Center fielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano were among the Twins’ best performers during their 2017 playoff season, but both players took massive steps backward during the team’s disappointing 2018 campaign. Now, the down seasons the pair endured are affecting the Twins’ offseason plans, Dan Hayes of The Athletic explains (subscription required). Had those two remained strong contributors last season, Minnesota would’ve been more willing to go “full speed ahead” this winter in an attempt to catch the AL Central rival Indians, Hayes writes. Instead, the Twins’ primary focus right now is to help those two bounce back in 2019. If Buxton and Sano do rebound, Twins ownership would give the team’s front office “the green light to take more of an aggressive step forward with this unit of players,” general manager Thad Levine said, adding he and chief baseball officer Derek Falvey “would feel much more emboldened to take that step forward.”
Joe Mauer will officially retire from Major League Baseball, as La Velle E. Neal III and Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune report. Mauer’s future was in doubt throughout the 2018 season, but he has ultimately chosen to call it a career after 15 major league seasons, all of them spent with the Twins.
Born in Minnesota and attending high school in St. Paul, Mauer seemed destined to be chosen first overall by the Twins in the 2001 draft, and endeared himself to fans in Minnesota and beyond throughout his career. After honoring the final year of an eight-year, $184MM contract signed with the club, it seems fitting that Mauer retires with the team that drafted him, playing out the entirety of his career with one organization. Mauer has taken out a full-page newspaper ad to share a heartfelt letter with Twins fans announcing his decision.
Though it was unknown at the time whether he would return for another season, Mauer’s final game at Target Field was a magical one. Starting the game at first base, Mauer took the field alone as he was greeted by his two daughters. In what would turn out to be his final at-bat, Mauer hit a double–sliced into left-center field–that seemed emblematic of his signature hitting style. Then, one final time, Mauer put on his catcher’s gear for the first time in more than five years and received one pitch from Matt Belisle before exiting the game to a rousing ovation from the Minnesota faithful.
Spending the first 10 years of his career behind the plate, Mauer was forced to move to first base after battling concussions. In those seasons, though, Mauer distinguished himself as one the most prolific offensive catchers in recent memory. In 2006, Mauer became the first full-time catcher to win an American League batting title, and his three career batting titles are the most all-time among catchers. Named the American League MVP in 2009, Mauer joined the likes of Thurman Munson, Johnny Bench, and Ivan Rodriguez as one of a few backstops to earn that distinction.
In his career, Mauer appeared in 1,858 games, tallying 2,123 hits and 143 home runs, and posting a slash line of .306/.388/.439, his 55.1 WAR good for third-most in Twins franchise history. Mauer walks away from the game as an interesting case for the Hall of Fame. In his time as a catcher, Mauer posted dominant numbers, especially over a five-year span between 2006 and 2010. His peak alone places him in the company of the game’s all-time great catchers; his career WAR ranks seventh-most among catchers. And while Mauer has generally posted above-average numbers as a first baseman, the injury-prompted transition certainly hurts his case.
Regardless of the outcome of his Hall of Fame candidacy, Mauer’s career is one to look back on fondly. He was universally well-regarded by fans, teammates, coaches, and the media, garnering a reputation as a consummate professional. As expressed in his letter, Mauer plans to use his departure from baseball to spend more time with his family. We at MLBTR congratulate him on a marvelous career and wish him well in his future endeavors.
- Free agent catcher Robinson Chirinos has drawn some early interest from the Twins and the Braves, tweets MLB.com’s Jon Morosi. The 34-year-old Chirinos hit the market after the Rangers declined his $4.5MM option. Chirinos’ .222/.338/.419 slash was a departure from his career year in 2017, but he did slug a personal best 18 home runs in 2018. Over the past four seasons in Texas, he’s hit .233/.337/.456 with 54 home runs in 336 games played. Chirinos’ strikeout rate at the plate and caught-stealing rate behind the plate both went in the wrong direction this year (in fairly significant fashion), but his track record at the plate is strong for a catcher, even if he’s never been regarded as a great defensive option.
Rising Twins prospect Alex Kirilloff is now represented by Scott Boras, Dan Hayes of The Athletic reports (subscription link) as part of a look at the super-agent’s commentary on the Minnesota organization. That puts both of the organization’s top pre-MLB players (Kirilloff and Royce Lewis) in the Boras stable. A burgeoning book of business with the Twins did not stop Boras from tweaking the club, though if anything it seemed more a playful jab to set up a free-agent or prospect promotional pitch. The Twins had a rough 2018 campaign, to be sure, but have loads of free payroll to work with and some exciting young talent reaching or nearing the majors. Their offseason remains a fascinating one to watch.
Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines announced that they have agreed to a one-year deal with first baseman Kennys Vargas (h/t YakyuDB.com). The burly switch-hitter is said to be earning approximately $1.5MM in the pact. Vargas is a client of Rep 1 Baseball.
Still just 28 years of age, Vargas failed to crack the big leagues in 2018 after seeing at least some action in each of the prior four campaigns. He bounced around the waiver wire at the outset of the season but spent most of the year off of the 40-man roster, playing at Triple-A Rochester. The Twins organization which had employed him since 2009, recently released Vargas, who’d have qualified for minor-league free agency unless he was added back to the MLB roster.
Vargas did not turn in his most useful campaign in the upper minors in 2018. In the past, though, he has at times put up intriguing numbers. At his best, Vargas blends an excellent eye at the plate with good power, though his raw strength has never really shone through with eye-popping slugging numbers. In 859 MLB plate appearances, he owns a .252/.311/.437 slash with 35 long balls.
- Starter J.A. Happ is a popular early name on the market. The Twins can be counted among the many teams with interest, per Jon Morosi of MLB.com (via Twitter). It’ll be interesting to see whether the southpaw ends up signing relatively early in the winter. The lefty has been much more than a steadying presence in recent season, with intriguing peripherals that suggest he’s better than ever even at 36 years of age. You can track all the prior and future rumors on Happ right here.
The Cubs announced Thursday that they’ve claimed outfielder Johnny Field off waivers from the Twins.
Field, 26, split the 2018 season between the Rays and Twins, making his big league debut for the former and eventually landing with the latter via a series of waivers claims. The former fifth-round pick (Rays, 2013) totaled 233 plate appearances last season and hit .222/.254/.403 with nine homers, 13 doubles and four steals. Field punched out an alarming 72 times against just seven walks in that time, though he also saw time at all three outfield spots and posted slightly above-average overall marks.
The Rays have claimed right-hander Oliver Drake off waivers from the Twins, per an announcement from the Twins Additionally, Tampa Bay has outrighted catchers Jesus Sucre and Adam Moore off the 40-man roster, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times (Twitter link). The Rays’ 40-man roster is now at 37 players, while the Twins’ is at 36.
The 31-year-old Drake looked as though he may have finally found a home with the Twins late in the 2018 season. Minnesota, incredibly, was the fifth Major League team for which the Naval Academy product suited up in 2018 and the only team with which he found real success. In 20 1/3 innings out of the Minnesota ’pen, Drake worked to a 2.21 ERA with an impressive 22-to-7 K/BB ratio and a 50 percent ground-ball rate.
Beyond the five teams with which he saw MLB action in 2018 (Twins, Blue Jays, Angels, Indians, Brewers), Drake came up with the Orioles back in 2016. In all, he’s seen time with six Major League clubs over the past two seasons. Tampa Bay, if Drake survives the offseason on the 40-man roster, would be a seventh. Drake is out of minor league options, so he’ll need to break camp with the Rays (or another club) next spring or else be exposed to waivers yet again. While his overall results in the big leagues aren’t impressive, the fact that six different teams have tried to pass him through waivers and all have failed speaks to the fact that many clubs believe him to be capable of succeeding in the Majors.
Sucre, 30, appeared in 73 games with the Rays this past season and hit .209/.247/.253 through 198 plate appearances — numbers not far off from his career rates through 654 PAs. With more than three years of big league service time, he has the right to reject an outright assignment in favor of free agency.
Moore, 34, went 4-for-18 in eight games with the Rays. He’s seen Major League action in parts of nine seasons and batted .199/.239/.312 in 312 plate appearances. The journeyman backstop has a lifetime .266/.325/.408 line in more than 2400 Triple-A plate appearances.
Reed, 26 in November, was a fifth-round pick by the Brewers in 2011 and at times rated as one of the better farmhands in the Milwaukee system. His bat seemed to stall upon reaching Triple-A as a 23-year-old in 2016, though, and he took another step back at Double-A in 2017 — prompting his exit from the organization.
Reed latched on with the Braves on a minor league deal last winter though and absolutely erupted in Double-A and Triple-A, raking at a combined .342/.453/.520 pace with 11 homers, 26 doubles and 10 steals in 401 plate appearances (with better performance in Triple-A than in Double-A). He appeared in seven games over a pair of big league stints with the Braves but never got much of a look at the MLB level in Atlanta.
Reed’s minor league output, though, was fueled by ludicrously high BABIP marks (.426 in Double-A, .477 in Triple-A), so it’s no wonder that the Braves organization wasn’t fully enamored of his gaudy numbers. Still, he showed a keen eye at the plate (15.3 percent walk rate), didn’t post alarming strikeout totals (24.3 percent) and is capable of lining up in all three outfield spots. The right-handed-hitting Reed is out of minor league options, so he’ll have to stick on the 40-man roster all winter and break camp with the team or else be exposed to waivers once again. That, it should be noted, is far from a certain outcome.
MLBTR is publishing Offseason Outlooks for all 30 teams. Click here to read the other entries in this series.
After a surprising AL Wild Card berth in 2017, the Twins’ 2018 season ended with 78 wins and the dismissal of manager Paul Molitor. Veterans Ervin Santana, Lance Lynn, Logan Morrison and Jason Castro each had a nightmarish campaign, while the Twins saw even more troubling regression from Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. The AL Central is still the game’s weakest division, leaving some hope for chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and GM Thad Levine as they look to reload and try for better results in 2019.
- Addison Reed, RHP: $8.5MM through 2019
- Jason Castro, C: $8MM through 2019
- Michael Pineda, RHP: $8MM through 2019
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected salary via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Jake Odorizzi – $9.4MM
- Kyle Gibson – $7.9MM
- Eddie Rosario – $5.0MM
- Robbie Grossman – $4.0MM
- Max Kepler – $3.2MM
- Miguel Sano – $3.1MM
- Ehire Adrianza – $1.8MM
- Taylor Rogers – $1.6MM
- Byron Buxton – $1.2MM
- Trevor May – $1.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Grossman, Adrianza
- Ervin Santana, RHP: $14.5MM club option — declined in favor of $1MM buyout
- Logan Morrison, 1B/DH: $8MM club option — declined in favor of $1MM buyout
The first order of business for the Twins has already been wrapped up, as the team named Rocco Baldelli its new manager. The 37-year-old Baldelli replaces Paul Molitor, who won 2017 AL Manager of the Year honors but was inherited by Falvey and Levine under an ownership mandate. The Twins’ unexpected Wild Card run in 2017 somewhat forced the front office’s hand in offering him an extension, and 2018’s disappointment gave them a natural avenue to appoint a new skipper who more closely shares their organizational vision and philosophy. Molitor, to his credit, was plenty open to newer lines of thinking in baseball, as the Twins experimented with “the opener” late in the season and have been far more aggressive in using defensive shifts under Molitor than under previous skipper Ron Gardenhire. He was offered a new role within the organization but is reportedly unlikely to accept as he instead pursues managerial and/or coaching opportunities with other clubs.
Molitor isn’t the only St. Paul native whose tenure with the hometown organization is up in the air. After spending 15 seasons in a Twins uniform, Joe Mauer wrapped up his eight-year contract in an emotional sendoff that saw him crouch behind the plate for one final pitch from close friend and teammate Matt Belisle before being removed from the game in the ninth inning. Twins fans showered Mauer with adulation in that possible farewell (video link), as play stopped for several minutes while St. Paul’s favorite son soaked in what may have been his final moments as a Major League player.
That Sunday proved to be an almost perfect parting note for Mauer — unbeknownst to him, he would be greeted by his twin daughters at first base to start the game, and he went on to double to left-center in his final plate appearance — but the potential Hall of Famer is still not certain about his future. Asked in an emotional press conference after the game whether he’d return for a 16th season, Mauer demurred, expressing his gratitude for that afternoon’s gestures from the organization before indicating that he’ll take some time to mull his future with his family. If he does return, he’s stated on multiple occasions that he can’t envision playing anywhere else. He may no longer be a superstar, but even at age 35, Mauer posted a league-average offensive season with positive defensive marks at first base (+3 DRS, +2.7 UZR) for the fifth straight season since moving there. He’d surely need to take a sizable pay cut, but if Mauer wants to come back, the organization could retain him on an affordable one-year deal.
First base, though, is one of but many areas in which the Twins are facing uncertainty. In last year’s outlook for the team, I wrote that a lot went right for the 2017 Twins, highlighting the progress made by presumptive building blocks Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario. Of that quartet, only Rosario doubled down on his 2017 breakout. Polanco was slapped with an 80-game PED suspension prior to the season, although he did hit well in his return (.288/.345/.427, seven homers, seven steals). Polanco still looks like a lock to hold down a middle-infield spot in the long run. Buxton and Sano, to put things mildly, are complete mysteries.
Baldelli and his coaching staff — the composition of which remains unclear — should consider restoring Buxton and Sano to their once-prominent status a top priority. The two combined for nearly eight wins above replacement in 2017; each clearly has enough talent to be a cornerstone piece for a perennially competitive Twins team. But neither has been able to tap into that upside on a regular basis, with Sano’s conditioning and penchant for strikeouts and Buxton’s inconsistency at the plate ranking among the most frustrating obstacles Minnesota has faced in recent years.
It seems likely that both will be back in the fold next season, as selling low on either player would be a difficult pill for the organization to swallow. Speaking more generally, the Twins appear set for a fair bit of roster turnover. Rosario and Max Kepler are likely to man the outfield corners next season, while Polanco has a middle-infield spot locked down. But the Twins could plausibly look for new additions at any of first base, third base or DH (depending on where Sano lines up), either shortstop or second base (depending on where Polanco plays) and potentially at catcher. Jason Castro is set to return from knee surgery, and Mitch Garver provided solid offense as a 27-year-old rookie, but there could still be room for an upgrade.
Looking to the pitching staff, Minnesota has a deceptive amount of depth in the rotation but is lacking in the way of top-end starting pitching. Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda (signed last winter to a backloaded two-year deal as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery) can all be penciled into the Opening Day rotation, and the team has a wealth of options in the fifth spot.
Adalberto Mejia, Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves, Tyler Duffey, Kohl Stewart, Zack Littell and Aaron Slegers have all pitched in the Majors, and each of the first three in that group has recently ranked among the game’s top 100 prospects. Most of the bunch is limited to fourth/fifth starter upside, but it’s rather hefty stock of back-end arms. Perhaps, then, Falvey, Levine & Co. would be best-suited looking to condense some of that quantity into a single, higher-quality option on the trade market. That stash of upper-level arms could also come in handy when looking for trades to solidify the lineup and a middle-of-the-pack defensive unit.
The bullpen, though, is a greater area of need. The Twins traded Fernando Rodney to the A’s in August and don’t have a set closer in place, though that’s perhaps less critical than ever in an age where longstanding conventional pitching roles are evolving. Fellow offseason pickup Addison Reed had a terrific start to the 2018 season before struggling badly for a month and then hitting the disabled list with an elbow impingement. He’s owed $8.25MM in 2019 and will be part of the bullpen — likely alongside Trevor May, Trevor Hildenberger and Taylor Rogers. Oliver Drake was excellent for the Twins after finally escaping the waiver carousel, so perhaps he’s pitched his way into the plan. Regardless, there should be multiple spots up for grabs, and the Twins have the means to pursue any high-end reliever they deem a worthy target.
Broadly speaking, in fact, the Twins should have the payroll capacity and the farm strength to pursue just about any possibility they wish. Minnesota has just over $30MM in guaranteed contracts on the books for 2019 (plus another $38MM in projected arbitration salaries) and, incredibly, has a completely blank payroll slate beyond 2019. The Twins have zero dollars in guaranteed money on the books for the 2020 season, so there’s no reason to think they can’t spend as aggressively as any club in the game.
That shouldn’t be read as an implication that the Twins will be a realistic landing spot for a premier free agent such as Bryce Harper or Manny Machado; swaying either player to sign in Minnesota would be a tall order for several reasons. Minneapolis has never been a highly coveted free-agent destination, the 2018 season was a noted disappointment, the Twins have never committed a $30MM+ salary to a single player, and they’d have less margin for error in doing so than larger-market clubs with better television contracts and greater revenue streams. But the Twins did put forth a $100MM+ offer to Yu Darvish last offseason, and it’s not unreasonable to think they could be in the market for free agents who could command annual salaries approaching or exceeding $20MM (e.g. Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel).
Where they’ll look to improve is a larger question than if they have the means to do so. Corbin or Keuchel would represent the most plausible rotation upgrades on the free-agent market, but competition for both figures to be steep. Craig Kimbrel sits atop the free-agent market for relievers, and the market has various top-tier options beyond him, including Jeurys Familia, Zach Britton and 2018 breakout Adam Ottavino. Given the uncertainty at the back of the ’pen and the wide-open payroll ledger, the Twins seem as good a bet as any club to add some high-end relief help this winter.
The lineup presents even more opportunities, as the Twins could target upgrades at any infield slot or conceivably add an impact designated hitter like Nelson Cruz. Minnesota was fine committing its DH spot to one player last season, and even if Logan Morrison’s faulty hip (which eventually required surgery to repair a torn labrum) torpedoed his ’18 season, the willingness to go with one regular option rather than rotate several players through that spot is notable. Marwin Gonzalez’s versatility could serve the Twins well, and they’re a plausible landing spot for a bounceback candidate like Josh Donaldson, who could slot into the middle of the lineup at third base and push Sano to first base/designated hitter himself. Even in the outfield, it’s not outlandish to think the Twins could look for at least one upgrade, with only Rosario having turned in consecutive impressive seasons.
Beyond their substantial payroll flexibility, the Twins possess a solid farm system in addition to the aforementioned back-of-the-rotation depth. They’re one of 10 or more viable candidates to make an earnest run at J.T. Realmuto on the trade market and will be opportunistic in seeking out additional scenarios. The D-backs, for instance, would surely love to clear a portion of Zack Greinke’s remaining salary in a trade and would be intrigued by Minnesota’s system. The Phillies and Cardinals both have their sights set on contending but are also both in line for active winters on the trade market and could make numerous intriguing players available (e.g. Cesar Hernandez, Jose Martinez).
Possibilities abound, but Minnesota has as much flexibility as just about any organization in baseball to make changes this winter, and the likelihood of doing so is strong. The 2017 Twins, frankly, weren’t as good as a playoff berth in a weak American League might indicate on the surface, and that sudden success likely created some unrealistic expectations about the 2018 campaign. But, conversely, the 2018 Twins shouldn’t have been as bad as they were. Fair or not, that 2017 season raised expectations in the Twin Cities, and now that Falvey and Levine are entering their third winter in charge and have their own manager in place, the pressure will be on to start putting forth a more consistently competitive team — one that can not only enter the Wild Card picture but one that can challenge the Indians in an otherwise still flimsy division.