Offseason In Review: Minnesota Twins

This is the latest post of MLBTR’s annual Offseason in Review series, in which we take stock of every team’s winter dealings.

The Twins added some pop to the lineup but opted for a measured, cautious approach to the offseason despite being one of only two plausible contenders in baseball’s weakest division.

Major League Signings

Trades and Waiver Claims

Extensions

  • Max Kepler, OF: Five years, $35MM plus two club options
  • Jorge Polanco, SS: Five years, $25.75MM plus two club options

Notable Minor League Signings

Notable Losses

Fresh off a disappointing 78-84 season, the Twins entered the offseason with more payroll flexibility than any team in Major League Baseball. The expiration of their contractual commitments to Joe Mauer and Ervin Santana left Minnesota as the game’s lone organization with not one single dollar committed to the payroll beyond the 2019 season. That fiscal freedom was all the more important given that the American League Central features two teams in the earlier stages of a rebuild (Royals, Tigers) and a third that had been in that process for several years (White Sox).

With Mauer retiring and Logan Morrison returning to free agency after a torn labrum in his hip ruined his 2018 campaign, the Twins had no set options at first base or designated hitter and ample money to spend at the positions. The former was filled affordably when Minnesota picked up C.J. Cron on a waiver claim after the Rays designated the slugger for assignment in a cost-cutting move. Cron’s .253/.323/.493 batting line and 30 home runs a season ago with the Rays easily marked his most productive year in the Majors. Securing his rights simply by being willing to pay him what wound up as a $4.8MM salary seems like an easy victory for Minnesota even if Cron’s bat steps back a bit in 2019. They’ll also be able to retain him in arbitration this winter, making Cron a potential multi-year addition with no real cost of acquisition beyond a relatively modest financial commitment.

As for their vacancy in the DH slot, the Twins managed to buy perhaps the game’s most consistent slugger over the past decade. With American League clubs increasingly trending toward rotating multiple players through the designated hitter position, Nelson Cruz faced a more limited market than one might have expected. The Astros and Rays were Cruz’s two main other suitors, but neither offered a second season or matched the Twins’ offer.

The Twins’ addition of right-handed power doesn’t stop with the pairing of Cron and Cruz, as longtime Orioles infielder Jonathan Schoop was brought aboard on a one-year deal to replace former second base stalwart Brian Dozier. A healthy Schoop would give the Twins three new bats with 30-homer potential, though like several others on the Twins roster, Schoop in search of a rebound campaign after floundering through the worst season of his career in 2018.

Minnesota’s largest signing of the winter was either driven by an injury to Miguel Sano, a quieter-than-expected market for Marwin Gonzalez, or possibly both. Gonzalez, signed to a two-year deal in early March, landed a shorter deal with a smaller guarantee than just about anyone forecast at the onset of free agency. He’s slotting in at third base in the season’s early stages while Sano mends a laceration on his foot that required stitches and at one point had him in a walking boot. Once Sano returns, Gonzalez should move all over the field and spell a number of Twins regulars. Carrying him could even allow the Twins to get by without a true backup center fielder on the roster; because both Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario can play center field, either could man the position on days when Buxton needs a break, with Gonzalez shifting to an outfield corner.

Adding Gonzalez at an affordable rate on a rather short-term commitment capped off a series of offseason moves that deepened the Twins’ roster without incurring much long-term risk. Viewed from that stance, one could call Minnesota’s offseason a clear success.

Questions Remaining

The flip side of the coin, however, is to ask whether the Twins did enough. The American League Central is as vulnerable as it ever will be right now. The Royals and Tigers entered the season more likely to come away with the No. 1 pick in next the 2020 draft than with a spot in the postseason. The White Sox talked a big game and made publicized pursuits of premier free agents — namely Manny Machado — but came away with a collection of spare parts and marginal upgrades. Even the division-favorite Indians weakened their roster as ownership mandated a payroll reduction. The moves the Twins did make signaled a hope to contend in 2019, so why limit the additions to a series of short-term acquisitions?

The company line has been that while the team believes in its core, it needs to see that core improve before investing at a high level to supplement it. That, as MLBTR’s Jeff Todd pointed out in January, seems like circular logic. It was somewhat befuddling to see general manager Thad Levine speak of spending in free agency “not when you’re trying to open the window to contend, but when the window is wide open” in the same interview that chief baseball officer Derek Falvey stated that he “feel[s] really good” about the group of young players the Twins have in house.

Minnesota’s core group, after all, isn’t especially young or controllable anymore. Rosario and Sano are free agents after the 2021 season. Kyle Gibson, Michael Pineda and Jake Odorizzi, who comprise three-fifths of the starting rotation, are all free agents after the current campaign. There’s another wave of talent on the rise, but it comes with all the uncertainty (in timeline and ultimate results) of any bunch of prospects.

If the front office believes in this current group, and sixty percent of the division looks like a postseason afterthought, shouldn’t that constitute a “wide open” window for contention along the lines to which Levine alluded? Next season, the White Sox project to have Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech and Nick Madrigal all at the MLB level. The Tigers and Royals will be a year further into their rebuilds. Cleveland may be weakening, but the rotation still looks strong and the division’s two best position players will still be under team control.

The logic from the front office seems to paint significant trade/free-agent investments and developing the current core as an either-or proposition. Perhaps for a team with a more limited payroll outlook, that’d be the case, but the only players the Twins are paying beyond 2019 are Gonzalez, Kepler and shortstop Jorge Polanco after the latter two signed affordable five-year extensions this spring. There’s little reason to think that the Twins couldn’t have proactively supplemented the group to a greater extent while also hoping the in-house group developed to another level.

To use a fairly aggressive example, the team could have even supported a Manny Machado-style contract and still had room to make alterations in 2020 and beyond. That’s not to say they should have signed him but rather to point out that even a $30MM salary on the books moving forward would only have brought next year’s payroll commitments to about $70MM. The idea that spending now would’ve prevented them from adjusting down the road doesn’t add up — especially not for an organization whose farm system is regarded as one of the game’s 10 best and could soon provide especially high yields (Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff).

In the rotation, the Twins opted to give Martin Perez a surprising $4MM guarantee despite already having numerous fifth starter candidates in house. If the plan was to add another starter, choosing a clearer upgrade over internal candidates would’ve been more prudent. That’s not to say they should have recklessly signed Dallas Keuchel at all costs, but certainly there were more definitive upgrades at reasonable values. Perhaps they’ll be able to coax something out of the former top prospect that the Rangers never were — Levine knows Perez well from his days in Texas — but adding another dice-roll to a roster that is teeming with rebound hopefuls (Schoop, Buxton, Sano, Jason Castro, Michael Pineda, Addison Reed) doesn’t feel like an inspired move.

It’s a similar tale in the ’pen, where Blake Parker has had some success over the past two seasons and could prove to be a bargain. But Parker lost some velocity from 2017 to 2018 and was non-tendered by the Angels despite a reasonable arbitration projection. A $1.8MM base salary presents virtually no risk, but the free-agent and trade markets both had quality upgrades available that could have made the Minnesota relief corps more formidable. And it’s not as if there weren’t multiple openings in the bullpen anyhow; 30-year-old journeyman Ryne Harper making the Twins’ roster was a fun spring storyline but also underscores that there was certainly room for further augmentation.

Of course, the Twins may well have been more active in pursuing multi-year upgrades than they let be known. The Athletic’s Robert Murray and Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN reported over the winter that they pursued Yasmani Grandal and offered as much as three years at a $13-15MM annual rate. Others might have spurned the Twins’ overtures, too. But for a team with this type of long-term payroll space and such a weak division, it feels like the Twins pulled some punches. Owner Jim Pohlad’s comments in a January interview with Wolfson all but plainly stated he’d never even consider a contract another contract of eight or more years, but there’s a middle ground on the spectrum.

2019 Season Outlook

On the one hand, the Twins clearly upgraded their roster and quite arguably made some of the offseason’s best deals. Cruz and Gonzalez, in particular, seem like big wins for the front office at those price points, and Cron has the potential to be among the most impactful waiver claims of the year. This team is better than it was at the end of the 2018 season, and it’d be a disappointment if the Twins didn’t contend for at least a second Wild Card spot — if not the AL Central crown.

But a near-miss or yet another early postseason exit would further call into question the strict adherence to shorter-term deals at the cost of larger-scale upgrades. Maintaining long-term flexibility is undoubtedly important for clubs, but if a year with a completely blank payroll slate and three tanking teams in the division isn’t the time to capitalize on that flexibility — when is? The Twins are postseason contenders regardless, but this offseason feels like a series of savvy additions mixed with missed opportunities.

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