The reigning AL Central champs moved on from their longtime left fielder, retained their top slugger and improved their defense. They’ll face stiff competition in their quest for a third straight division title, however.
Major League Signings
- Nelson Cruz, DH: One year, $13MM
- Andrelton Simmons, SS: One year, $10.5MM
- J.A. Happ, LHP: One year, $8MM
- Alex Colome, RHP: One year, $6.25MM (includes buyout of 2022 mutual option)
- Matt Shoemaker, RHP: One year, $2MM
- Hansel Robles, RHP: One year, $2MM
- Total spend: $41.5MM
Trades and Claims
Notable Minor League Signings
- Keon Broxton, Rob Refsnyder, Tzu-Wei Lin, Danny Coulombe, Andrew Romine, JT Riddle, Tomas Telis, Glenn Sparkman, Luke Farrell, Derek Law, Juan Minaya, Andrew Albers, Chandler Shepherd
- Jake Odorizzi, Eddie Rosario, Trevor May, Tyler Clippard, Sergio Romo, Rich Hill, Matt Wisler, Marwin Gonzalez, Homer Bailey, Alex Avila, Ehire Adrianza, Sean Poppen
For the first time in half a decade, the Twins will open the season with someone other than Eddie Rosario patrolling left field. The homegrown slugger held that spot for the better part of six years, but faced with Rosario’s final raise in arbitration and with multiple high-end prospects on the horizon, the Twins felt that money was better spent elsewhere. The league seemingly agreed, as Rosario went unclaimed on outright waivers before being non-tendered. He’d go on to sign in Cleveland for an $8MM salary that gives him a modest raise over 2020’s $7.75MM mark but still falls shy of what he’d have earned in arbitration.
While it was at least a mild surprise that no club jumped to grab Rosario on outright waivers, the Twins’ decision to move on in some capacity was largely foreseeable. Rosario is a fine player with above-average pop, but given his sub-par on-base skills and rising price tag, the writing was on the wall.
The Twins have two of the game’s top overall outfield prospects, Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach, nearly ready for a long-term audition in the outfield. Kirilloff, who has a chance to make the Opening Day roster, made his big league debut in last year’s postseason and seems to be first in line for the left field vacancy. The Twins also saw former No. 35 overall pick Brent Rooker, a left fielder/first baseman, make his big league debut last year. Jake Cave gives them another option in left should injuries or struggles keep the prospects from taking over.
It may not have surprised as many fans as the Rosario move, but the Twins’ non-tender of righty Matt Wisler was also unexpected. Having plucked the former top prospect off waivers to begin the 2019-20 offseason, the Twins pushed Wisler to throw his slider at a staggering 83 percent clip. The experiment was an unequivocal success, as Wisler turned in a 1.07 ERA and punched out nearly a third of the batters he faced. His 13 percent walk rate was far too high, however, and though his projected arbitration salary wasn’t much more than $1MM, the Twins appeared confident they could replace his production.
With that pair of non-tenders saving $10MM or more, the Twins’ payroll outlook in early December was relatively pristine. Josh Donaldson is earning $23MM annually, but the 2021 projected payroll at that point was a mere $90MM — down from more than $130MM in 2020. The number plummets in 2022, when the Twins have just $48MM in guaranteed contracts on the books.
As such, the Twins had the financial wherewithal to pursue just about any free agent, but it quickly became clear they were focused primarily on one-year additions. Whether the driving factor there was uncertainty about further revenue losses in 2021, the desire to keep a clean outlook for next year’s mega-crop of free agents or a combination of multiple factors, the trend is clear both in the free agents they signed and in the names they pursued.
Minnesota tried for one of the market’s bigger names out of the gate, reportedly making a strong offer for Charlie Morton before he took an early deal with the Braves. The Athletic’s Dan Hayes wrote back in November that the Twins were a “finalist” for Morton, but the righty’s strong preference to pitch near his family home in Bradenton, Fla. has long been known.
Pursuits of Corey Kluber and James Paxton led to similar results. After spending months rehabbing at a facility run by Yankees director of health and performance Eric Cressey, Kluber went to the Bronx. Paxton re-upped with the Mariners, and Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto said afterward that Paxton “wanted to be a Mariner” gave the club a “hometown discount” of sorts on his $8.5MM salary.
The Twins did ultimately add a pair of veterans to the rotation, inking 38-year-old lefty J.A. Happ to a one-year deal worth $8MM and signing righty Matt Shoemaker to a one-year, $2MM deal after an injury-wrecked pair of seasons. In many ways, the signings mirror last winter’s signings of Homer Bailey and Rich Hill. The more expensive of the two additions is designed to stabilize the rotation, while the more affordable one carries more upside and a greater risk of injury. The combined $10MM price point is a dead match with the combined $10MM base salaries of Bailey ($7MM) and Hill ($3MM).
While neither Happ nor Shoemaker gives the Twins a top-of-the-rotation presence, the organizational hope is surely that last year’s breakout from Kenta Maeda gives them the ace-caliber arm they’ve lacked since Johan Santana. Between Maeda, Jose Berrios, Michael Pineda, Happ and Shoemaker, the Twins have a solid Opening Day rotation. Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe give them a trio of younger options with some big league experience (and a good bit of success, in Dobnak’s case). Right-handers Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran, both top 100 prospects according to FanGraphs and The Athletic, loom in the upper minors and could debut in 2021.
Jake Odorizzi remained on the Twins’ radar for much of the offseason, but his desire for a multi-year deal never seemed to align with the team’s general approach. While the eventual terms of his deal with the Astros may arguably have been a better investment than the one-year deals with Happ and Shoemaker, Odorizzi was reported to be seeking a three-year deal at $13-15MM annually for much of the winter. By the times his asking price dropped, the Twins had signed multiple pitchers and turned the page on the 2019 All-Star.
Looking to the bullpen, the Twins lost nearly their entire setup corps with Trevor May, Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard and Wisler hitting the market. All four will pitch elsewhere in 2021. In place of that trio, Minnesota signed former division rival Alex Colome to a one-year deal and took a chance on a Hansel Robles rebound. Both have closing experience, and Colome has been particularly effective in terms of ERA over the past couple seasons with the White Sox. Even though Colome’s secondary marks don’t look as appealing as his ERA, it’s hard to find fault with the $6.25MM price tag. He’s expected to share closing duties with holdover Taylor Rogers, who took a slight step back in 2020 but has amassed a generally strong late-inning track record since 2018.
The Twins’ acquisition of righty Shaun Anderson didn’t draw much attention, but he gives the club a spin-rate project on which they can dream. Anderson has elite spin on both his four-seamer and, in particular, his slider. Walks have been a significant problem thus far in his big league career, but Anderson has a pair of minor league options remaining, so the Twins can take their time in trying to shape him into a quality reliever.
In the meantime, the Twins will look for incumbent options to step up. Tyler Duffey broke out as one of the game’s best relievers in 2019-20 (2.31 ERA, 2.72 SIERA, 34.2 K%, 6.1 BB%). Flamethrower Jorge Alcala had a quietly excellent showing in 2020, and righty Cody Stashak is another largely anonymous but highly effective reliever through his first 40 big league frames. Southpaw Caleb Thielbar was tendered a contract in December after a strong season, continuing his emotional comeback effort following a five-year absence from MLB.
On the offensive side of the coin, the main storyline for the Twins entering the winter (beyond Rosario) was whether they’d re-sign veteran slugger Nelson Cruz. A reunion with Cruz was dependent on the universal designated hitter — or the lack thereof. Cruz reportedly sought a two-year contract, while the Twins were steadfast in their preference to keep the commitment to one year. With few AL contenders having the capacity to add a pure DH, however, Cruz seemingly needed the universal DH to be permanently implemented if he was going to create enough market pressure to get to a two-year deal. That still hasn’t happened, and Cruz eventually signed on for a third season at Target Field after the Twins upped their one-year offer to match the AAV from his first two years there.
As noted when previewing their offseason, the Twins didn’t necessarily have a true “need” in the middle infield, but it represented an opportunity to get creative. President of baseball ops Derek Falvey, GM Thad Levine and their front office crew did just that, pursuing one-year pacts with free-agent shortstops Andrelton Simmons and Marcus Semien. When Semien took a larger offer in Toronto, the Twins quickly wrapped things up with Simmons.
In doing so, they secured a historically gifted defender and pushed incumbent shortstop Jorge Polanco to second base. Versatile Luis Arraez will slide into the vacant super-utility role previously held by Marwin Gonzalez, who signed with the Red Sox as a free agent. Arraez, a .331/.390/.429 hitter through his first 124 MLB games, will get into the lineup regularly by filling in around the infield and in left field.
Both Simmons and Polanco have battled significant ankle issues the past two seasons, but the hope is that after a pair of surgeries, Polanco will be back to full strength for the first time since 2018. If Simmons is healthy, he and Josh Donaldson could form one of the game’s best left-side tandems on defense. Polanco has never rated as a strong defensive shortstop, but the Twins feel he can be above-average at second base.
If that’s indeed the case, the Twins could be one of the game’s best defensive clubs. Miguel Sano isn’t going to win any awards for his glovework at first base, but the rest of the infield, combined with strong defenders behind the dish (Ryan Jeffers, Mitch Garver) and elite defenders in the outfield (Byron Buxton, Max Kepler) should be formidable.
The Twins were dealt a tough blow early in Spring Training, when it was learned on report day that some knee discomfort being experienced by Royce Lewis, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, was due to an ACL tear that will end his 2021 season before it begins. Lewis, widely regarded among the game’s top 30 or so prospects, hurt his knee during offseason workouts and aggravated it when he slipped during the blizzards near his Texas home. He’ll now go more than two years between competitive games, although at just 21 years old, he has youth on his side.
The 2021 Twins have a different feel to them than 2019’s “Bomba Squad,” but this looks to be an improved defensive club with a good bit of thunder in the middle of the lineup and a deep pitching staff. The Indians’ trades of Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco have dropped them a ways back in projections, but improvements on the White Sox roster mean the Twins will still face stiff competition as they look for an AL Central threepeat. Meanwhile, both the Royals and Tigers added some veterans to complement rosters that are seeing the fruits of their rebuilding efforts percolate to the big league level.
This should be the best iteration of the AL Central we’ve seen in years. The Twins have again positioned themselves as clear contenders in 2021 and done so while maintaining the long-term flexibility to be prominent players in next year’s stacked free-agent market.
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