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Should the Twins target a top-line starter in free agency?

There are a lot of good starting pitchers available in free agency. Should the Twins target any of them?

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

About ten months ago I advocated the Twins going all-in during the 2015-2016 off-season. Maybe I was being a bit gung-ho (I was totally being gung-ho), but I had an expectation that Minnesota would take a significant step forward during the season and that it would place them in a prime position to be a bit more aggressive for the following season. This was a conclusion I came to through a two-part posting in the middle of January, when desperation and eternal hope made for a heady mix of shallow confidence. You can read both articles via the must-reads section below.

Over the past couple of years I've wanted the Twins to do a couple of different things as they went through the process of rebuilding. The first was to overspend on a free agent or two as a loss leader strategy, to help kick start Minnesota's visibility as a viable destination for free agents as a team moving in the right direction - which they did by signing Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. The second was to have established, successful veterans on the roster when the wave of prospects began to surface - which they did by signing Ervin Santana and Torii Hunter. These moves have paid off (or not) to different degrees, but credit the front office for spending when they needed to.

But is it time, as I anticipated it would be ten months ago, to take the next step? Is it time for the Twins to wade into the deep end of the free agency pool? Spending $55 million on Santana was great, but if we stick with the pool analogy then the front office's toes were still able to touch bottom in that deal. Dishing out for a player like Zack Greinke or David Price is a different matter altogether, because teams that give out six or seven-year deals to pitchers with contracts worth $200+ million usually have a hard time just treading water by the time they get to years three or four.

When I wrote those two articles last January, I assumed a few different things that led to my endorsement of the Twins going all-in. I thought that both Trevor May and Alex Meyer would be forcing the issue; I thought Tommy Milone could be traded. For their own reasons none of those things are guaranteed, and yet the Twins still have a long list of pitchers in line for a five-man rotation: Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson, Tyler Duffey, and Jose Berrios. And May and Milone. Adding another starter into the mix will not making finding a solution less complicated.

Here's an updated look at the same 11 pitchers we highlighted last January. I've kept the three-year rolling format, and I've also included splits from 2012 to 2014 as well as 2013 to 2015 to give you an idea of how each pitcher is trending.

2015-2016 best FA starters

(Click to embiggen)

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether or not the Twins should A) chase another starting pitcher, and B) chase another starting pitcher in free agency, there's a great deal to consider here. Maybe it's age, maybe it's declining performance or a likely decline in performance, but there's also that annoying qualifying offer. The qualifying offer for the 2015-2016 off-season is $15.8 million, and it's worth noting that no player has accepted the QO since the rules around free agents were changed.

With eight pitchers already on the roster in need of Major League innings, the question of adding another starting pitcher into that mix brings its own issues. It would require the Twins to move at least one starter, and because nobody is going to take Nolasco off of Minnesota's hands without some serious convincing it's highly probable that Terry Ryan would be forced into trading one of his young quality arms - from Gibson to May to Berrios.

It's going to be very easy to call for the Twins to spend money on an ace pitcher this winter, and you're going to hear it a lot, but no decision is made in a vacuum. Whether or not it's responsible to go after a top line starter in free agency and whether or not the Twins could sort out the roster are two separate questions that will need to be answered at roughly the same time (the first based on circumstance and the second as a result), and that isn't always as easy as we make it out to be.

Should the Twins target a top-line starter in free agency? My first reaction is to say no. Pitchers like Samardzija, Latos, or Fister guarantee the team nothing and aren't great bets to be significantly better investments than Phil Hughes or Ervin Santana. Better options - think Price, Greinke, Cueto, Zimmermann - will require long, risky contracts worth the kind of money that would bring down a rebuild pretty quickly if those go pear shaped; and Greinke and Zimmermann will both require the signing team to surrender its first-round draft pick.

My advice for anyone who wants to see Minnesota go after a top line starter is to place hope in Terry Ryan's ability to pull the trigger on a trade. The Twins have a great deal of minor league talent, and Major League-ready pitching talent, that can be stacked up in order to bring in the type of pitcher we're looking for. These pitchers will be younger, will be on the right side of 30, and won't require the yearly or financial commitment of their equivalents on the free agent market.