2016 Minnesota Twins Off-Season Outlook: Starters


Editor’s note: This is the second of a six-part segment detailing the Minnesota Twins and the 2016 off season. On deck: Relief pitchers. Part: 1

The 2015 Minnesota Twins rotation wasn’t exactly the Island of Misfit Toys, but more like the San Francisco Giants staff if you remove Madison Bumgarner — a collection of mid-rotation upside with very little consistency.

It didn’t get off to a blazing start either: Free agent signing Ervin Santana was suspended 82 games for a performance-enhancing drug test failure, juggernaut Phil Hughes battled injury and 2014 free agent signing Ricky Nolasco was miserable and injured.

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But there were bright sides. Tyler Duffey emerged as legitimate rotation candidate and Kyle Gibson completed another healthy season coming off Tommy John surgery with No. 3-4 upside. And Santana, what a flurry of a finish to the season.

Coming into 2016, the Minnesota Twins have decisions to make in the rotation. By my count there’s seven on-staff rotation options opening the year, and that doesn’t consider any the minors, trades or free agents. Here’s who is coming back, on the fence, on the way out and who should be considered.

They’ll be back:

Ervin Santana. Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Ervin Santana: He was flat-out dominant to finish the season, though he finished with an ERA of 4.00 and a disturbing FIP (4.17) and xFIP (4.42). Given that he was suspended for half the 2015 season, a full year of Santana will give the Twins a better idea of what they’re paying. He’s signed through 2018 with a 2019 buyout and possible vesting option.

Kyle Gibson: He improved in his second full season in Minnesota and he’s controllable. He’s arbitration eligible in 2017 and won’t be a free agent until 2020. At his current performance level, he’s a solid mid-rotation starter with an inexpensive future. He’s also a rotation lock.

They’ll be back…at some point:

Tommy Milone: Milone, 29*, missed time with injury, making 23 starts, but was just as effective as the rest of the rotation in terms of standard and advanced metrics. He will compete for a spot, and begins arbitration this year at a projected $4.5 million.

Tyler Duffey: Duffey, 25*, will compete for a rotation spot, but any repeat of his 58 innings in 2015 will earn him a spot. He could start in Triple-A and could be on an innings count in 2016. His contract and service time means he’ll be a fixture if he continues to pitch with mid-rotation upside.

Something to prove:

Phil Hughes:  Hughes battled injuries last year and regressed. Hughes is known as a pitch tinkerer and his poor 2015 was a mixed bag: a lot of home runs, fewer strikeouts, but a better-than-average walk rate. He needs to show 2014 wasn’t a fluke.

Trevor May: He was barely serviceable in 16 starts last season, but dynamic out of the bullpen. May, 26, said he wants to be a starter and he’ll get a chance to compete for a spot.

All but gone:

Mike Pelfrey: The only impending free agent starter on board. After three disastrous season in the Twin Cities (his 4.26 ERA in 2015 was his best season), the Minnesota Twins are very unlikely to welcome him back with an abundance of superior options.

All but, all but gone:

Ricky Nolasco: Shedding his contract needs to be an off-season priority. Owed an average of $12 million the next two seasons, his 2018 option vests if he reaches 400 combined innings in 2016-17. A contract dump trade is one option, but regardless of how he goes, the writing is on the wall.

Sep 2, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray (54) pitches the ball against the Los Angeles Angels during the fourth inning at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The outside options:

Jordan Zimmermann: Not the top free agent starter, which bodes well for the Twins. Problem is there might be competition for Zimmermann’s services. A 5-to-6-year deal in the $100-130 million range would put him close enough in the Twins’ range to ask ownership for a spending boost. The length would seem to align with the wishes of Pohlad. He would also be the missing and needed ace.

Sonny Gray: I suggested kicking the tires on Gray (turns 26 in November) earlier. He may not even be on the table for anything reasonable, but like I said, Billy Beane has a different view of fair value than the rest of baseball. I might go Jose Berrios and Max Kepler or similar for his services when you consider he doesn’t hit arbitration until 2017 or free agency until 2020. That’s the high-end deal I consider. If he becomes available, he becomes highly in-demand for those reasons and his ability to carry a weaker staff.

James Shields. Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

James Shields: A pop-up name in San Diego rumors last season when Joaquin Benoit was the reported target. Nolasco’s contract dump was on the table, but Shields is owed an average of $21 million through 2018. His 2015 was unimpressive, and unless the Padres are willing to eat Nolasco’s contract and part of Shields’ contract, this money is better spent elsewhere. At 34 (in December) he’s beginning his decline.

Tyson Ross: A popular trade target who will garner interest from the Cubs, Red Sox and others this off season. If Minnesota was the only team in on Ross, he might be more attainable. They have one of the deepest prospect bases in the league, but the Cubs and Red Sox are in better position to purge more of that depth if it turns into an arms race. Ross is arbitration eligible this off season (projected $10M) and hits free agency in 2018.

Alex Cobb: Cobb is a buy-low option coming off Tommy John surgery this summer.  He’s arbitration eligible in 2016 (est. $4M) and is a free agent in 2018. Cobb could rejoin a rotation in June or July and be there full-time for 2017. That’s the down side, but his injury and its timing puts the Rays in a tough spot in terms of dealing him for peak value before needing to resign him.

Down on the farm:

Jose Berrios. Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Berrios: Unlikely to start the season in the rotation for service time purposes. For a Gray-caliber starter and contract friendliness, Berrios could be considered a trade chip. He’s the top pitching prospect in the Twins’ system, who just keeps dominating, and won’t turn 22 until May. All that makes him a sort-of wild card moving forward. Does he fulfill the promise or flame out into another mid-rotation option?

Alex Meyer: Showed up briefly in 2015, but basically took half the season off. His second half of 2015 was phenomenal. Like Berrios, probably doesn’t join the rotation right away, and could see bullpen work first. I like him — in last year’s second half form — as a better rotation candidate than May. Meyer turns 26 in January.

 * Represented age is how old player will be in 2016.