The Twins Really, Really Need Starting Pitching

Ervin Santana won’t return to the mound for a few months, probably.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

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:

Twins Starting Pitching
Jose Berrios 169 8.5 3.2 1.4 .305 71.1% 4.6 4.5 2.0
Kyle Gibson 168 6.8 3.2 1.2 .313 70.7% 4.6 4.5 1.9
Ervin Santana 153 7.3 2.9 1.5 .306 70.0% 4.8 4.7 1.5
Adalberto Mejia 169 7.3 3.3 1.5 .304 71.0% 4.8 4.8 1.4
Aaron Slegers 119 5.9 2.9 1.5 .303 69.1% 5.1 5.1 0.7
Phil Hughes 91 5.6 1.9 1.9 .306 68.3% 5.5 5.4 0.3
Stephen Gonsalves 46 7.8 4.1 1.6 .293 71.6% 5.0 5.3 0.2
Michael Pineda 9 8.4 2.2 1.2 .312 72.3% 4.0 3.9 0.2
Felix Jorge 9 5.9 2.6 1.5 .305 69.7% 5.0 5.0 0.1
Fernando Romero 9 7.4 3.3 1.2 .308 71.0% 4.5 4.5 0.1
Total 944 7.1 3.0 1.5 .306 70.4% 4.8 4.8 8.3

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.

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Brad Johnsonmember
6 years ago

This is a classic “what are they friggin’ waiting for” scenario. They have a chance to get something they really need by being the first team to return to previous standards for free agent asset valuation.

Yes, it’s a losing bet. It’s also not as bad as people make it out to be, especially when optimized with the Win Curve.

I’ve been saying all winter that there’s no collusion. When you see a team like the Twins just sit there doing nothing, it starts to feel pretty collusive-ish. So far, only the Phillies and Brewers have sprung on market rate opportunities. Everyone else in the league is waiting for that grand bargain – even the teams that shouldn’t.

6 years ago
Reply to  Brad Johnson

You assume a) the Twins have NOT put out an offer for Darvish and b) Darvish would be willing to sign with them at all. This is ignoring the fact that there is nothing uncommon about a small market being gun shy on a big free agent, in this market or any market.

Brad Johnsonmember
6 years ago
Reply to  shortstop

With the possible exception of the Marlins, Rays, and A’s, every team in baseball can afford at least a $150MM payroll and still turn a 5% profit or better.

Dave T
6 years ago
Reply to  Brad Johnson

Well, there’s one theory that Darvish is waiting on the Dodgers to see if they’ll package a prospect with Kemp, move Kemp’s salary, and then sign Darvish. In that case, the Twins may not have been told “no”, and they may be waiting because Darvish is their preferred option who they perceive to have a good chance of signing if the Dodgers finally say that they’re out.

Another theory, complementary to the one above or standalone, could be that Darvish is the Twins’ preferred option on some terms (e.g., 5 / $125), but that they’d ultimately rather pivot to Craig’s idea of signing two pitchers out of Cobb, Lynn, and Garcia (with Arrieta perhaps in the mix) if they don’t get Darvish on around those terms. In that case, it’s reading the market, and the likely number of landing spots for all of these pitchers, and deciding that they’re essentially bidding against themselves if they get aggressive by going 6th year for Darvish (or 4th year for Cobb, etc.).

It’s not exactly the same as a team bidding against itself on one player who has limited other interest, the classic Boras specialty (Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, etc.). It’s similar, though. If there are, for example, four players with a total of four logical landing spots, there’s a good case to be made that holding firm to offers and waiting is a better negotiating strategy than being aggressive to get the first deal done. That could also help explain why the Brewers and Cubs aren’t signing any of these pitchers either.

6 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

IMO, this theory about Darvish and the Dodgers has so much smoke I’d be thrown if there wasn’t fire.

6 years ago
Reply to  Brad Johnson

Why do they “need” to get a 2-3 WAR SP via FA?

And even if they did- why do they “need” to get the a 3-WAR upgrade with Darvish for 125/5, instead of a 2-WAR upgrade with one of the other 3 available FAs at a lesser price?

The Twins are at 84 projected wins- the value of an added win is around $5.5m, likely higher as they project 2nd in a bad division as mentioned. But Darvish will be around $10m/WAR, same with Arrieta, Lynn and Cobb. Lynn and Cobb don’t even project for 2 WAR, so they’d only improve Minny by about 1 WAR.

It’s not clear that Minnesota needs any of these 4- though of the 4, I agree that Darvish makes the most sense as the rest have a similar cost per WAR but drive the club through a less valuable part of the win curve.

There would be much smarter SP acquisitions than adding any of these FA, however-

* Clayton Richard projects for 2.8 WAR and makes $2m, he has one year left at age 34. With about $25m in surplus value, the Padres would very likely trade him for a 45FV.

* Players like Bryan Mitchell have been available via trade this offseason- he projects for 1.5 WAR and was acquired for basically a FV40 player in Jabari Bash- (as Headley, projected for 1.3 WAR, is roughly worth his $13m contract).

* Dillon Peters projects for 1.6 WAR, and as a 5’9″, 25 year old, pitch-to-contact rookie, there is a good chance Miami would consider a FV 50 an FV 45 for Peters, particularly if high variance.

* Brandon McCarthy projects for 1.9 WAR and, with surplus value under $10m, he could likely be had for the right 40FV guy, or 45FV at most

Plus the Dodgers SPs Mitchell White and Wilmer Font, not to mention better value FAs like Brett Anderson and Jamie Garcia.

Darvish would make some good sense compared to some other FA deals that get suggested, but it’s not an obvious “need.” No clubs “need” to send away more value than they are getting.

6 years ago
Reply to  ThomServo

“Trade for Clayton Richard” and “smart” do not belong together.

6 years ago
Reply to  ThomServo

There are some pretty obvious reasons why there are red flags and/or roadblocks with most of those players.

1) Richard is a pitch-to-contact guy – the Twins need someone that can miss bats, especially in the AL
2) Mitchell was acquired by taking on Headley’s contract at the same time. The Twins won’t make that type of trade.
3) Wouldn’t the Marlins rather hold on to Peters while he’s still pre-arb? Also, another pitch-to-contact guy in the AL.
4) McCarthy himself is an injury risk, as is Brett Anderson.
5) There’s no way to know if Font is actually available, and White has made just 7 starts at his highest level (Double-A).

The Twins have been tied to Garcia recently and they’ve been tied to other starting pitchers throughout the winter, but it’s pretty clear that they won’t sign anyone until Darvish’s decision is resolved. While a trade certainly could still happen, I don’t think anything you suggested is reasonable for what they need.

6 years ago
Reply to  Bryz

Re #2, I think the Twins should definitely be thinking about that sort of trade if Darvish goes elsewhere. They have payroll room they’re having difficulty spending.