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The 2020 rotation plan part one: Potentially returning pitchers

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What starters should the Twins bring back for 2020

Divisional Series - New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins - Game Three Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

As I’m sure many of you are already aware, here is a list of starting pitchers guaranteed to be with the Twins for the 2020 season:

Jose Berrios

And that is it.

For a team who just won 101 games and sitting at the beginning of what is hopefully a a long reign atop the AL Central, there is a striking lack of stability within the starting rotation. The Yankees exposed this Twins weakness in the ALDS, and the Nationals and Astros have both shown just how important having a strong starting rotation is to be able to succeed in the playoffs.

Today we begin a multi-part series on how to address to Twins starting rotation for 2020 (and beyond). The series is going to work off a handful of assumptions. First and foremost is that a team coming off 101 wins and their first division title in almost a decade is going to want a rotation full of experienced pitchers, trying to limit rookie starters to injury and emergency call ups.

The second is that the Twins will be willing to spend more on salary than they did in 2019, and maybe even 2018. Even with a modest increase, the Twins won’t magically become a big spender and I doubt the overall team salary will be north of $145-150 million.

The third assumption for the series is that the Twins will try to build for a lengthy window and not just 2020, which means they won’t leverage our farm system for a purely short term deal, and they will try to stay away from long term deals that allow them to lower annual expenses now at the expense of long term financial flexibility (unlike the Wild’s contracts for Zach Paris’s and Ryan Suter).

It is hard for a team to find four quality starters by focusing solely on free agents and trades, we are going to need to bring some of our 2019 starters back. Today we will look into what those moves may look like.

Jake Odorizzi

Odorizzi has proven to be a huge bargain in his two years with the Twins after being traded for minor league shortstop Jermaine Palacios, who posted just a .542 OPS in the Rays system this year.

Odorizzi had a great year in 2019 with a 3.51 ERA (3.36 FIP and 4.33 xFIP), 10.0 K/9 (27.1 K%), and 3.0 BB/9 (8.1 BB%). His season was ultimately the most valuable of his career according to both bWAR and fWAR. But Odorizzi’s success comes with a very specific and pronounced drawback—he very rarely makes it deep into games. In 30 regular season starts he only threw 159 inning which means, on average, he doesn’t make it a full six innings in his starts. He pitched seven innings twice in 2019 and completed six total inning another eight times, so he pitched at least six full innings in just a third of his starts.

I’ve always said that he was a #3 pitcher by performance but a #4 by longevity, and that will only continue moving forward. This drawback isn’t unique in modern baseball, and the extra workload it puts on the bullpen will be lessened a bit by the expansion of the roster to 26 players in 2020.

The Twins would be wise to offer Odorizzi a Qualifying Offer before the offseason begins. The QO is an offer for a one year deal that “tags” the player, meaning if he signs with any other team the Twins will receive draft pick compensation (in the form of a pick at the end of the first or second round depending on the total value of the contract Odorizzi signs with a new team).

It is rumored the value of the QO is $17.8 million for 2020, so it would be a big jump in pay for Odorizzi, whose 2019 contract was at $9.5 million this year. If Odorizzi accepts the QO and stays with the Twins, they would be unable to extend a QO after the 2020 season, meaning he could then search for a long term deal without the weight of draft pick compensation weighing down his bargaining power. If Odorizzi wants to stay with the Twins for a longer period of time, he could turn down the QO and sign a multi-year deal with the Twins if he desires. If he wants a long term deal with another team, that team will lose a draft pick (hurting Odorizzi’s bargaining power) unless Odorizzi waits to sign after the 2020 draft, like when Dallas Keuchel signed with the Braves in June of this year.

Odorizzi has stated he wants to stay with the Twins, as his two years in Minnesota have been the most fun he has had playing professional baseball. It would make sense for Odorizzi to turn down the qualifying offer and sign a long term deal with the Twins unless a contender throws a lot more money his way.

I tried to find a parallel to Odorizzi in the last few years under the current CBA and QO system, but there really hasn’t been a player with a similar age and caliber hitting the open market after having been offered a QO. That probably bodes well for the Twins but you never know what potential contenders are willing to overspend to help their rotation.

Signing Odorizzi to the Qualifying Offer would help the Twins in 2020 without providing long term stability in the rotation. I would love to sign him to a 2 year deal with a club option providing a potential 3rd year, with some sort of total in the $45 million range. That would be a very team friendly deal as Odorizzi would not only be cheap, but his next chance at free agency would be going into his age 33 season, which is rarely beneficial to the player. His success in 2019 could earn him a 4 year deal in the $60-70 million dollar range from a contender, similar to Nathan Eovaldi’s 4 year, $67 million deal before this season (although Eovaldi was not attached to a QO.) With Odorizzi’s familiarity in the AL East, I’m sure the Red Sox will come knocking.

Michael Pineda

Pineda is another pitcher who played an important role on a bargain for the Twins, who signed Big Mike to a two year, $10 million contact in 2018. He rehabbed for all of 2018 and came back in a big way in 2019 only to see his season cut short due to suspension for a banned substance.

Pineda posted a 4.01 ERA (4.02 FIP and 4.30 xFIP) over 26 starts in 2019, with a 8.63 K/9 (23.3 K%) and 1.73 BB/9 (4.7 BB%). Those numbers are good in themselves, but he was far better after a dreadful April. In his last 19 starts he posted a 3.38 ERA and had a 3.04 ERA in 9 starts in the second half of the year before his suspension.

Pineda did have some issues maintaining his velocity throughout the season, averaging just 92.5 mph on the pitch all season, far below the 93.9 mph average he posted during his last healthy season in 2017 and the 94.6 mph average he posted in 2016. Coming off both Tommy John surgery and a torn meniscus, the drop makes sense, but is still something worth monitoring. Pineda has only thrown a full season (30+ starts) once in his career, back in 2016.

That injury history, along with missing the first 39 games of 2020 due to suspension, should alter the market for a player who was having a great 2019. If offered, the $17.8 million Qualifying Offer seems like a great deal for Pineda, who would have the potential to start around 25 games in 2020 and build his market for 2021 without having to worry about another Qualifying Offer.

That is, of course, if he wants to leave the Twins at all. Like Odorizzi, Pineda is said to have loved his time with the Twins, who have built a strong clubhouse culture under Rocco Baldelli. His teammates really loved him this year, so much so that Marwin Gonzalez was seen using FaceTime or Skype with Pineda so he could be “present” for the celebration after the team clinched the AL Central.

I would love to see the Twins sign Pineda to a deal similar to the one they signed him for in 2018. Maybe offer Pineda $8 million for the suspension-shortened 2020 and then $12 million for a full 2021. That would be a team friendly deal, and Pineda would be a free agent again at 33, which as mentioned above is less than ideal.

I think the Qualifying Offer makes too much sense for both the team and player. Since players only have 10 days to accept the Qualifying Offer, it would give the Twins some security to sign Big Mike early in the offseason, as they would know how many more rotation spots they needed to fill behind Berrios and the rotation spot destined for Pineda upon his return. For Pineda, the QO would give him a big pay boost for 2020 and allow him to build value as he prepares for free agency as a 32 year old without worry of a QO, which is far more valuable than delaying his free agency another year.

As problematic as the 39 games remaining on his suspension is, I actually like having that opportunity available for a young arm. Guys like Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, and Lewis Thorpe need experience to prove their worth, and giving them a chance to start games early in the year would help the Twins be able to plan their rotation for 2021 and beyond. Whichever youngster wins that rotation spot in Spring Training could even force themselves into the rotation long term if the Twins have a struggling veteran starter on a cheap deal at the back of the rotation to start 2020. Big Mike coming back in early-to-mid May would be like an early trade bolstering the rotation, pushing the young rookie to the way back of the rotation and the struggling veteran to the bullpen or the waiver wire.

Kyle Gibson

Gibson has had an up and down career but is the longest tenured Twin and loved in the clubhouse for his veteran presence and leadership. Unfortunately, a bevy of odd illnesses made Gibson inneffective throughout the year and kept him from repeating the success he found in 2018.

Despite dealing with E. Coli in the offseason, Gibson actually came out of the gate pitching well in 2019, with a 4.09 ERA through 18 appearances in the first half of the season and a 8.9 K/9 through 94.2 innings in that span. The wheels fell off in August, where he posted a 6.27 ERA in 6 starts and 33 innings that month. He was moved to the bullpen in September and did alright in that role until a disappointing appearance in the playoffs.

Gibson’s illnesses didn’t really seem to affect his stuff all that much. He actually gained velocity over last season, and his spin rates remained relatively the same. He simply became far more hittable in 2019. His sinker, his most used pitched, is the perfect picture of his struggles. In 2018 batters hit .248 with a .372 slugging percentage on his sinker. In 2019 that rose to a .302 average with a .472 slugging percentage. Even though Gibson walked fewer people overall this year (3.6 BB/9 in 2018 vs 3.2 BB/9 in 2019) perhaps he lost command within the strike zone which led to his hit-ability.

Gibson likely has two options moving forward. He could probably find a long term deal with a rebuilding team as a starter who will take the ball every fifth day and provide a veteran presence to a young team, like Lance Lynn’s 3 year, $30 million deal he signed before 2019. Gibson’s other option is to take far less on a one year deal to try to earn a spot in a competitor’s rotation as their fifth starter.

There are probably only two scenarios that would bring Gibson back to the Twins in 2020. The first is if the Twins know something about his struggles that they believe will not hinder his performance in 2020. The second is if the starting pitcher market doesn’t go the Twins want it to and they are looking for a 5th starter come February or March.

Martin Perez

The Martin Perez experiment started off so well for the Twins, with Perez posting a 4.44 ERA through 26.1 innings in April and then posting a 3.15 ERA in 34.1 innings in May. Things went sour fast and Perez never posted another monthly ERA below 5.08.

His 5.12 ERA on the year was a bit worse than his 4.66 FIP and 4.69 xFIP so you have to wonder how the struggles of the Twins defense hurt Perez in the second half, but you still want to see better FIP and xFIP numbers and overall results than that, even for your fifth starter.

Perez has a $7 million option for 2020 with just a $500,000 buyout. It would be silly for the Twins to not buy out Perez, since they could realistically cut him and resign him for less than the total cost of the option.

Like Gibson, the Twins could bring back Perez if they think they can get him to be the May version of Martin Perez long term, or if they struggle in free agency. If the Twins bring back Michael Pineda, cutting and resigning Perez to start in April and May and then shifting him to the bullpen for the rest of the season wouldn’t be out of the question either, even if it would draw the ire of fans.

Thoughts

I would be dumbfounded if the Twins didn’t offer Qualifying Offers to Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda. The absolute worst case scenario would be both players signing with other teams. That would give the Twins two extra picks in the 2020 draft, as well as the Draft Bonus money that comes with those picks. It would make it far harder to build a rotation for 2020, but the extra picks would bolster a farm system that shouldn’t have an early pick for many years.

The second worst case scenario would be if both players accept the QO. Multiple reports have stated the Twins should have around $60-$70 million free to spend this offseason just to get back to their 2019 budget. Spending roughly $36 million of that on two pitchers with one year deals is less than ideal, since it would create similar issues with having to sign multiple starting pitchers for 2021 and the Twins would not be able to offer QOs to the duo after the 2020 season.

So what is the best case scenario?

It makes so much sense for Pineda to receive and take the QO. It allows him to try to rebuild his value after three years shortened or taken away completely due to injury and suspension. If he comes back in May and posts a sub-4.00 ERA through the rest of the season, he will be well situated for a great contract as a free agent, even as a 32 year old.

I would love to see the Twins resign Odorizzi to a long term deal. A three year deal is the more team friendly option, but Odorizzi will likely hold out for 4 years so that he probably doesn’t have to be a free agent again. If we can get him on a front loaded deal, he would make a solid #3 pitcher for the near future and a decent #4 or #5 if he regresses a bit with age.

IF the Twins can get these two guys back, our rotation looks something like:

  1. Jose Berrios
  2. TBD
  3. Jake Odorizzi
  4. TBD
  5. Rookie for a month/Michael Pineda

There are still big holes here, obviously. For the Twins offseason to be successful in my eyes, we need to acquire a starter that is better (either in current performance or a combination of performance and potential) than Odorizzi. Using the Pineda rotation spot as your #4 pitcher and signing more of a reclamation project for your #5 spot is also possible but may piss off some fans (everything does that anyway, so it’s a lose-lose.)

Either way, I think bringing back one of Odorizzi and Pineda is absolutely mandatory for the Twins, and bringing back both sets us up for the best possible offseason and start to 2020.

Thanks for reading and be sure to share your opinions below. Next in the series we will look at some of the available options to fill the other spots in the rotation!