FORT MYERS, Fla. — Theories abound on why the free agent market has all of a sudden slammed to a relative halt this winter after years and years of free spending on the best players on the open market. This year, there are plenty of players out there that deserve a job — and plenty of jobs available — and yet this unusual quasi hiring freeze persists.
Someone offered a theory this week that with pitchers and catchers beginning to report across Florida and Arizona, those free agents still out there looking for work wil likely start to sweat a little bit. I’d offer an alternative, or maybe additional interpretation:
With spring training officially underway, the Minnesota Twins ought to be sweating just as much as those hopeful job seekers.
Put simply, if the Twins want to be in the running for the postseason again this year, they’ll need to act swiftly to improve their starting rotation.
On Wednesday we published my projected 25-man roster for opening day. We received a response on social media that it “looks like a 79-win team,” which, yeah that’s probably about right. The projection system, PECOTA, developed by Nate Silver and still used by Baseball Prospectus forecast the Twins would 81 games this year. A .500 club would be disappointing coming off a postseason berth, but it’s hard to argue with the conclusion if you look at the starting rotation as it’s currently sketched out.
Twins GM Thad Levine was asked Tuesday about possibility that the start of camp will incent players to pick a team and sign quickly.
“It feels like that should be the case but I think it cuts both ways,” he said. “I think players think teams still have holes, us included.”
Levine, of course, is right in his assessment that the Twins have holes. He went on to explain that the urgency would be even greater to sign the players that will need to earn their job in spring training, as opposed to the bona fide stars that are still out their on the open market. If you’re going to sign Jake Arrieta, for example, you shouldn’t have to worry whether or not he’ll be one of your 4 or 5 best starters in camp.
Ervin Santana recently had surgery on his middle finger, and is still wearing a cast and has yet to report to Fort Myers.
J.O. Berrios is the best healthy starter in the rotation, and everyone is waiting to see what his next act holds.
Kyle Gibson is waiting to report to spring training until the Twins are done quibbling with him over about $350,000 on his one-year contract. Once he gets to camp, win or lose in salary arbitration, he’ll be counted on based on the current look of the roster.
Adalberto Mejia had an OK year last season and is likely written in pencil into the starting rotation to begin the year this year.
Phil Hughes is coming off multiple injury-marred seasons and he’ll look to prove he’s healthy and productive this spring to earn his spot in the rotation. Manager Paul Molitor said Wednesday that the Twins are trying to stay as optimistic as they can about what to expect from the veteran starter who hasn’t been able to overcome various injuries in recent years.
That’s the projected 4-man rotation right now to begin the season; the Twins won’t need a fifth starter until about April 11, if they choose to “skip” starts for the fifth person in line. Berrios, Gibson, Mejia and Hughes. Tyler Duffey will be stretched out and given a chance to start. Trevor May is coming back from Tommy John surgery last spring but should contribute at some point this year. Prospects like Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero will hope to have their name called at some point this year, whether it’s at the beginning of the season or down the road.
There are plenty of people in line this spring to take one of those sports or to fill out the depth behind that quartet, but the point is that the rotation at present doesn’t look like much when compared against the best staffs in baseball.
Want to compete with the Indians? It’ll likely take a stronger and deeper starting staff than the one listed above. Even with Santana’s projected return in late April or early May, the Twins are leaving wins on the table by not adding an arm to the stable.
“Once you’re around [your players] more, the more you’re reminded that there are internal options,” Levine said. “I think there’s a quantity and quality thing for us. But even if we’re bullish on what we see, I think we still need to add depth. We saw it to an extreme last year, but know we need multiple starters this year, we’re not well-positioned today for the first part of that season. So we need guys for that first phase of the season.”
One axiom in baseball is that free agents tend to like to know where they’re going to be playing by the time the holidays roll around. Family members will ask incessantly, and the stock “I don’t know” answer eventually starts to grate the nerves, I’d imagine. That artifical deadline came and went this year without much action. Then Yu Darvish signed with the Cubs in the days leading up to spring training — although there was no apparent dominoe effect following that big splash.
As camp starts, another artificial deadline is in the rearview mirror. That might tick up the anxiety for free agents, and for the agents of free agents.
The Twins should be looking at their incomplete starting rotation right about now and starting to feel the pressure dial up. The good news for the team is that the front office has the opportunity to do something about it.