Offseason Outlook: Minnesota Twins – MLB Trade Rumors

Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine have been in place for six years now. The team has a winning record under their leadership, but the last two seasons have ended in disappointment, with the Twins missing the postseason by a wide margin despite heading into the year as projected contenders. They’ll enter the offseason with a large amount of payroll space, though that’s due partly to last winter’s marquee signing opting out of his contract.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Byron Buxton, OF: $90MM through 2028 ($15MM base salary can increase to $23MM annually based on MVP voting)
  • Max Kepler, OF: $9.5MM through 2023 (includes $1MM buyout of $10MM club option for 2024)
  • Jorge Polanco, 2B: $8.5MM through 2023 (includes $1MM buyout of $10.5MM club option for 2024; contract also contains $12MM club option for 2025)
  • Randy Dobnak, RHP: $7.75MM through 2025 (includes $1MM buyout of $6MM club option for 2026; contract also contains $7MM club option for 2026, $8.5MM club option for 2027)*
  • Kenta Maeda, RHP: $3.125MM through 2023 (can earn up to $10MM of incentives based on games started, innings pitched)

*=Dobnak is in the organization but no longer on the 40-man roster

Total 2023 commitment: $35.625MM
Total long-term outlay: $118.875MM

Option Decisions

Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Free Agents

The Twins’ first order of business will be determining whether they have a legitimate chance to retain Carlos Correa, who’s already said he’ll opt out of the remaining two years and $70.2MM on his contract. The only long-term commitment of note on the books is Byron Buxton’s $15MM annual salary through the 2028 season, leaving plenty of room for the Twins to put forth a market-value offer with what would be the first $30MM+ annual salary in club history.

The question, of course, is whether the front office feels it’s wise to do so and whether owner Jim Pohlad will green-light that franchise-record expenditure. For his part, Correa has effused praise for the Twins since day one. He’s since said on record multiple times that his family enjoys living there and that he personally “loves” manager Rocco Baldelli and the clubhouse environment.

Pleasantries are all well and good this time of year, but Correa has also made clear that he’s seeking a long-term deal and will again become a free agent if the two parties cannot agree to an extension. Falvey has said on record that the Twins have talked contract with agent Scott Boras since the season ended, also expressing a willingness to “get creative” on a deal. Cynics would suggest that’s corporate-speak implying the Twins aren’t prepared to offer a straightforward long-term pact, but it was a somewhat “creative” offer that brought Correa to Minneapolis in the first place. He still seems likely to test the market, but the Twins have another couple weeks to convince him to stay.

If Correa indeed opts out and signs elsewhere, the Twins will be left with a hole at shortstop but also a heaping amount of payroll space. All four of their club option decisions are easy to decipher. Miguel Sano, Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer will be bought out, and all are likely to sign elsewhere. Sonny Gray’s $12.5MM club option is a no-brainer to exercise. In a scenario where Correa departs and Gray is picked up, the Twins will have around $50MM committed to next year’s books.

There are arbitration-eligible players to consider, but that’ll only add another $30MM or so to the ledger. The Twins opened the 2022 season with a payroll in the neighborhood of $142MM, but even with Gray returning and only a handful of non-tenders, they’ll clock in around $80-82MM in commitments. Even if 2022’s Opening Day mark is set as a firm ceiling — which it likely is not — the front office has a lot of financial freedom this winter.

Where can the Twins reallocate those resources? Frankly, just about anywhere. The lineup has few guarantees, though that’s generally due to flexibility afforded by key young players.

Luis Arraez spent a large chunk of time at first base this season and won a batting title in the process, but he can play second base, third base and even some left field if needed. Rookie Jose Miranda also spent time at first base, but he rose through the system as a third baseman and could man the hot corner if the Twins prefer to trade Gio Urshela and go with Miranda/Arraez at the corners. Doing so could bring back some bullpen help or a decent minor league asset and free up another $9MM or so.

If Correa doesn’t return, the Twins can turn shortstop over to former No. 1 overall pick Royce Lewis, though he’s rehabbing a second tear of his right ACL and thus shouldn’t be considered a lock to handle shortstop from the jump (if at all). Lewis is another candidate to play multiple positions at some point and could do so as soon as next year, depending on which course the Twins chart.

If Minnesota isn’t willing to pay top-of-the-market money for the marquee shortstop they already know and love, Correa, it stands to reason that fellow free agent Trea Turner will be out of their comfort zone. But both Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson will be free agents this winter, and while both figure to command nine-figure contracts, they’ll likely be less expensive than Turner and Correa. Barring another splash in the deep end of the free-agent pool, the Twins could look to a shorter-term veteran like Elvis Andrus or Jose Iglesias to help ease Lewis into a larger role.

There’s similar flexibility and uncertainty in the outfield. Byron Buxton remains one of the most talented players in MLB on a per-game basis but also one of the most oft-injured. He hit 28 homers in just 92 games but missed time with a hip strain before undergoing season-ending knee surgery in September. Max Kepler has been a stalwart in right field, and his pull-happy approach could make him a beneficiary of the forthcoming limitations on infield shifts. However, Kepler has never replicated the fly-ball rates (and subsequent power output) he showed in the juiced-ball 2019 season that saw him club 36 home runs. With just one guaranteed year to go on his contract (plus an option), he could be a trade candidate as the Twins look to open space for younger players.

Among those younger options are snakebitten corner outfielders Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach. Both are former first-rounders and consensus top-50 prospects in the league, but both have seen their early careers waylaid by injury. Kirilloff, who’s twice undergone wrist surgery, was particularly touted. That duo can play the corners, and Kirilloff has plenty of experience at first base as well, further adding to the aforementioned infield flexibility. Twin Cities native and former No. 39 overall draft pick Matt Wallner is another right field option who made his big league debut in 2022 and could factor into next year’s group.

If the Twins do trade Kepler, there’s an argument that they ought to bring in a different veteran to stabilize/complement the in-house group — ideally a right-handed hitter. The most wide-eyed dreamers among Twins fans can point to the payroll space and last March’s stunning Correa deal as justification for an “anything is possible” mentality, but Aaron Judge is scarcely worth a mention here. Still, a short-term veteran could at least be in play as an occasional left fielder and designated hitter, depending on what happens with Kepler.

Behind the plate, the Twins remain high on Ryan Jeffers’ receiving and his power, but Falvey has specifically talked about bringing in another backstop to again utilize a “co-catcher” method that divides playing time more evenly than the traditional starter/backup pairing. As Falvey plainly noted, Jeffers was particularly adept against left-handed pitching.

The Twins haven’t labeled the still-25-year-old Jeffers a pure platoon option, but they’ll want someone who can help out against right-handed pitching. This year’s free-agent class isn’t a great one in that regard, though Omar Narvaez has a nice track record against righties despite a down showing in 2022. Willson Contreras, the market’s top catcher, would bolster the offense against righties and lefties alike, and the Twins at least have the payroll capacity to make them a dark-horse landing spot. The trade market will have options ranging from clear starters (Oakland’s Sean Murphy, Toronto’s Danny Jansen) to out-of-options fliers (the Angels’ Matt Thaiss).

The depth on the pitching staff is more suspect. Twins starters ranked 20th in the Majors with a 4.11 ERA and 27th with 782 2/3 innings in 2022. Some of that was by design, at least early on. For instance, Minnesota inked Chris Archer to an incentive-laden deal that allowed him to boost his salary based on games started and outings of three or more innings in length. The plan was to ease him into the year with short outings and build him up, but Archer never built up to the workload the team envisioned. Rotation-mate and fellow offseason signee Dylan Bundy had averaged under 5 1/3 innings per start from 2019-21 and averaged under five innings per start with the Twins in ’22. He likely was never viewed as a potential workhorse.

That approach placed undue stress on a bullpen that, beyond breakout arms Jhoan Duran and Griffin Jax, had few alternatives for much of the season. The Twins swung what looked like one of the better deals of the deadline, bringing in All-Star reliever Jorge Lopez from the Orioles, but Lopez struggled greatly with his command following the swap and wasn’t able to replicate his Baltimore form.

We don’t need a full breakdown of what went wrong for the Twins’ staff for the purposes of outlining the forthcoming offseason. The end-of-season results — 20th in rotation ERA/27th in innings; 15th in bullpen ERA/third in innings — are telling. For the Twins to remedy things in 2022, they’ll need more innings and more quality from the rotation and/or a deeper and more talented bullpen to help offset the lack of innings from the starting staff.

Returning to the 2022 rotation will be the aforementioned Gray and right-hander Joe Ryan, who dubiously led Twins pitchers with 147 innings. Both were strong mid-rotation arms, though Gray was hampered by hamstring injuries that limited him to 119 2/3 innings. Kenta Maeda will also be healed from Tommy John surgery, and Minnesota will hope for better health from deadline acquisition Tyler Mahle, for whom they surrendered three prospects in a deal with the Reds.

Mahle, like Gray, was an above-average starter with the Reds prior to his acquisition and was particularly effective away from the homer-happy confines of Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park. He hit the injured list with a “minor” shoulder strain in July, returned to make two solid outings prior to the deadline, and landed in Minnesota as a hopeful rotation boost down the stretch. Instead, he twice went back on the injured list with shoulder troubles and made only four total starts as a Twin. Falvey has said since the season ended that Mahle “has been evaluated beyond the traditional MRI” and that the team believes the strain led to some weakness in Mahle’s rotator cuff. The expectation is that he’ll be healthy in 2023.

A healthy quartet of Ryan, Gray, Mahle and Maeda would be a solid start to any staff, and the Twins have some in-house options to join them. Righties Bailey Ober, Josh Winder and Simeon Woods Richardson have all pitched in the Majors — Ober extensively so, dating back to a quietly solid rookie effort in 2021. Winder missed time in 2022 due to shoulder troubles but was a top-100 prospect prior to this year’s debut and at times looked quite impressive. Woods Richardson had a promising year in the upper minors and made his MLB debut in the season’s final week. Top prospect Jordan Balazovic had a lost season, spending a month on the shelf with a knee strain and struggling for the majority of the Triple-A campaign thereafter.

Twins fans will call for the team to pursue a front-line starter, but the reality is that consecutive poor finishes makes that a far more difficult task. Veterans Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom will likely prioritize signing with more clearly defined contenders. Lefty Carlos Rodon would be a more feasible target if the Twins are willing to dole out their first nine-figure pitching contract in franchise history, but he should clear the Kevin Gausman (five years, $110MM) and Robbie Ray (five years, $115MM) contracts — perhaps by a wide margin.

Right-hander Kodai Senga, ace of Nippon Professional Baseball’s SoftBank Hawks, will pursue MLB opportunities this offseason, too, but the competition for him will be fierce. The market does feature a number of solid second-tier options, with Chris Bassitt, Nathan Eovaldi, Mike Clevinger, Noah Syndergaard and Tyler Anderson among them.

In the bullpen, the Twins will hope Duran, Lopez and Jax can pair with lefties Caleb Thielbar and Jovani Moran to anchor the late innings. Hard-throwing righty Jorge Alcala missed nearly the whole season with an elbow issue but is expected back in ’23. It’s a talented group that looks far better than the unit they had early in 2022, but after generally eschewing veteran additions a year ago (save for a one-year flier on Joe Smith, who was released over the summer), the Twins should place more of an emphasis on adding stability. Minnesota’s lack of depth was exposed in 2022 when Tyler Duffey declined and trade pickup Emilio Pagan regularly proved unreliable, despite persistent opportunities (due largely to said lack of depth). The latter now seems likely to be traded or non-tendered following a disastrous year.

The only multi-year free agent deal the current front office has given to a reliever is Addison Reed’s two-year, $16.75MM deal, and that was six years ago. In fact, as far as I can tell, that’s the only multi-year deal given to a free-agent reliever by the Twins since the turn of the century (though they’ve extended in-house star closers like Joe Nathan and Glen Perkins).

In other words, don’t expect this team to break the bank for Edwin Diaz. If the Twins want to break that multi-year trend, the top names with a chance at three- and two-year deals include Robert Suarez, Kenley Jansen and (more quietly) Rafael Montero. More realistically, the Twins will bide their time and wait out the market for relievers open to one-year deals. That strategy has backfired recently (Smith, Alex Colome) but paid off at times in the past (Tyler Clippard).

Few teams in baseball have as much money coming off the books as the Twins this winter, and they could further add to that stockpile of resources by trading a veteran they feel they can replace internally (e.g. Kepler, Urshela). That should give the Twins the financial latitude to pursue just about any endeavor they choose, and at least as far as the lineup goes, they’re deep in young options.

This version of the Minnesota front office has typically eschewed long-term commitments in free agency, with Josh Donaldson’s four-year deal marking the only time they’ve signed a free agent for more than three years. Given the clean payroll outlook, a strong free-agent class and mounting pressure to return to contention in the AL Central, it’s arguable that this offseason is the time to deviate from that risk-averse approach.

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