What happens if the Twins buck expectations and rather than holiday shopping to enhance a pitching staff that could use a boost, they spend more attention on improving an already good offense?
I’m not convinced that it would happen but the question’s been on my mind for a little while. Let’s explore what that might look like. But let’s also be realistic about it. If your boss decides that you’ve got $30 million to spend this winter are you really going to blow that on J.D. Martinez and then hope to fix the pitching staff for free (or for the price of prospects in a trade)?
I’ll admit I get a little annoyed when we sit on the outside of these conversations and make declarative statements along the lines of this: Well, the Twins have never spent huge money on a starting pitcher so there’s no point in discussing Yu Darvish.
It’s probably unlikely to happen but it is worth talking about I that case, in my opinion.
But with all of that said, I’m going to be a hypocrite and break my own rule here. I don’t think you need to spend a lot of money to make Minnesota’s offense good again next year. So if it’s going to cost a significant contract — in terms of dollar value and length in years – then I’m probably not that interested in the player this winter if I’m the Twins. Sorry, Erich Hosmer and J.D. Martinez. Oh, and if you play a position at which the Twins appear set for 2018, then you’re probably out of the running for this column, too. Barring a trade of a young Twins outfielder, sorry, Lorenzo Cain.
I’m mostly interested because of all the innings he’d give you on the mound, too. Still, in the spirit of sticking with the headline’s call for “intriguing” free agents, you really can’t do better than Ohtani. He’s the most intriguing “free agent” of the winter, assuming we’re including international free agents in the mix of classic MLB free agency.
All sides reportedly came to an agreement on the new posting system ahead of this week’s deadline. That means that Ohtani’s Japanese team will be allowed to post him for bidding among MLB teams. He starred on the mound and hit home runs at the plate in Japan all before the age of 23. He figures to have plenty of interest on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Would the Twins be among the teams bidding?
This section needs to be brief because I’m bending the rules to include Ohtani in with the other non-capped MLB free agents.
I like Santana because he’s a switch hitter with a great idea of the strike zone. He’s also a really good player on a division rival for the Twins. Adding his production to your lineup means taking out of Cleveland’s. That helps make him the most intriguing non-Ohtani free agent. Oh, an he’s a really good player.
He could serve as the regular DH and fill in for Joe Mauer at first base early in the season if the Twins want to keep giving their mid-30’s on-base machine regular rest. And Mauer’s contract is up after next season. If the Twins don’t choose to keep him around into 2019 and beyond, they’d be pretty well set with the durable Santana at first base.
Santana hit righties better than he hit lefties the past two years, but he’s an above-average hitter on either side of the plate.
Think it’s crazy that the Twins would consider adding a first baseman? Remember that they reportedly tried to sign Mike Napoli last winter before he chose to go with a different deal to a team seen as having a better chance at contending.
Last year Santana hit .259/.363/.455 with 23 home runs in 667 plate appearances. That’s a good line, even for a first baseman, and it’s pretty much right in line with Santana’s career numbers at the plate. He’s an accomplished walk taker and he’s got a little switch-hitting pop. Since his first full season in 2011, Santana has never failed to log at least 600 plate appearances. He’s no longer a catcher, of course, but the bat is what should have plenty of teams interested this winter. The only real concern would be how much he might cost to upgrade on the margins of the roster. But one thing is clear: Based on his track record, he would be an upgrade.
J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Zack Cozart, Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce
Good players, but I’ll pass. I already noted that I’m breaking my own rule by knocking out Hosmer and Martinez based on price. The others are based on positional fit.
The next two consensus names on the free-agent hitters list don’t interest me in the context of the Twins. They already have a third baseman (Miguel Sano) so they don’t need to pay all that money for Mike Moustakas. Likewise, they have a shortstop (Jorge Polanco), so they won’t need to stretch to sign Zack Cozart.
I’m still critical of Polanco’s defense. I simply don’t think he’s good enough to be untouchable there. Is he the long-term answer defensively at short on a championship-caliber team? I like his bat and I believe in him as a guy based on the limited amount I know about him. I just think he’s more of a second baseman than a shortstop. I still don’t think the Twins ought to shop for an expensive free agent shortstop this winter.
I also don’t think they’ll need to pay big money for a good player like Lorenzo Cain, considering their three young outfielders. The same goes for left-handed power bat Jay Bruce. And Todd Frazier plays mostly third base, so the Twins should be set there.
So, the rest of the free agents on the market would basically be to supplement a team, not add a star hitter to the mix. Maybe you want a star fielder to add to the fold. Defensively in the infield, you’re fairly set. Joe Mauer won’t play every single day but he should have been in the running for a Gold Glove this year for his improvements at first base. Brian Dozier is basically going to play every day and you can’t complain at all about his production. Jorge Polanco’s likely your shortstop until something changes. And Miguel Sano is expected to be a full-go by opening day following offseason surgery. I thought Sano played pretty well at third base last year before the leg injury took his season. He’s not going to be a superstar at third base defensively but I saw enough in 2016 and 2017 to believe that he can pull his weight playing the position. And of course, there’s a lot to like with the lumber.
As far as backup infielders, Ehire Adrianza was advertised as a glove-first utility player and then he surprised with a nice offensive season. Eduardo Escobar is getting more expensive, but he can play three infield positions OK and he’ll hit for some part in a part-time role. Both seem to me like valuable backups.
Jason Castro is on a 3-year deal to be the starting catcher. And prospect Mitch Garver had a good season in the minor leagues last year and could potentially fill the backup role. Chris Gimenez, a popular clubhouse guy who also had a decent offensive season, has hit free agency. I’m not ruling out a return in some capacity.
So what do the Twins need on offense?
On the current sketches of a depth chart, they’ve got Robbie Grossman (or Kennys Vargas or Byung Ho Park) at DH. Grossman is a good player – better than a lot of people think – but he doesn’t add much in the power department. That’s a big reason why Carlos Santana would be an upgrade in that spot. Grossman’s other role on the club is as a backup outfielder, and he hasn’t been great defensively in the outfield since he joined the Twins.
The Twins’ outfield as a group was one of the worst at hitting left-handers last year.
And that makes sense when you think about the individual players. Despite a solid season overall, Eddie Rosario hit just .279/.293/.390 against lefties, which is a well below average batting line. Max Kepler was much worse: .152/.213/.240, a line so bad that by the end of the season manager Paul Molitor was looking for ways to keep him on the bench against left-handed pitching. It calls into question whether Kepler will be an everyday player — or the star he was once projected to be. I personally think it’s too early to give up on that thought for Kepler.
Among the starting outfield trio, only Byron Buxton had an above-average batting line against lefties last year. Zach Granite, a candidate to make the team as a fourth outfielder, bats lefty and in the higher levels of the minor leagues he fared a lot better against right-handed pitching.
So, maybe the Twins would be in the market for a fourth outfielder who can mash lefties and steal some starts in the corner spots once in a while. Or maybe they are looking for somebody to take DH plate appearances that would otherwise go to Grossman (or Vargas or Park). If we’re looking for one or two players, then, we’d favor outfielders who can hit lefties or a hitter who is better than Grossman.
After Santana, the other free agent fits are much less exciting.
There’s Jonathan Lucroy, but I don’t know that the Twins need to commit more money to catching right now. They think they got a good deal on the Jason Castro contract, and as mentioned, they’ll have options with Gimenez or Garver to be the other catcher.
Neil Walker is a switch hitting second baseman – but the Twins are pretty set at that position.
Eduardo Nunez could get a nice contract as a hitter who can play a few positions. I don’t think an expensive reunion makes that much sense for the Twins right now.
How about an outfielder who hits lefties? That requirement eliminates guys like Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez and Jarrod Dyson. Jon Jay is a lefty hitter with some interesting reverse splits the past two seasons (he’s hit lefties better than righties, which is unusual for a left-handed batter). My guess is that the soon-to-be 33-year-old won’t be very expensive this winter.
Howie Kendrick has played some outfield and infield, and he had a nice year at the plate in 2017. That was especially true against lefties, against whom he hit .322/.390/.511 in 100 plate appearances with the Phillies and Nats. He’d be a plus for the Twins.
Austin Jackson had a resurgent season in Cleveland, and he would make sense for the Twins — at least based on what they should be looking for. I don’t know if he’ll parlay his big year into a bigger-than-expected deal. If he’s looking for a short contract to be added to a crowded outfield mix, sign me up. But my guess is that after the year he had at the plate, he won’t have to settle for a short-term eal nor a backup job. (Is Max Kepler locked in as a starting right fielder? If Jackson’s 2017 is for real and he were to sign with the Twins, perhaps he’d be the starter and Kepler plays in a fourth outfielder role mostly against righties. Personally, I’m not ready to give up on the possibility that Kepler is an everyday player and a borderline star in the Majors.)
Does Jayson Werth have anything left to give in a part-time role against lefties? He looks to me like a platoon outfielder – or, really, a DH — but even in his late-30’s that could make him a decent pairing for Kepler on a one-year deal if the Twins are bargain shopping.
The Twins were interested in Mike Napoli last winter, but he had a down year in Texas. If you don’t get Carlos Santana would you still be in search of this type of player? If so, maybe Mitch Moreland makes more sense.
Is there anything left of Jose Bautista? Or Andre Ethier? Just to be clear: teams pay for current (future) production more than they pay for a name these days. Just don’t let the pendulum swing too far in the direction of saying, ‘He has a big name and dropped off, so he’s unsignable.’ Instead, ask yourself, ‘What is he likely to produce this season?’ That leaves a nonzero chance teams will be interested in these two guys on light contracts. Still, I’ll probably pass on those two if I’m the Twins.
Here’s my list: