The Minnesota Twins were undoubtedly the biggest surprise of the 2019 MLB season. After winning just 78 games in 2018 and hiring a rookie manager in Rocco Baldelli, the Twins stampeded through the American League Central en route to 101 wins and a division title.
As successful and enjoyable as the regular season proved to be in Minneapolis, the playoffs were not as kind to the Twins. In a top-heavy American League, the Twins had the misfortune of playing the New York Yankees in the ALDS, and were promptly swept out of the postseason.
Still, Minnesota achieved something special in 2019, and most of their core will be returning for the 2020 season. So the question is, what next for the Twins?
Contrary to other playoff teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals, Nationals and Astros, the Twins are going to have a lot of payroll flexibility heading into the offseason. Minnesota ranked 18th in payroll in 2019 according to spotrac, and most of their best players are still in arbitration.
According to projections from MLBTradeRumors, the Twins are likely to guarantee about $46.2 million to ten different players in arbitration, including Jose Berrios, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. However, that figure also includes the estimated $6.4 million owed to reliever Sam Dyson.
Minnesota acquired Dyson at the trade deadline, but the right-hander just underwent elbow surgery that is likely to cause him to miss the entire 2020 season. This makes him a likely candidate to be non-tendered, which would clear up close to $6 million in payroll.
The Twins got aggressive during free agency this past season. They signed Nelson Cruz and Marwin Gonzalez to contracts this past winter, with Cruz providing immense value on just $14 million last season. Minnesota also picked up Cruz’s $12 million option for 2020, and Gonzalez is also under contract through next season.
All told, the Twins will have just over $31 million in guaranteed money. Paired with the arbitration figures as well as all the players in pre-arbitration, they are likely to have even more money to spend this winter.
One of the other reasons that the Twins will have a lot of space on payroll is due to the number of unrestricted free agents that they have on the roster.
Starting pitchers Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda and Kyle Gibson are set to hit the market, and second baseman Jonathan Schoop will once again be a free agent after signing a one-year deal with the club for 2019. Similarly, the Twins have a team option on left-handed starter Martin Perez.
Schoop is unlikely to return especially given the rise of rookie second baseman Luis Arraez, and the same might be said for catcher Jason Castro, who ceded a lot of playing time to Mitch Garver.
However, the guys on the pitching staff should make for some interesting decisions.
Odorizzi is coming off one of the best seasons of his career. The 29-year-old went 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA in 30 starts, and he posted career highs in K/9 (10.1) and ERA+ (131). He also pitched fairly well during Game 3 against the ALDS, scattering two runs and five hits across five innings of work.
Pineda struggled in the first half of 2019, but he was red-hot after the All-Star break. Pineda went 5-1 with a 3.04 ERA and 9.5 K/9 through his first nine starts of the second half, and he was beginning to establish himself as a key piece in Minnesota’s rotation.
However, Pineda was suspended after testing positive for a banned substance, and he will also be 31 in January. He is a massive wild card, especially if he is seeking more than the $8 million that he made this past season.
Gibson and Perez might be more cut-and-dried. Gibson had some success during the first half of 2019, but he collapsed down the stretch as injuries and inconsistencies relegated him to a bullpen role. He has been mostly mediocre during his seven-year tenure with the Twins.
Perez did not even make the ALDS roster after posting a 5.12 ERA in his first season in Minnesota. The Twins have a $7.5 million team option on the left-hander, but he seems like a likely candidate to hit the open market after a very disappointing campaign.
Of course, the Twins do not want to rely on free agency to replace a number of starting pitchers. Simultaneously, internal options like Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer could be given opportunities in the rotation after showing some promise in a starting role.
Areas of improvement
The loss of Pineda exposed Minnesota’s lack of rotational depth, and bullpen arms like Tyler Duffey and Sergio Romo struggled to get outs against the Yankees. However, the Twins lineup did not exactly do their job against Yankee pitchers, either.
Minnesota scored just seven runs over the course of the series after ranking second in the MLB in runs scored during the regular season. After setting the record for homers in a single season (307), the Twins seemed to rely too heavily on the long ball in the playoffs.
Indeed, four of their seven runs against the Yankees came via solo homers. Sano, Cruz and Kepler combined for just three hits (two of them also being solo homers), with Kepler going hitless in the series.
Of course, the sheer lack of playoff experience could have contributed to Minnesota’s lack of success at the play. They also had to face a Yankee team that boasted one of the best bullpens in baseball and played tremendous defense throughout the course of the series.
With those factors in mind–and the idea that nearly all of Minnesota’s starters will be back next year–it is easy to give the offense some leeway heading into 2020. There will obviously be some level of desire to add some contact and depth off the bench, but the core pieces are already in place.
Alternatively, the pitching woes necessitate immediate action. Regardless of what the Twins decide with respect to their impending free agents, they are certainly going to need to bolster the staff.
Fortunately, there are a lot of good arms that will hit the open market this offseason. The Twins might not have the payroll capabilities to ink the likes of Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg (who can opt out of the remaining four years on his current deal with the Nationals), but there are other intriguing options.
Minnesota was a rumored destination for Giants ace Madison Bumgarner at the trade deadline, and the two sides seem like a good fit this winter. Bumgarner only just turned 30 in August, and he had a solid year for San Francisco while remaining fully healthy for the entirety of the season. he would also give the Twins a left-handed option in the rotation, which would loom large if the Twins decline Perez’s option.
Another left-hander of note is Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, who won the ERA title (2.32) this season and has been one of the best pitchers in baseball when healthy. Ryu will be 33 in March, but he projects well in the coming years because of his ability to command the strike zone and pitch to weak contact in spite of a lack of velocity. The Twins could also look into guys like Dallas Keuchel or Cole Hamels as left-handed veteran options.
Do not be surprised if the Twins make a big push to sign Mets starter Zack Wheeler. The 29-year-old is one of the youngest starters on the market, and he has produced excellent peripherals over the course of the last two seasons. Wheeler is unlikely to sign a qualifying offer, and the Twins might be able to entice him to come to Minnesota if they are willing to dedicate close to $20 million AAV.
Should the Twins elect to bring back Odorizzi and Pineda, they might have the opportunity to pursue multiple starting pitchers, especially if they can coax some arms into taking short-term deals.
The Twins also need more bullpen depth. Dyson is no longer a viable option, and the possibility that Dobnak and/or Smeltzer could move to the rotation means that Minnesota will need more arms to complement the likes of Duffer, Taylor Rogers, Trevor May and Zack Littell. There are some free agents available in this department.
Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman might opt out of the remaining two years on his contract in pursuit of a higher annual value. Chapman is one of the best closers of this generation, and he would immediately solve Minnesota’s late-game woes while allowing Rogers to shift into a setup role.
Will Smith is another left-handed closer that could get a big payday. Smith will only be 31 next July, and he was outstanding for the Giants outside of an uncharacteristically awful August.
There are a number of middle relief pitchers that the Twins could look to pursue as well.
Astros setup man Will Harris ranked second among all relievers in ERA (1.50), and Houston might not be able to retain him if they are hoping to re-sign Cole this winter. Cubs relievers Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek are unlikely candidates to return to Chicago, and they could be some of the more reliable right-handed arms available. Perhaps the Twins could take a flier on Cubs veteran Pedro Strop, if he is not re-signed.
Minnesota has plenty of options this winter, and they can be more aggressive in the market knowing that they are entering their championship window.
Expect some fireworks from the Twins this winter.