If the Minnesota Twins are going to escape the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2002, they need to make a splash on the pitching market this offseason.
The Twins are coming off a 101-win season that included them winning the American League Central for the first time since 2010. Their success was highly generated by an electric offense.
With the likes of Nelson Cruz, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Mitch Garver, Miguel Sano, and Marwin Gonzalez, among others, in place, manager Rocco Baldelli has a formidable offense from top-to-bottom. Last season they had eight consistent rotation players post an OPS of .800 or higher. Collectively, the Twins were first in Major League Baseball in home runs (307) and total bases (2,832) and second in runs (939), hits (1,547), batting average (.270), and OPS (.832).
Statistically speaking, the Twins sported a reliable starting rotation. At the same time, certain pitchers overachieved in the first half of the season.
Throughout the bulk of his career right-hander Jake Odorizzi has found success as a groundball pitcher and went into 2019 with a career 3.95 ERA. After a June 9 start against the Detroit Tigers, Odorizzi owned a 1.92 ERA. A reliable pitcher? Yes, but he’s more so a pitcher who has been efficient getting through five innings. He ended up recording a 4.77 ERA across his last 17 starts.
After being inserted into the team’s starting rotation in April, Martin Perez pitched well. He was working out of trouble, keeping the Twins in games, and showcasing some promise. Then he fell off a cliff, finishing the season with a 5.12 ERA.
Meanwhile, their ace, Jose Berrios, had a tumultuous second half after pitching at a Cy Young Award level beforehand. Kyle Gibson, who recently signed a three-year, $28 million deal with the Texas Rangers, was a shaky force on the rubber, and Michael Pineda, who the Twins re-signed to a two-year, $20 million deal on Thursday, was unable to pitch in the postseason due to breaking MLB’s Drug and Prevention Program policy.
They need starting pitching.
Right now the Twins rotation is Berrios, Odorizzi, and Pineda. Berrios has a mean curveball, Odorizzi is a proven commodity, and Pineda has a powerful delivery, but that trio isn’t enough for the Twins to get through a playoff series.
The Twins haven’t made an expensive, long-term investment since they extended franchise royalty Joe Mauer on an eight-year, $184 million deal in 2010. There’s no reason why they can’t spend big bucks on a top-of-the-rotation starter.
In all likelihood, they won’t extend the otherworldly offers deemed necessary to sign Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. Concurrently, signing another top-flight free agent such as Hyun-Jin Ryu, who finished second in National League Cy Young Award voting in 2019, or Madison Bumgarner, a proven commodity, would give the Twins a potent rotation.
Each southpaw has found success in the postseason and brings an element of unpredictability to the table, in a positive way. Ryu is as deceptive as any starter in the sport with his off-speed pitches, and he effectively utilizes a high 80s fastball. Bumgarner still totals strikeouts at a high rate, pitches deep into games, and grinds through at-bats.
The Twins ran into a wall in the AL Division Series when they faced the New York Yankees. They simply weren’t ready to win a series of that magnitude. That’s not to say they didn’t have the talent to do so, rather they have a youthful positional core that collectively experienced its first playoff series this past October.
You learn from it and move on. They ran into a seasoned playoff team in the Yankees whose pitching staff, which was a weakness in the regular season, held their bats to seven runs and trampled their starting pitching in Games 1 and 2 of the series. Now they know what it’s like to be humbled in the playoffs.
The offense will be back. Outside of Berrios, the same can’t be said about starting pitching.
When you have a loaded positional core, you do whatever you can to complement it and further weaponize other aspects of your roster. The Twins are a mere top-of-the-rotation starter away from being a World Series contender.
Sure, their bullpen is underwhelming and endured its fair share of rough patches in 2019, but it’s not as if you can’t win in this sport with such a liability. Look at the Washington Nationals. They finished last season with the worst bullpen ERA in MLB (5.66), but they maneuvered around the deficiency with their starting pitching and won the World Series. So, clearly, it’s possible — albeit the Twins don’t have the World Series champion’s starting rotation.
The worst thing the Twins can do is bank on internal improvement. The Yankees, Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, and Tampa Bay Rays (the other four 2019 AL playoff teams), are seeking ways to significantly improve their rosters.
Another motivation for the Twins to pursue Ryu or Bumgarner is Odorizzi’s contract situation. Accepting the $17.8 million qualifying offer, Odorizzi is only guaranteed to stay in the Twin Cities through next season. Signing another starter ensures that the Twins have at least two accomplished starting pitchers — the other being Berrios — in 2021.
Signing one-year stopgaps or essential body replacements for Gibson and Perez, a free agent, gets the Twins back in this situation next offseason.
When you have a great team at your disposal, you have to capitalize and chase a championship. Those who take chances when times are rough or hit an impasse are rewarded. Those who don’t never play themselves out of the rut.
The pieces are in place for the Twins to win a playoff series. The missing ingredient to them contending for the World Series is another great starting pitcher. Suitable options exist for Minnesota brain trust to make a free agent splash.