The Minnesota Twins had a tremendous 2019 regular season. They set a franchise record for wins, set a major league record for home runs, and did it all with a core of exciting hitters who will be back in 2020. If every season could go like the 2019 regular season, the Twins would be sitting pretty.
Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops. A midseason swoon briefly dropped them behind the Cleveland Indians, who remain their biggest intradivision competition heading into 2020. Their starting rotation, so solid top to bottom in 2019, wasn’t as locked up as the hitters — four of the five pitchers who made the most starts either reached free agency or had contract options declined. And of course, they got drummed out of the playoffs in three nasty, brutish, but most definitely not short games with the Yankees.
Earlier this week, the Twins made two moves that help address those three areas of concern from the 2019 season. They signed Rich Hill and Homer Bailey to one year contracts totaling $10 million ($3 million for Hill, $7 million for Bailey), though Hill’s contract has reachable playing time incentives that could see it reach $9.5 million. Let’s cover the way these moves helped through the lens of the three areas that felled them last year.
First, there are those pesky Clevelanders. The Twins might have won the division by eight games in 2019, but the Indians have been the class of the AL Central for quite a while now, and they won’t be going away in 2020. Some of the team looks different now — Trevor Bauer is in Cincinnati and Corey Kluber in Texas — but at its core, Cleveland is built around Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez anchoring the lineup while a parade of effective pitchers take the mound. With Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, and Carlos Carrasco ensconced as 2020 starters and Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac solid back-of-the-rotation pieces, that blueprint looks good for 2020, assuming nothing comes of the persistent Lindor trade rumors.
In fact, our projections had the Indians winning nearly three more games than the Twins in 2020 before these recent signings. That’s a rough cut, and the playing time projections aren’t perfect, but the general point is clear: the Indians aren’t going away, and in fact might be the best team in the division.
Even if you think the Twins are the better of the two teams, however, there’s no denying that they’re close. And in a tight division race, every little bit of improvement helps. Two equally matched teams are, of course, equally likely to win a division race before the season starts. Add two wins to one team, however, and that team is now 57% likely to win the division, assuming normal variance.
That’s a huge change in playoff odds for only two wins. In a division where one team started out 10 wins ahead, for example, adding two wins would only take them from 81% favorites to 85.5% favorites. If the trailing team added the same two wins, they’d go from 19% to win the division to 24%. The Twins, in other words, are at the place in the competitive landscape where a marginal win is most important.
How did I get to those two wins? That has to do with the way the Twins pitching staff is currently constructed. Though four of their top five starters hit free agency, Minnesota retained two of those four: Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda. That leaves the team with a solid top three after Pineda returns from suspension. Four and five? It gets considerably dicier there.
Before these signings, we saw Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer getting the majority of those starts. Dobnak is an excellent story, but he’s probably better suited as rotation depth than as a fourth starter. Smeltzer is a different kind of pitcher, but the story is the same: you wouldn’t mind five or so spot starts from him, but relying on him for more than that is asking for trouble.
So short of hoping for a leap forward from Lewis Thorpe, who has been excellent in the minors, the team was in a bind. Sixty starts from Dobnak and Smeltzer (and more from replacement level types while Pineda is suspended) is a liability for a team locked in a tight playoff race. In that context, Bailey is just what the doctor ordered. Or at least, he might be; Steamer has him as a pretty decent pitcher, though that doesn’t account for the run scoring environment in Minnesota:
Of course, that’s merely one projection. ZiPS likes him considerably less (the second year might not be strictly necessary for a one-year contract, but hey, I have it, so I might as well use it):
Is Bailey a workhorse fourth starter? Is he barely playable? Both options are possible, but the Twins clearly lean towards the first one, and there are signs that they could be right. Before the horror show that was Bailey’s 2018 season, he’d been an inconsistent but passable starter. He was miscast as a top-of-the-rotation piece for the Reds, but he’d been about an average starter before injury problems, and later ineffectiveness, came for him starting in 2015.
The numbers since then haven’t been pretty, but the bones of a decent pitcher were always there. He still has decent velocity (he averaged 93 mph on his four-seam fastball in 2019) and two perfectly acceptable secondary pitches in his splitter and slider. His 2019 wasn’t exciting or anything, but it was a performance the Twins would be happy with: a few strikeouts, not too many walks, and 31 starts worth of competence.
Of course, competence isn’t all the Twins need. The playoffs are too short for strong takeaways, but it certainly didn’t feel great when the team needed a win at Yankee Stadium and ran Dobnak out as their guy. Getting Pineda back from suspension will help on that front, but even so, Bailey isn’t the name you hope to pencil in as your fourth starter come October.
Enter Rich Hill. Hill has had a mountain of injuries throughout his career, and he’s about to turn 40. He was never a paragon of durability for the Dodgers, and it’s not as though he’s likely to get healthier at his age. So in that sense, relying on Hill in your rotation is a gamble.
But when Hill has been healthy, he’s been excellent. In the five seasons since he dramatically returned to the majors from independent ball, he’s never had an ERA, FIP, or xFIP worse than league average. It’s not some soft-skills, wily veteran contact management either: Hill is great in the way dominant pitchers are great. Since 2015, he’s struck out 29.3% of opposing batters while allowing walks only 7.7% of the time, the 12th-best K-BB in the majors over that time frame.
At times he’s been brilliant (his 2016 season was short but dominant), at times he’s been merely good (in 2019, he gave up a ton of homers en route to a 4.10 FIP), but he’s never been bad. That can change, of course, but a reasonable way to think of Hill is as either hurt or good. While we don’t yet know if he’ll be good in 2020, we do know he’ll be hurt: Hill is currently rehabbing from primary repair surgery in his UCL, with a projected June timeline for a return to the majors.
Health is a skill, and it’s not one that Rich Hill possesses, so it would be silly to treat him like just another above-average starter. He’s topped out at 135 innings since returning to the majors, and only had one season better than that in his initial run on the Cubs. He can’t give you what Homer Bailey can, bulk competent innings.
But boy, can he spin it. Take a look at ZiPS’ projections for Hill over the next two years (Steamer likes him slightly less, but still thinks he’ll be effective):
Forty years old. A fastball that doesn’t always break 90 mph. Puny innings pitched totals. All those things are true, but the skill is still there. Hill can rain down curveballs when he’s right, as long as you can cover a few extra innings for him during the regular season.
And the Twins are perfectly set up to do that. Dobnak, Smeltzer, and Thorpe can all fill in for Hill, give him some late season rest or piggyback some of his starts if they manage his workload that way. When Pineda returns, the team will have enough starting pitching depth to make up for the short workload. And come playoff time, Hill might be the second-best pitcher on the team.
It’s lazy to reduce Hill to hurt or good, and just as lazy to look at Bailey as guaranteed depth. There are plenty of things that can go wrong (or right!) with both signings. Maybe Bailey will turn back into a pumpkin and Hill will get hurt after three starts. Maybe Bailey will end up better than we think, or Hill will somehow put together a complete second half after years of fragility. Maybe age will finally catch up to Hill, and he’ll just be healthy and bad.
But just because those tail scenarios can happen doesn’t mean they’re likely to. In the most likely scenario, the Twins just improved both the top of their rotation and the depth of the pitching staff with two signings in free agency, and those are two places where the Twins needed the help.
Is this the best signing the Twins could have made this offseason? I mean, no. They could have signed Gerrit Cole, at least in theory. They could have signed Stephen Strasburg, or brought in Anthony Rendon to embiggen their lineup. Heck, Josh Donaldson hasn’t signed anywhere yet, and he’d be a perfect fit for Minnesota (a fact of which they are reportedly aware).
But many of those ships have sailed, and the Twins didn’t sign Cole or Strasburg. They found themselves in need of rotation help after the top 15 starters in our Top 50 free agent list had signed — albeit two of them with the Twins. And rather than hope that minor league depth would save them, or simply ignore the situation and hope things worked out, they acted.
It’s tempting to plan big, to go out and get the best player, damn the cost. It’s often right to do so. But there’s nothing wrong with improving yourself on the margins, either.
The AL Central is going to be a dogfight next year. The Indians have reacted to that by doing their usual hedging towards the future and cutting payroll. The Twins, to their credit, have done basically the opposite. These two signings likely won’t decide the division in 2020; there are tons of moving parts on both sides, and both teams (and heck, even the White Sox) are capable of winning the division easily, to the point where a marginal game or two won’t matter. But on the margin, they’ll help the Twins, and they’re in a position where small improvements matter.
The Indians couldn’t really improve their team in this way. Bailey wouldn’t be a huge boon for their rotation, and given their trade of Kluber, it doesn’t seem that they’re in the market for pitchers with high ceilings and injury questions. But the Twins could, and they did.
The Twins are more likely to win the AL Central today than they were a week ago. They have a better shot at putting together a playoff-ready rotation today than they did a week ago. And if the two signings both go bust, they’re free of the commitments after just a year, ready to build a new rotation behind José Berríos. For a pair of small contracts, I think that’s high praise.
Note: Hill underwent primary repair surgery in his UCL this offseason and won’t return until June. The projections reflect this shortened regular season, but an earlier version of the article mentioned the possibility that he would make 30 starts this year. That sentence has been updated (and one other reference to the surgery added), and I regret the oversight.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.