We haven’t spent much time talking about the Twins this offseason. The last post dedicated to the team was published Dec. 8, when this author wrote about two savvy little trades the club had made after losing out on the Ohtani sweepstakes.
But in what has been a quiet offseason, the Twins have quietly been one of the most active teams, bolstering their bullpen by signing ageless wonder Fernando Rodney, left-hander Zach Duke, and most recently, Addison Reed.
They’ve also made a move with an eye toward improving their 2019 rotation by signing Michael Pineda. Pineda is expected to miss most, if not all, of this coming season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Given his bat-missing upside, though, the $10-million commitment seems like a prudent value play.
Overall, only 21 of Dave Cameron’s top-50 free agents have signed so far this winter. The Twins are responsible for two of them, however, in Reed and Pineda.
It’s understandable why the Twins have been trying to upgrade a bullpen that ranked 18th in reliever ERA (98 ERA-), 22nd in FIP (101 FIP-), and 29th in strikeout rate (19.8%). It’s also understandable why Twins have needed to be active and aggressive in rebuilding their bullpen: it’s the only place teams have been active this winter in free-agent spending. Through Jan. 17, clubs have spent $639.6 million on free agents, according to Spotrac, of which $328.1 million — or just over half — has been spent on relievers.
The Twins rank seventh in free-agent spending so far, having guaranteed free agents $33.4 million to date. In fact, according to Craig Edwards’ estimates, they’re already nearing their payroll ceiling for the offseason. They currently have $104 million in guaranteed contracts for 2018, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. They posted a $108 million payroll last season, $106 million in 2016, and $108 million in 2015.
Of course, with franchise values and revenues rapidly growing — including the windfall MLBAM payment — it seems likely that the vast majority of MLB owners can afford to be spending more. Maybe even a lot more.
And while the Twins have been one of the most active teams to date, there is an argument to be made that they ought to continue to be among the most aggressive clubs of the offseason, one which is likely to become more active as the start of spring training looms.
In a landscape that is increasing one of super teams (the Haves) and rebuilding clubs (the Have Nots), the Twins are one of the few organizations to occupy the middle ground. The Twins were 2017’s surprise team, but are projected to finish 81-81 according to our web site. Even with their moves to date, they project as an average team. There is some regression expected from FanGraphs forecasts.
But their position is particularly interesting due to their neighborhood.
If Minnesota were in a loaded division, that would diminish their outlook. That’s not the case at, though. In fact, the 30th-, 29th-, and 26th-ranked teams by our projected win totals — the White Sox (64), Royals (70) and Tigers (72) — also reside in the AL Central. The bottom half of the AL Central appears to be the weakest in baseball. It seems highly unlikely that any of the three aforementioned teams competes for a playoff berth in 2018. As a result, only the Indians — who are, albeit, one of the strongest teams on paper in the game — stand in the Twins’ way of a division title. The Indians are projected to win 93 games, trailing only the Astros and Dodgers.
As for the fallback path to the postseason, the Wild Card play-in game, the Twins are projected at the moment to finish seven games behind the Angels (88 wins), two games behind the Blue Jays (83 wins), and a game ahead of the Mariners (80 wins).
The projections aren’t prescriptions, of course — teams will surprise us and disappoint us — but they provide an informed sketch of the competitive landscape. For a club like the Twins that lives between the Have and Have Nots, that place in the landscape can either be regarded a no man’s land or a place of opportunity.
Minnesota cannot expect much immediate help from their farm system, which has fallen from second (2015) to 10th (2016) to 21st (2017) over the last three years in Baseball America’s organizational talent rankings, mostly due to graduations. While the lower levels of the Twins’ minor leagues are rich in talent, while Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero could help the rotation in 2018, the Twins might still need to look mostly outward for immediate help. And in this ice-cold offseason, with prices for players perhaps on the decline after the New Year, the circumstances might be ideal for the Twins to find value in the market, or at least more manageable prices.
The Twins need pitching. They needed relief pitching help and they still require more starting pitching. The club is projected to rank 23rd in WAR total (8.4) from their starting pitchers.
The good news? The top free-agent arms typically have typically signed at this point in the offseason and yet four of Dave’s top-five free-agent starters remain available — including Yu Darvish, to whom the Twins have been connected, but also Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn. There’s also the trade market to explore.
I argued for ESPN Insider on Thursday that the Twins are among the teams that could most benefit from adding an impact starting arm. They occupy a sort of an in-between place. It’s an area teams have actively avoided in recent years, opting for tanking and rebuilds instead of sustained mediocrity.
This middle ground, however — in an AL Central largely in a downturn cycle — could be a place of opportunity.
The Twins ought to continue to be aggressive, continue to buy. When caught in between, you ought not to stand still.