2016 Minnesota Twins Off-Season Outlook: Front Office


Editor’s note: This is the first of a six-part segment detailing the Minnesota Twins and the 2016 off season. On deck: Starting pitchers.

When setting up a timeline for the Minnesota Twins several years back, 2016 was the target year. The prospects would arrive in full force and wins would start piling up.

The Twins would be relevant again.

Relevancy almost came a year early in 2015. The 83-79 Twins produced their first winning season since 2010, beating PECOTA (70-92) and FanGraphs (74-88) projections.

Realistically, this team benefited from sequencing and a weak American League. Their run differential was -4. Only the Los Angeles Angels were worse in run differential (-14) and better in record (85-77). In the division, the sudden demolition of the Detroit Tigers and a mediocre season from the Cleveland Indians (+29, 81-80) helped.

Digressing, let’s talk about 2016, the year it all comes together. The Revival. Relevancy (right?).

Kicking off the winter of content, we have to start where every decision is ultimately going to originate from: the front office. Hence why the reminder (friendly or not) that the 2015 Minnesota Twins weren’t exactly a product of good baseball heading into 2016.

Jun 18, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; A general view of Target field with Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) at bat in the eighth inning against the St Louis Cardinals at Target Field. The Minnesota Twins beat the St Louis Cardinals 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

To start, let’s talk about team building. There’s a lot of ways to fry an egg, and build a baseball team. The Minnesota Twins have been collecting high draft picks and nailed a few major international signings (Miguel Sano and Max Kepler).

This much General Manager Terry Ryan is known for doing. He did it in the late 90s, he started doing it again. Even his first round draft picks during the Twins’ run of success in the 2000s produced steady major league contributors: Denard Span (No. 20, 2005), Trevor Plouffe (20, 2004), Glen Perkins (22, 2004), Matt Garza (25, 2005) and Ben Revere (28, 2007)*. The most recent class on its way consists of Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey from the 2012 draft.

He’s also known for poaching value out of trades, though not always sticking with them long enough to matter to the organization. Ryan turned Span into organizational top-10 prospect Alex Meyer and Revere into Trevor May (and Vance Worley) most recently. He nabbed David Ortiz, but released him in 2002**. The same for Carlos Gomez, shipping him to Milwaukee for JJ Hardy after picking him up in the Johan Santana deal.

Bygones being bygones, Ryan can draft, trade and work the international market at times. But he really hasn’t had a hit in the free agent market.

Payroll is part of the problem.  A .280 hitter with average pop in his bat, enough speed to swipe 20 bases and plus fielding has a going rate of 6/$100M (see: Jason Heyward this off season) or 4/$70M for an older player (see: Ben Zobrist). Ace pitching is out-of-this-stratosphere expensive.

Some of that is economics of rising salaries and some is how valued flexibility is to teams that understand the importance of multiple tools in moderation. Think about the value Brock Holt holds in Boston now and how underrated/unappreciated he would have been on say, the 1996 Red Sox.

To a certain extent, low-budget team building is about drafting well and finding the undervalued. Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs are the model for modern day teams. Epstein is masterful when digging through another team’s garbage. He picked up David Ortiz after the Twins shed him, fleeced Baltimore for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop and took Oakland for Addison Russell***.

The difference in team builders is one of the reasons I don’t fully buy into the Cubs’ ascension being a road map for the Twins. Most obvious, Epstein is leagues ahead Ryan in scouting, drafting, trading and could build/push the timeline knowing the Ricketts Family would financially back him when the time came.

Ryan drafts well, but his recent trend of selecting hard-throwing college relievers and trying to convert them to starters is misfiring badly. After Nick Gordon, the 2014 draft is looking like a wash (I’ll address the trio of Nick Burdi, Michael Cederoth and Jake Reed later).

Most notably, though, player and advanced evaluation separates Ryan from not just Epstein, but a lot of GMs in the game. Epstein was at the forefront of Boston’s acceptance of Sabermetrics and used those tools to build solid defensive teams and find undervalued players.

We know Ryan’s Saber knowledge is pretty weak. He stated Joe Mauer can be a .300 hitter again despite career worsts in several traditional and advanced metrics. He also trumpeted Torii Hunter’s defense even though metrics show he cost the team runs and covered zero ground in the process.

That level of knowledge seems unlikely to increase in one winter. So assuming Ryan makes no miraculous venture into Saber comprehension, the Twins enter 2016’s hot stove with a payroll nearing team record highs and little wiggle room without ownership’s blessing.

Payroll chatter beckons talk to the most recent free agents in the Twin Cities. The Ricky Nolasco and Ervin Santana deals are awful and will handcuff Minnesota eventually, especially if ownership doesn’t believe the great revival is any closer by spending money.

Think about this: If Ryan stayed put on the $10-11M back-end rotation starters the last two off seasons, the Twins would have Sano, Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Berrios to pitch to potential free agents, with about $20M to spend this year and more than $100M available through at least 2018.

That sort of money can lock up Jordan Zimmermann early in the process, or at very least lend flexibility for other positions without prospects on the rise — without going to ownership hat in hand.

Hindsight is 20/20 though****.

Nolasco’s contract is a hot mess. Santana is always somewhere between unstoppable and worst pitcher in baseball on the inconsistency scale during a season.

The Twins front office is old school at a time when old school seems archaic with the evaluation tools available. Old school can work with high payrolls, but low budget teams actually need to adapt to win.

As this off-season outlook moves forward, there will be some recurring themes emanating from where I think the front office can improve the team. The top-5 line items are here:

  1. Find an ace: There is no ace on staff. There’s no No. 2 on staff. Convince ownership to make a real run at Jordan Zimmermann.
  2. No impulse buys: Free agent markets for shortstop, catcher and relief pitching are all crapshoots.
  3. Align the trade chips: Jorge Polanco, Trevor Plouffe, Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia could be in demand.
  4. Get ahead of July: Milwaukee may be open to dealing Jonathan Lucroy. Kick the tires on Sonny Gray in Oakland, for example. He’s not arbitration eligible until 2017, and who the hell knows what Billy Beane considers fair market value anymore.
  5. Raid the farm: If 2016 is really the revival year, get ready to do what Epstein and the Cubs did with their prospects in 2015 and make them mainstays.

* Ryan resigned as Twins GM after the 2007 season and remained on as a special adviser. During the 2008-11 stretch, the Twins drafted Aaron Hicks (14/2008) and Kyle Gibson (22/2009) in the first round, and Brian Dozier (Round 8, 2009) and Eddie Rosario (Rd. 4/2010).

**Ortiz was linked to testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 after being let go by the Twins and signing with the Boston Red Sox.

***Cubs traded starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland. Hammel entered free agency after the 2014 season and resigned with Epstein and the Cubs on a 2-year deal.

****Admit it, we all know they overpaid from the get-go.