How can the Twins rebound from a disastrous 2021 season?

twins rebound disastrous 2021 season

The 2019-20 AL Central champs faceplanted in a 2021 season that was disastrous enough for the Twins to trade away longtime top starter Jose Berrios. Owner Jim Pohlad has made clear that the Twins will not go into a rebuild, so president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine will be looking for immediate help to remedy the roster.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Josh Donaldson, 3B: $50 million through 2023 (includes $8 million buyout of $16 million 2024 club option)
  • Max Kepler, OF: $16.25 million through 2023 (includes $1 million buyout of $10 million 2024 club option)
  • Jorge Polanco, 2B/SS: $12.5 million through 2023 (includes $1 million buyout of $10.5 million 2024 club option; contract also contains $12 million 2025 club option)
  • Miguel Sano, 1B/DH: $12 million through 2022 (includes $2.75 million buyout of $14 million 2023 club option)
  • Randy Dobnak, RHP: $8.55 million through 2025 (includes $1 million buyout of $6 million 2026 club option)
  • Kenta Maeda, RHP: $6 million through 2023
  • Total 2022 commitment: $45.8 million
  • Total long-term commitment: $105.3 million

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected salaries via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Option Decisions

  • Alex Colome, RHP: Twins declined their end of a $5.5 million mutual option (paid $1.25 million buyout)

Free Agents

Very little went right for the Twins in 2021. Byron Buxton looked like an MVP candidate when healthy but played just 67 games thanks to a hip flexor strain and broken hand. The 2020 Cy Young runner-up, Kenta Maeda, pitched through hip and elbow troubles before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Mitch Garver, Michael Pineda and Max Kepler all had lengthy IL stays. Top prospect Royce Lewis tore his ACL before the season began. The similarly touted Alex Kirilloff tried to play through a torn ligament in his wrist before he, too, went under the knife. There was a team-wide COVID outbreak in late April. Nearly every free-agent pickup — J.A. Happ, Matt Shoemaker, Andrelton Simmons, Alex Colome — fell well short of expectations. Things snowballed quickly.

The end result was not only a 73-89 record but also a deadline sell-off that few would’ve expected on Opening Day. Jose Berrios, Nelson Cruz, Hansel Robles and Happ were shipped out for younger players — a series of trades that netted the Twins a trio of prospects who are all featured on at least one prominent Top 100 ranking. Austin Martin, Simeon Woods Richardson and Joe Ryan are now among the Twins’ top farmhands, and Ryan has already gotten his feet wet in the majors.

That series of trades and a few free-agent departures leave the Twins with quite a few holes on the big-league roster. Based on the previously mentioned no-rebuild stance from ownership, it seems likely the Twins will seek to fill those holes this winter rather than completely tear down a roster that recently won a pair of division titles.

That does not, however, preclude the Twins from making further subtractions from the current group. Among Minnesota’s prominent trade candidates are the aforementioned Buxton, Kepler, Garver and perhaps younger backstop Ryan Jeffers. Josh Donaldson’s name came up at the trade deadline and could do so again this winter.

Buxton’s reps at Jet Sports and the Twins discussed an extension this summer but were unable to come to terms on a deal. Reports indicated that Minnesota had been willing to commit $80 million over a seven-year term — a baseline framework amenable to both sides. However, Buxton’s camp sought a richer package of incentives in the event that the ultra-talented but oft-injured center fielder began to show more durability.

Buxton and the Twins figure to rekindle extension talks this winter, and his case can only be buoyed by the fact that he closed out the season with a .314/.375/.686 slash in his final 112 plate appearances after returning from that ill-timed hand fracture. If the two parties can’t find a middle ground, it’s plenty feasible that the Twins will field offers on one of the more dynamic talents in the game.

In many ways, the difficulties in finding a common ground during extension talks would be mirrored in theoretical trade talks. Other clubs, particularly those seeking defensive upgrades, would relish the opportunity to install Buxton in center field. At the same time, he’s a free agent next winter, and his ongoing injury troubles will make teams wary of parting with too much in a potential trade. Buxton’s prodigious talent and repeated IL stints present the Twins with something of a conundrum, regardless of which path they explore.

Elsewhere on the roster, the Twins could look to capitalize on affordable control and organizational depth. Kepler’s huge 2019 season looks like an outlier at this point, but he’s a terrific defender in right field who can handle center and has 25- to 30-homer pop. He might not be an All-Star, but his blend of walks, power and defense are appealing even if aggressive shifting and an extreme-pull approach will continue to suppress his batting average. With a healthier Kirilloff, a more-experienced Trevor Larnach and the looming debuts of top prospects Lewis and Martin — both can play shortstop and center field — the Twins have some depth to explore outfield trades.

Behind the plate, both Garver and Jeffers have appeal as starting-caliber options. Garver has been one of the game’s most productive offensive catchers since his 2019 breakout (combined .254/.348/.546 slash, 135 wRC+). Jeffers entered the 2021 season as a Top 100 prospect, and while he didn’t hit like he did in his brief 2020 callup to the majors, he’s a strong defender with plenty of pop and untapped potential at the plate. He’s also 24 years old and under club control another five seasons. Garver is controlled through 2023. There’s room for both on the roster, particularly if Garver can spend some additional time at DH. Still, catching-needy clubs with pitching to spare (e.g. the Marlins) will surely be checking in with the Twins.

However the Twins proceed on the trade market, they’ll likely focus on young pitching in return. The trade of Berrios, the injury to Maeda and the potential free-agent departure of Michael Pineda leave the rotation in a threadbare state. Joe Ryan, acquired from the Rays in the Cruz trade, ranks as Baseball America’s No. 91 prospect and posted a 4.05 ERA with a 30-to-5 K/BB ratio in 26 2/3 frames down the stretch. (Ryan also won a silver medal with Team USA in this year’s Olympics.) Rookie Bailey Ober had a quietly strong showing, rounding into form after a rough start (3.59 ERA, 20.9 K-BB% through 67 2/3 innings from July 1 onward).

Beyond that pair of promising youngsters, there’s no certainty. That’s in large part due to the fact that the Twins’ injury troubles extended to the upper echelon of their pitching prospects, too. Each of Jhoan Duran, Jordan Balazovic, Matt Canterino and Josh Winder missed time due to injury, as did fifth starter/swingman Randy Dobnak. The Twins will hope to extract some quality innings from that group, and perhaps Woods Richardson, in 2022.

The lack of current rotation pieces, however, will push the Twins to not only target controllable young arms in trade but also some veterans to plug right into the mix. The offseason trade market will include the likes of Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray — any of whom could appeal to Minnesota. (Castillo and Gray, in particular, have multiple seasons of control remaining.) The Twins also have the means to be active in free agency; it’s just a question of the extent to which they’ll spend.

First and foremost, coming off a disastrous season, the Twins aren’t likely to appeal to a Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander type — an older, high-end free agent seeking to jump right into an obvious contender’s rotation. It’s true that we’ve never seen the Twins sign a free agent for more than Ervin Santana’s four-year, $55 million contract back in 2014, but Minnesota has made $100 million-plus offers to both Yu Darvish and Zack Wheeler in the past.

With that in mind, it’s worth taking a quick high-level look at next year’s payroll. Minnesota has just $45.8 million in guaranteed money on the books for 2022. Even after factoring in around $25 million of arbitration salaries and pre-arb players to round out the roster, the Twins will be some $50 million south of their record $129 million payroll. Non-tenders and trades of current players could create further space, but there’s already a good bit of room to spend.

It’d rank as something of an upset if they actually won the bidding on a Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman or Marcus Stroman, but the Twins at least have the payroll capacity to compete for those types of names. They were reportedly very interested in Stroman at the 2019 deadline, when he was traded to the Mets, and they’d be a plausible landing spot for a free-agent arm who’s still relatively young, such as Eduardo Rodriguez. There’s some mutual interest in a Pineda reunion, and other mid-rotation options include Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Jon Gray, among many others. The Twins need at least two, if not three options to stabilize the starting staff this winter.

Looking to the relief corps, things are similarly hazy. Taylor Rogers has been one of the game’s best left-handed relievers in recent years, but he ended the season on the injured list with a sprained ligament in his pitching hand. If the Twins are confident he’ll be good to go come Opening Day, a $6.7 million projected salary is plenty affordable. If there’s more doubt about his health, one can imagine they’ll at least debate whether to tender him a contract.

With Colome’s option being declined and uncertainty about Rogers’ health, the Twins will be on the hunt for an arm or two. The current front-office regime has signed only one free-agent reliever to a notable multi-year deal — Addison Reed’s ill-fated two-year, $16.75 million pact — so there’s little chance they’ll play at the top of the market, where Raisel Iglesias should command a three or four-year deal with an eight-figure annual salary. Kendall Graveman, too, could be in position for a three-year pact, but it’s reasonable enough to expect the Twins could be in on just about any other relief arm this winter. History suggests they’re likelier to ink a couple of lower-cost veterans than dole out a hefty two-year deal — perhaps bailing out a reliever whose market didn’t develop as hoped (much like they did with Colome last winter).

Turning to the lineup, the Twins’ bevy of trade possibilities opens the door for any number of free-agent pursuits. They’re a clear fit for a shortstop now that Jorge Polanco has moved to second base and enjoyed a career year there. At the same time, when pitching is such a dire need, it’s worth wondering whether the best use of resources would be to plop down a nine-figure guarantee to one of the market’s top-end shortstops. Minnesota did have interest in Marcus Semien last winter, but there’s a difference between pursuing him as a potential bargain and paying top-of-the-market dollars on a five- or six-year deal this time around.

If Buxton and/or Kepler is moved this winter, the Twins have the payroll space to pivot and bring in a veteran outfielder. Nelson Cruz’s departure could open the door for Minnesota to move Miguel Sano to DH and explore first base options — be it a free agent such as Anthony Rizzo or a potential trade candidate such as Luke Voit. Sano himself is a candidate to be shopped, although it’s worth noting that he hit .251/.330/.503 with 21 homers in his final 375 plate appearances. Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but that production began the day after the league’s memo announcing foreign-substance checks for pitchers. It also stands to reason that Minnesota will at least talk to Cruz, 40, about a 2022 return after two and a half very productive years at Target Field.

If all of that seems rather ambiguous, it’s largely a reflection of the nature of the Twins’ current roster. While some of their division rivals have more straightforward paths this winter — the Royals will focus on bullpen help to supplement a young core; the Tigers are going to aggressively pursue a shortstop and a starting pitcher — the Twins are in a different spot. The core that emerged from their last rebuilding process is beginning to turn over, but the farm system is strong enough and the payroll clean enough that another multi-year rebuilding effort doesn’t seem necessary.

Acquiring pitching is likely to be a focal point, but the open-ended nature of the Twins’ lineup gives Falvey, Levine and the rest of the front office the ability to get creative in building out the roster. A straightforward pursuit of rotation help could result in signing multiple veteran free agents, but the Twins could also focus on the trade market for their starting pitching needs and surprise as a landing spot for someone such as Rizzo or Trevor Story. Buxton could be traded for even more controllable young talent or signed to serve as a franchise centerpiece in spite of durability concerns. The Twins don’t have to trade Kepler or have to trade a catcher, but other teams will inquire. The possibilities here are much more plentiful than with most clubs, and the reality is that the front office can’t even know for certain how it’ll play out.

It all makes for a fairly fascinating offseason in Minnesota. As was the case with the 2021 trade deadline, Minnesota will be heavily involved in a broad-reaching number of storylines. The Twins might blur the lines between “buyer” and “seller” this offseason, but whatever shape their winter takes, they’ll be active.

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