearances last year. The Twins included him in the maligned Taylor Rogers trade.
  • Trevor Larnach (20th, 2018): College World Series winner at Oregon State. Reached the majors in 2021 and has shown potential, but slowed down 40 games into last season and is injured right now.
  • Keoni Cavaco (13th, 2019): Shortstop from Eastlake HS in Chula Vista, Calif. He’s currently in his second year at High-A.
  • Aaron Sabato (27th, 2020): First baseman out of UNC. Sabato, 23, is currently in High-A, where he’s half a year older than most of the competition.
  • Chase Petty (26th, 2021): Right-handed pitcher out of Mainland Regional HS in New Jersey. The Twins traded him to the Cincinnati Reds for Sonny Gray and a prospect.
  • Noah Miller (36th, 2021): Shortstop out of Ozaukee HS in Wisconsin who’s currently in A-ball.

The Twins have only taken one pitcher in the first round, and they traded him for one of their two best starters. Three of the other players have reached the majors, and they used one in a trade for two pitchers.

Lewis debuted this year and would be in the majors had he not injured his ACL. Larnach had just won the College World Series with Oregon State and could become a roster staple if he can overcome his second-half slumps. They used Rooker in a trade that hasn’t worked out for the Twins, but he’s not the reason. The other first-rounders are in the low minors.

Let’s pause on the Rogers trade for a second because it’s important. The transaction itself is worth an entire article, but Rooker’s inclusion in it is worth deliberating on. Rogers and Chris Paddack were the principles of the trade; Pagán and Rooker were the kickers. Pagán gets the brunt of the vitriol because he’s had command issues and been homer-prone. His mistakes are visible.

But Pagán isn’t the reason the trade hasn’t worked out. It’s because Paddack injured his elbow in May and underwent Tommy John surgery. If Paddack returns and pitches well, Pagán’s struggles become less of a concern. The Twins will have traded Rogers, who’s 31 and a free agent next year, for Paddack, who’s a free agent in 2025. Pagán was never supposed to be a one-for-one replacement for Rogers.

If it took Rooker to get the deal done, so be it. He hit .201/.291/.397 last year and has spent most of this season in Triple-A.

Rooker is the low end of what the Twins would want to get for a prospect. But they won’t get any value for a pitcher who fizzles in the minors. The Ryan regime took Tyler Jay sixth overall in 2015. The former University of Illinois closer got hurt in 2017 and had over a 4.00 ERA in 2018. The Twins traded him to the Cincinnati Reds for cash considerations.

Jay is currently playing for Joliet in the Frontier League, an indy ball team near his hometown. The players drafted immediately after him? Andrew Benintendi (14.8 WAR), Carson Fulmer (minus-1.2), and Ian Happ (9.3). Benintendi and Happ are position players; Fulmer is a pitcher.

Pitchers are like lottery tickets. They’re valuable, team-controlled WAR machines if they pan out. But they’re also likely to get injured in the minors and never have value to a team. Conversely, bat-first players are more like certificates of deposits. They’re not as sexy, but they’re more likely to add value to a team.

Minnesota’s current draft strategy is sound, so long as they can convert their logjam of hitters into pitching. The Twins could use a playoff-caliber starter and two relievers at the Aug. 2 trade deadline. They shouldn’t give up too many prospects because they don’t look ready to compete with teams like the New York Yankees and the Houston Astros this year. Therefore, they’ll have to trade major-league position player depth to acquire pitching without giving up significant prospect capital.

How much depth do they have? They are more limited at catcher and in the outfield, but they could package an infielder or two with some second-tier prospects to facilitate a trade.

First base

Luis Arraez, Alex Kirilloff, José Miranda, and Miguel Sanó

Arraez can move around the field, but he was an All-Star at first this year. Kirilloff can play the outfield, but he’s limited there, so first base looks like his long-term home. Miranda can play third when it’s open. Sanó? It’s hard to know how he fits in, but it’s also difficult to trade him. Either way, there is a lot of depth here.

Second base

Jorge Polanco and Arraez

The Twins could trade Polanco and plug Arraez in at second. In that case, Nick Gordon is probably the backup second baseman. They’ve been using him more in the outfield, though. I wouldn’t trade Polanco because of his production and contract, but he’s not untouchable.

Shortstop

Carlos Correa and Lewis

Short is probably the most interesting position. If Lewis were healthy, the Twins could consider moving Correa, who will likely opt out of his contract next season. However, if Minnesota wants any shot at winning a playoff game this year, let alone extending Correa, they can’t move him.

Correa is a proven star talent and a clubhouse leader. I don’t see him going anywhere this season. But it’s worth remembering that Lewis can take over at shortstop once he gets healthy next year.

Third base

Gio Urshela and Miranda

Here’s where things get interesting. Trading Josh Donaldson was savvy not only because he was disruptive in the clubhouse. The Twins also landed a much-needed starting catcher and a placeholder at third.

Urshela, 30, is hitting .261/.308/.410. He’s also capable defensively, even if he’s a bit inconsistent. Urshela is arbitration-eligible next year and a free agent in 2024. Given Miranda’s breakout, Minnesota could move him and allow Miranda to take over. Arraez or Sanó could back him up in a pinch.

Urshela isn’t going to fetch a massive return, but they could package him with some second-tier prospects to get relief help. Moving Polanco or Miranda would require a more meaningful return, and trading a potential lineup staple for pitching is risky. Starters frequently get hurt, and relief pitchers’ success is ephemeral.

Minnesota’s draft strategy has created options, though. They can move hitting prospects in the minors because they have Lewis (1st round), Kirilloff (1st), Larnach (1st), and Miranda (2nd). They also supplemented them with trades, free agency, and international signings. Granted, the previous regime acquired some of those players, but the Twins still drafted hitters knowing the depth they had.

As long as they can trade hitters for quality pitching, the Twins will be in good shape long term. If they cannot, though, they’ll have a lopsided team. We know the limits of a club with an explosive lineup and limited pitching. It’s up to them to remove that ceiling by acquiring pitching, both at the Aug. 2 deadline and in the offseason.

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