MINNEAPOLIS — Thad Levine sat on a stage during TwinsFest at Target Field last January and took questions from fans. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel were among the big-name free agents still available, and fans were wondering: Would any of them be wearing a Twins jersey in 2019?
“The best time to acquire players of that magnitude is when your window to win is wide open, not when you’ve got your fingers underneath the window and you’re trying to jam the window open,” the Twins’ general manager told the crowd. “I want to do it when we’re projected to win the Central and we’re ready to put our foot on someone’s throat.”
After a 101-win season and a disappointing American League Division Series exit, that window is officially open, and the Twins are feeling the crisp October air.
“We’re feeling a breeze right now,” Levine said on Wednesday, Oct. 9, during an end-of-season media session. “I think we feel like we’re getting to a place now where we feel a little bit more emboldened to sit down with (team owner) Jim Pohlad and (team president) Dave (St. Peter) and talk about being a little bit more aggressive.”
The Twins’ biggest needs are in the starting rotation.
“We’re going to target impact pitching,” chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said. “I think that’s going to be a big part of our focus, and try to figure out if we can get there.”
Young right-hander Jose Berrios is under contract for next season, and the Twins have a $7.5 million club option on left-hander Martin Perez, who started the season well but tailed off and was left off the ALDS roster. Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda — who will be suspended for the first 39 games of 2020 after testing positive for a banned diuretic — are all free agents.
Reuniting with Odorizzi, 29, could be attractive for the Twins. The righty was the Twins’ most consistent starter throughout the season, posting a 3.51 earned-run average in 30 starts over 159 innings pitched and earning his first All-Star Game nod.
“I really enjoyed my two years here and I think I’ve been pretty straightforward about that,” Odorizzi said. “…If I’m back, that’d be great. I’ve really taken a liking to here. If not, I wish nothing but the best for everybody. These are great people, top to bottom.”
There are other intriguing names on the market, starting with Gerrit Cole, but after a spectacular regular season with the Astros, he won’t come cheap — and there figures to be plenty of competition for the ace. Stephen Strasburg could opt out of his contract in Washington, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner will be hit free agency this offseason.
Joe Mauer’s eight-year, $184 extension was the largest in franchise history, and Ervin Santana’s four-year, $54 million pact was the most they ever paid for a free agent. But Falvey signaled that the front office had the support of ownership to make the moves it sees fit. And after winning 101 games behind a talented young offense, Minnesota should be an attractive destination.
Should the Twins go the trade route, they have a number of attractive pieces. Even if they’d like to avoid dealing major-league players, their farm system is generally regarded as a top-10 system.
“In free agency, we’re going to have a lot of conversations with a lot of players who are freely available to talk to us. We’re also going to talk to a lot of clubs about players that are on other teams and potential trade targets for us,” Falvey said.
Beyond external options, the Twins have a number of young starters already in the organization — many of whom debuted in 2019 — that could be relied on to start in 2020.
Top pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol and his triple-digit fastball impressed in his brief taste of the majors out of the bullpen. Graterol, though, has been a starter throughout his career and should the Twins revert him back to that role, he would likely start the season in the minors.
Randy Dobnak appeared in nine regular-season games, posting a 1.59 ERA and could fit into the Twins’ rotation plans. Lefties Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe are among other internal options.
So, the Twins enter their offseason, earlier than they would like, feeling the cool October breeze. With the window open, they are ready to make some moves.
“We’re going to be nimble, and we’re going to be adjusting as we understand the fluid nature of what the acquisition costs — whether it’s on the free-agent front or on the trade front — throughout the course of this offseason,” Levine said, “so we can make the best decisions for this franchise for the immediate term and the future.”
Big arms, big money
A look at five* of the most-available free-agent starters for next season, with their 2019 stats and average annual salary:
Gerrit Cole, Houston, RHP, 29
2.50 ERA, 326 strikeouts, 212.1 innings, made $13.5 million in 2019
Stephen Strasburg, Washington, RHP, 31
3.32 ERA, 251 strikeouts, 209 innings, has a player option for four years, $100 million*
Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco, LHP, 30
3.90 ERA, 203 strikeouts, 207.2 innings, made $12 million in 2019
Dallas Keuchel, Atlanta, LHP, 31
3.75 ERA, 91 strikeouts, 112.2 innings, made $21.2 million in 2019
Hyun-Jin Ryu, L.A. Dodgers, LHP, 32
2.32 ERA, 163 strikeouts, 182.2 innings, made $17.9 million in 2019