The Twins had a nice rebound season in 2017, the first year of the new front office led by Derek Falvey. Mostly, the 25-man roster comprised players from Terry Ryan or Bill Smith – but Falvey and GM Thad Levine made some shrewd additions throughout their first season in their respective jobs. This winter they’ll have a chance to make a real impact on the roster as they try to improve from last season’s 85-win campaign.
If you’re assessing the roster from afar, it seems pretty clear that what needs immediate improvements is the pitching staff. The offense took off after the all-star break, and for the whole season ranked fourth in the American League in runs scored. They should return the key bats from last year, and likely will have Miguel Sano re-inserted in the middle of the lineup.
Twins starting pitchers, however, ranked 10th in the Amerian League in ERA (4.73 staff ERA), and Minnesota’s bullpen were even worse relative to other teams – 12th in the league (4.40 combined ERA among Twins relievers).
With that clearly in mind, MLB Trade Rumors ranked its top-50 free agents for the winter and picked a landing spot for all of them. It won’t be perfect but it’s an interesting lens into the national perspective on the Twins.
MLB Trade Rumors author Tim Dierkes pegged the Twins to sign free-agent starter Alex Cobb and reliever Juan Nicasio. He suggested that Cobb is in the “second tier” of starting pitchers on the free agent market, behind guys like Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta. Nicasio is not as well-known as relief aces like Wade Davis and Greg Holland, but he did have a nice year and could help a good bullpen.
Here’s the quick take: both players would help make the Twins better next year and shouldn’t break the bank. My personal opinion is that the Twins should be thinking bigger.
Cobb, 30, is the longtime Rays starter. He had Tommy John surgery two years ago but is back and logged about 180 innings for Tampa Bay this year. His strikeout rate went down quite a bit after the surgery, but he still posted a 3.66 ERA in those 179 1/3 innings for the Rays. His 17.3% strikeout rate is below average, and it ranked 47th among qualified starters this year. It’s worth noting that he still managed a much better than average ERA (3.66 compared with the MLB average of 4.49). To put his strikeout rate in context, though, Cobb’s mark would have ranked fifth among Twins starters in 2017, behind J.O. Berrios, Ervin Santana, Adalberto Mejia and Kyle Gibson.
Cobb didn’t get as many ground balls in 2017, either. But he made up some of the difference by keeping the ball in the park. Cobb allowed 22 home runs last year, and his rate of home runs per 9 innings would’ve been second on the Twins’ staff, behind only Berrios (1.10 HR/9, which tied for 21st among qualified starters).
Based on the numbers, Cobb would be a fine mid-rotation addition for the Twins. MLB Trade Projects he’ll get a 4-year deal worth $48 million in free agency if he rejects a qualifying offer from the Rays. He’d make a good addition to the Twins’ rotation, but in my opinion he wouldn’t by himself put the Twins into the realm of pitching-rich contenders like the Dodgers, Indians, Yankees, Astros and Nationals.
Juan Nicasio, 31, had a nice year that included a couple changes of scenery. His 2017 season was the best year of his career, in my opinion. The righty posted a career-best 2.61 ERA in 72 1/3 innings between the Pirates, Phillies and Cardinals, where he served as the closer. A quick back story on his changing teams: The Pirates put the veteran on outright waivers, which was a little surprising given his excellent season to that point. After the unusual move, Pittsburgh was accused of cost-cutting by letting a good veteran go for nothing. But GM Neil Huntington opened up about the desire to let Nicasio go compete for a club in better position to make the postseason. (Ultimately, they may have wished that he didn’t end up in St. Louis, but the Phillies grabbed Nicasio and flipped him to the Cards, who inserted Nicasio as their closer down the stretch.)
Nicasio is intriguing to me. He’s a fastball-slider guy who just pitched his best year. In a vacuum, you might think that a 31-year-old reliever coming off a career year is a bad bet, since he’s unlikely to keep “playing above his ability.” But what’s interesting to me is that it’s hard to peg whether Nicasio in fact pitched way above his ability – or if he legitimately improved after parts of six seasons in the Majors. Across the board, he was better than his career norms this season. MLBTR predicts that Nicasio will sign a 3-year, $21 million contract.
From 2016 to 2017, Nicasio improved his average velocity by more than a full mile per hour, according to Brooks Baseball, on both his fastball and his slider. His 4-seam fastball average 95.75 mph, per Brooks Baseball.
He’s bounced back and forth some between starting and relieving. Since he moved to the bullpen on a mostly full-time basis in 2015, Nicasio has seen a jump in his swinging-strike rate. Last year he had a 10.7% swing-and-miss rate, according to FanGraphs.com. That rate would have ranked fourth on the Twins last year, behind Ryan Pressly, Trevor Hildenberger and Tyler Duffey. So it’s a good rate but not a great one. More than 100 relievers had a better mark than Nicasio in that category.
Still, his addition would bolster a Twins bullpen that could use more depth in terms of trustworthy arms to take the next step as a unit.
I think the Twins should aim higher than just these 2 free agent additions, but if this prediction comes true then the Twins will have added two reliable arms that will make the staff look better and deeper.
Tim Dierkes, the writer, also mentioned the Twins in sections about Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis, Lance Lynn, Carlos Santana, and Addison Reed. I would also add Brandon Kintzler to the list for the Twins, but I’m not positive it’s a perfect match. Dierkes also mentioned the Twins in relation to Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Brantley, but both of those players will now be staying with their club in 2018.