The Twins need starting pitching. You know that. I know that. The Twins know that. It’s the reason they’ve been connected with pretty much all the available free agents, Yu Darvish the most prominent among them. Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, and Lance Lynn are among the next tier of free agents who would make some sense for the club. Below that, you have former Twin — for one game, at least —Jaime Garcia and some other options like Wade Miley and Jason Vargas.
Before yesterday, it seemed pretty likely that Minnesota would be adding one of the top four pitchers available this winter. With Ervin Santana now expected to miss the first month of the season due to finger surgery, it might actually be a good idea for the Twins to sign two pitchers.
This is what the club’s rotation looks like now in our Depth Charts:
The table now reflects a bit fewer innings for Ervin Santana. Even with a handful of extra appearances for the right-hander, though, the need for quality starting pitching would still be apparent. The depth charts might be underrating Jose Berrios a little. His ZiPS projection place him at 3.3 wins in 2018. After Berrios, we have a series of realistic, sobering forecasts. Ervin Santana figures to be average once he comes back. Kyle Gibson falls into an innings-eater role, while Adalberto Mejia is miscast as the third option in April having never pitched more than 140 innings as a professional. The alternatives after Mejia are just bad. Right now, there are around 283 below-average innings after Mejia, totaling 1.5 WAR.
There’s good news and bad news for the Twins. The bad is obvious. If the season started today, the Twins would have one of the worse rotations in baseball. When Santana got back, they would improve from a bottom-three rotation to merely a bottom-third. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this problem is pretty fixable — and, in the event that the club can fix it, they will have greatly increased their chances for returning to the playoffs this season.
The easiest course is to add Darvish. Adding 180 innings and 3.6 WAR to the rotation is a pretty easy three-win upgrade. The Twins are currently projected to finish at .500 this season, mostly on the strength of their position players, headed by Byron Buxton, Brian Dozier, and Miguel Sano, that last of whom could miss time for a suspension under the league’s domestic-violence policy. Adding three wins to the Twins’ projected record would put them at 84-78, close to a dead heat for the second Wild Card with the Angels and Blue Jays. The division race looks all but over in the American League Central, but the situation there is not as dire as it appears, either.
Because the Royals, Tigers, and White Sox all look like they will be very bad this year, emerging as the only potential divisional contender to Cleveland has considerable advantages. If Cleveland plays up to expectations, they are going to run away with the division. However, if they should falter with a couple key injuries or disappointing performances, the division could fall into the Twins’ lap due to lack of competition.
Let’s use 2015 as a potential parallel. That year, the Washington Nationals were the projected to win the NL East by more than 10 games, with the Mets and Marlins projected for an even .500, and the Braves and Phillies expected to be terrible. Except the Nationals weren’t exactly unbeatable. Bryce Harper was great. So was Max Scherzer. But disappointing years from Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon held the team back, while Stephen Strasburg was hurt some. The back of the rotation wasn’t great, either.
In the end, the Nationals won 83 games. The Braves and Phillies were terrible as expected, nor were the Marlins particularly good. That meant the Mets caught a break and won the division because there were no other potential contenders. Odds are, Cleveland will take the division, but there is a decent benefit in being the only team set to capitalize on a disappointing season by the favorite.
If the Twins sign Yu Darvish, there’s probably an argument that the team could withstand a month without Ervin Santana. Kyle Gibson can play the role of No. 3 starter for a month and Aaron Slegers and Phil Hughes can cobble together a handful of starts without hurting the Twins too badly. Then when Santana gets back, the combination of Darvish, Berrios, and Santana will work as a good 1-2-3, with Gibson as a solid No. 4 and Mejia or some combination of emerging players cycling through the fifth slot.
If the Twins don’t sign Darvish, the alternative — that is, adding just one of Arrieta, Cobb, Lynn — probably isn’t going to cut it. Getting anybody in there is going to be an improvement, but adding a non-Darvish starting pitcher is still going to give the Twins a rotation that’s forecast for the bottom half of baseball. Neither Alex Cobb nor Lance Lynn are at the level of Yu Darvish, but adding a two-win pitcher who can give them innings is an upgrade over what the Twins currently feature at the bottom of their depth chart. Getting both of those pitchers might be out of their price range, but it also might not cost too much more than what Yu Darvish will command per year, and the total outlay might be considerably less.
At the end of this season, Joe Mauer’s contracts comes off the books. Brian Dozier will be a free agent (although his current salary, just $9 million, isn’t much of an impediment). With the way the market is currently situated, the Twins might want to borrow some money from their 2019 payroll to have a better shot at competing this season. With Phil Hughes’ first contract and Ervin Santana’s deal, the Twins have done a good job in recent seasons of acquiring mid-tier pitching options. Finding quality innings is not an easy task, but this winter might be presenting the Twins with a great opportunity to capitalize on some potential bargains.
As the contracts of Santana and Hughes slide off the Twins’ books, the contracts of Lynn and Cobb can take their place as the team attempts to develop more young pitching to pair with Berrios atop the rotation. Jaime Garcia might provide a discounted second option, as well. Yu Darvish would be splashy, but the Twins need innings. Quantity over quality might be Twins’ route back to the playoffs.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.