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The 2020 rotation plan part two: Free Agents

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Who are the Twins going to target this offseason?

Los Angeles Dodgers v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Welcome to the second part of our series on the Twins 2020 rotation. Last time we looked at the Twins pitchers from 2019 who are entering free agency this offseason, and who of that group the Twins should retain.

With only Jose Berrios guaranteed to return next season, I postulated that the Twins offseason would be easiest if they retain both Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda in some capacity.

I also highlighted the three rules I would be abiding by in this series:

First, the Twins will want a rotation full of experienced starters for 2020. Coming off 101 wins and a division title but a disappointing playoff series, the Twins won’t want to depend on rookie pitchers too heavily. That means we are going to be looking for two starters of this crop for sure, and three if the Twins don’t sign both Odorizzi and Pineda.

Second, the Twins will have money to spend. Multiple reports state the Twins have $60-$70 million to spend on pitchers after taking into account arbitration increases to the returning players on the roster. This is a good chunk of cash, but it will have to be spent wisely.

Third and finally, the Twins will try to build for a long window of success, meaning they will avoid bad contracts that favor 2020 too heavily over 2024.

With these rules in mind let’s look at some of the pitchers who will be on the market this offseason.

Aces:

Gerrit Cole

Cole is exactly what the Twins have been missing since we traded Johan Santana to the Mets. Always a good pitcher in Pittsburgh, Cole bloomed after his trade to Houston. He led the league in ERA, FIP, strikeouts, K/9, and ERA+ this season. It was his second straight season with an ERA below 2.88 and a FIP below 2.70, and his third straight season with at least 32 starts and more than 200.1 innings pitched.

The problem, of course, is that Cole was the best pitcher in the league this year and every contender outside of the Rays and A’s are going to try to sign him. Cole grew up in California, went to school at UCLA, and is said to want to return home. The Angels and Dodgers will likely be able to find the money for him, and so too would the Yankees, another team Cole is rumored to be interested in.

To land Cole the Twins will likely have to outbid any other suitor, probably in the $30-35 million per year range if not higher. There is a chance we land him, of course, but it’s slim and I’m not going to spend too much time fixating on it.

Stephen Strasburg

For Strasburg to reach free agency he would have to opt out of the 4 years and $100 million he has left on his deal with the Nationals. A dominant season and post-season, so far, have made that opt out a distinct possibility.

In 2019 Strasburg topped 30 starts and 200 innings for the first time since 2014. He actually led the National League with 209 innings (a sad sign of our times) with a solid 3.32 ERA and a 251/56 K/BB ratio.

Even though Strasburg will turn 32 in 2020 and has a lengthy injury history, he will easily command whatever increase he demands if he opts out. He may choose to opt out just to get a bigger contract with Washington, or he may sign with whichever California team misses out on Cole (Strasburg is also from California and played college ball in San Diego—who happen to be in need of an experienced ace and willing to spend money).

Ace-in the making?

Zack Wheeler

You either have no idea who Wheeler is, or you know how underrated he is. The third power pitcher in the Mets rotation behind Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, Wheeler has quietly posted very good seasons back to back and is now a free agent for the first time.

In 31 starts this year he threw 195.1 innings with a 3.96 ERA (3.48 FIP, 4.06 xFIP), a 9.0 K/9 (23.6 K%) and 2.30 BB/9 (6.0 BB%). A solid season to be sure, that followed a very good 2018 where he posted a 3.31 ERA (3.25 FIP, 3.80 xFIP), 8.4 K/9 (24.1 K%) and 2.71 BB/9 (7.4 BB%).

As good as those numbers are, many think the right analytic-minded team will be able to unlock another level for Wheeler that the Mets never could. It makes sense, as Wheeler has great stuff. He averages 96.8 MPH on his 4-seam fastball (94th percentile in MLB), and hitters slugged only .337 off it this year. His slider (used mostly against righties) and his change up (used mostly against lefties) had SLG% against of .362 and .376, respectively. His curve is his least-used secondary pitch, and hitters only slugged .282 against it in 71 at bats. Only his sinker (his second most-used pitch, to be fair) gets hit hard with a .488 SLG% against.

Turning 30 in late May, Wheeler has the chance to make some big money this year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with a 4-6 year deal worth $90 to $140 million. While Wheeler doesn’t have the national profile of a true ace yet, he could potentially get there under the tutelage of Wes Johnson and would give the Twins staff two great pitchers at the top.

If I’m the Twins front office, I make my offers to Cole and Strasburg of course, but I make Wheeler the priority and try to sign him quick while the other contenders are trying to land Cole.

Veteran Lefties

Madison Bumgarner

Many would argue that Bumgarner belongs in the Ace category but we know that he has regressed a bit after a few injured seasons and having thrown a lot of innings in his career by the time he turned 30 in August.

That said, he is still a very solid pitcher who can throw a lot of quality innings. In 34 starts this year he threw 207.2 innings with a 3.90 ERA (3.90 FIP, 4.31 xFIP) with a 8.80 K/9 (24.1 K%) and 1.86 BB/9 (5.1 BB%).

Bumgarner has always been successful without a high velocity fastball. He topped out at 91.4 mph this year which is actually the hardest he has thrown it since 2015, when he averaged a career high 92.7 mph. What he lacks in velocity he makes up for in spin rate, being in the 87th percentile in fastball spin rates in the league per Baseball Savant.

His fastball got hit fairly well this year for a .472 SLG% against, and his second most used pitch, his cutter, was hit similarly hard with a .460 SLG% against. His best performing pitches are his curve, thrown 18.4% of the time while opponents only slugged .289 against it, and the changeup he threw 5.4% (only to righties) had a .375 SLG% against.

If he repeats his 2019 performance he represents a solid, inning-eating #3 pitcher with big game experience. Rumor is that he wants to pitch closer to his home in North Carolina, and he would slot perfectly into the Braves rotation spot potentially vacated by Dallas Keuchel to fill the role of veteran lefty in their rotation of youngsters. I don’t expect Bumgarner to sign with the Twins, but if he does I promise to refer to him only as Henry Rowengartner.

Dallas Keuchel

Houston offered Keuchel a Qualifying Offer last year which, combined with his own lofty contract expectations, forced him to go unsigned until after the Draft in June. Keuchel pitched well after joining the Braves, with a 3.75 ERA (4.72 FIP, 4.06 xFIP), 7.27 K/9 (18.7 K%), and 3.12 BB/9 (8.0 BB%) in 112.2 innings. That is solid performance despite subpar metrics, which is the story to watch with Keuchel.

Simply put: Keuchel doesn’t do what teams want modern pitchers to do. His 88.3 MPH sinker was the slowest of his career and in the 3rd percentile in the league for fastball velocity. He is in the 19th percentile in K% and the 32nd percentile in Hard Hit %. So people hit him hard and often... they just hit it into the ground. His 60.1 ground ball percentage is absolutely elite and limits the damage of the hard contact he allows.

Twins fans were upset we didn’t sign Keuchel in the offseason, and were upset again when we didn’t sign him in June. But we saw the eventual decay of the Twins infield defense play out over the season. Jorge Polanco was the worst defensive shortstop out of 21 registered starters by UZR/150 according to Fangraphs. Miguel Sano would have been the worst defensive third baseman had he qualified, and Luis Arraez is a below average second baseman at best. Would the super ground ball guy be a good fit on the Twins? Probably not.

Hyun-Jin Ryu

Ryu accepted a Qualifying Offer from the Dodgers last year and was absolutely filthy. In 182.2 innings he had a 2.32 ERA (3.10 FIP and 3.32 xFIP) with a 8.0 K/9 (22.5 K%) and 1.18 BB/9 (3.3 BB%). He was in the 96th percentile for exit velocity and 88th for hard hit %.

Ryu will be 33 for all of 2020, so it will be interesting to see the market for him this offseason as this year was his healthiest since his rookie season of 2013 (the only season he has started 30 games). If I were a betting man, I’d say he will resign with the Dodgers without much of a true betting war, but you never can tell.

Wade Miley

Miley turned in a very solid season for Houston and is in many ways an interesting parrallel to Keuchel, who he essentially replaced as the lefty in the Astros rotation. In 167.1 innings Miley posted a 3.98 ERA (4.51 FIP and 4.52 xFIP) with a 7.53 K/9 (19.4 K%) and 3.28 BB/9 (8.5 BB%). He throws slightly harder than Keuchel overall but relies mostly on a cutter that averages 87.3 MPH. Miley gets ground balls around 50% of the time but does a great job limiting hard hit balls, landing in the 81st percentile in hard hit % and 75th percentile in exit velocity.

Miley has been dependable arm going out every 5th day, having started at least 30 games in 6 of the last 7 years (and starting 29 games the year before this run) with mixed success. While he wouldn’t be a frontline guy, he could work as a solid pickup as a #4 or #5 pitcher for a team who believes in his production and ability to limit hard contact.

Cole Hamels

Hamels is old and he isn’t the pitcher he once was. But look at this line in the first half of 2019: 2.98 ERA in 99.2 innings with a 97/35 K/BB ratio. After missing all of July he struggled heavily in August and September, managing only 42 innings in 10 starts with a 5.79 ERA.

His statcast data isn’t pretty: 15th percentile in fastball velocity, 17th in exit velocity and 15th in hard hit %. But he managed a 3.81 ERA (4.09 FIP and 4.38 xFIP) overall and had a solid 9.08 K/9 (23.2 K%). He clearly has learned to pitch with his reduced arsenal, at least in the first half of the year. If his poor second half was due in part to his July injury, Hamels might rebound in 2020 on a bit of a discount.

The other guys

Homer Bailey

No

Brett Anderson

No

Ivan Nova

No

Tanner Roark

No? If the Twins are going to sign a “warm body veteran” 5th starter type, then Roark is probably(?) the best option. He has 4 straight years of 30+ starts and has had an ERA between 4.34 and 4.67 in the last three years, although he had his worst FIP and xFIP of those years in 2019. If he is willing to sign another 1 year deal for $10 million (or preferably less), it isn’t a bad deal for his level of production as a back of the rotation guy—it is essentially what we payed for Kyle Gibson in 2019.

Reclamation projects

Michael Wacha

Wacha-Flocha Flame had a great 2015 and a solid 2017 but has struggled with injuries and consistency since. His 2019 season saw him post one of his career worst ERAs at 4.76 with miserable advanced stats in a 5.61 FIP and 4.80 xFIP, he also had a career low K/9 and career high BB/9.

So why think he can be reclaimed? Check out these two pitchers:

Pitcher A: 23rd percentile in fastball velocity, 51st percentile in exit velocity, 57th percentile in hard hit %. Throws a fastball (57.9%), cutter (18.5%), “changeup” (17.1%), and curveball (6.5%).

Pitcher B: 38th percentile in fastball velocity, 60th percentile in exit velocity, 53rd percentile in hard hit%. Throws a fastball (49.5%), changeup (23.8%), cutter (15.5%), and curveball (10.3%).

Pitcher A is Jake Odorizzi and Pitcher B is Michael Wacha. They have similar arsenals and allowed hard contact in a similar fashion in 2019. The one key difference is that Odorizzi had better spin rates on his fastball (40th percentile vs Wacha’s 9th percentile) and clearly had better control and was more effective.

Maybe, just maybe, Wes Johnson can work some magic with a guy like Wacha—-who only turns 29 in July—using the success Odorizzi had with that similar arsenal as a blueprint to squeeze some quality innings out of a budget pickup. At the very least, Wacha has a better track record than Martin Perez had, if Wacha ends up replacing Perez as the reclamation project at the back of the rotation.

Thoughts

Obviously a pickup like Gerrit Cole would be huge—not just on paper, but also in changing the narrative of the Twins as a destination for free agents.

But it isn’t a move I expect for too many reasons. Not only would he stretch our budget quite thin all by himself if the Twins COULD sign him, but he is likely to return home to California or another market larger than what the Twins can provide. Fans will cry “CHeAp P0HLaDs!,@!!” when we don’t sign him, but we learned few know better: it simply isn’t up to us, no matter how much we write that check out for. There is a chance, yes of course, but I’m not betting on it.

The natural pivot is to pursue Zack Wheeler as heavily as humanly possible. I’d go so far as to say signing Zack Wheeler is almost a necessity for the Twins, unless they find the perfect trade to make for a starter with frontline potential (of which there are few on the trade market). Wheeler is a guy who has performed well, still has room for growth, and possesses an arsenal the Twins have never really had in a starter before. A Berrios-Wheeler (or Wheeler-Berrios) 1-2 punch is nothing to laugh at, especially if the Twins are able to resign Odorizzi and Pineda to back them up.

I’m out on Keuchel unless the Twins do something drastic, such as signing a defensive shortstop like Jose Iglesias so that they can have Marwin Gonzalez and Iglesias on the left side of the infield for Keuchel’s starts (you are going to mention Ehire Adrianza as an in house option, but he has posted a negative UZR and UZR/150 at shortstop each of the last two seasons, per Fangraphs). I’m in on Bumgarner but I think he is already out on us (or anywhere outside of Georgia or D.C., really). Miley, Hamels, and Roark—or even a guy like Rich Hill (unmentioned above because he is turning 40 and can’t stay healthy) are decent pickups at the right (very low) price if they are the last piece we are adding to the rotation. But none of those guys are particularly attractive looking moves and will probably draw the scorn of fans no matter when they would be made.

Michael Wacha could be had on a budget, as could a number of guys who may be non-tendered before free agency begins. A combination of a Wheeler signing and a long term deal for Odorizzi or Pineda would likely require a bargain deal to be had to fill out the rotation, even with the $60-$70 million we have available to spend on pitching.

It’s hard to predict exact contracts, but something like $24 million per year for Wheeler (5 or 6 year deal), $16 million per year for Odorizzi (4 year deal), $13.5 million for Pineda (the prorated amount he will get for accepting the QO) and $6.5 million for Wacha (1 year deal with an option) would hit exactly $60 million, leaving a few extra million to spend on the bullpen. That rotation would look like this:

  1. Jose Berrios
  2. Zack Wheeler
  3. Jake Odorizzi
  4. Rookie in April and early May/Michael Pineda upon return from suspension
  5. Michael Wacha/Rookie after Pineda returns

I like this rotation. It is actually somewhat similar on paper to the rotation the Twins had in 2019, except Wheeler (Career 3.77 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 3.91 xFIP) is a major upgrade over Kyle Gibson (Career 4.52 ERA, 4.29 FIP, 4.10 xFIP). The three top names in the rotation would have multiple years of control for our competitive window without completely blocking future rotation spots for our young pitching prospects or midseason trades. The younger starters we utilized this year—Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe— would compete in Spring Training to fill Pineda’s rotation spot and if they show enough success they could supplant Michael Wacha if Wacha-Flocka fails to find his former success. If, upon the return of Pineda, all 5 starters are succeeding, then our younger starters will be waiting in the wings in case of injury.

If the Twins fail to bring back both Odorizzi and Pineda, their goal to sign Wheeler would be even more important since the back of the rotation (primarily the #4 spot) wouldn’t be nearly as strong. Berrios-Wheeler-Odorizzi/Pineda would be their likely top three since there really isn’t another top-3 starter who I expect to be sign-able by the Twins. An older filler on a short term deal, like Miley or Hamels, would be good to add a change of pace left hander to the rotation.

  1. Jose Berrios
  2. Zach Wheeler
  3. Rookie/Michael Pineda (or Odorizzi if we sign him long term)
  4. Wade Miley
  5. Tanner Roark

This rotation probably is deeper overall than a rotation that includes Wacha or another reclamation, but has almost no upside in the bottom of the rotation and might be weaker in a playoff series—especially if one of the top three starters is injured.

I’m putting a lot of stock on us signing Wheeler. In my opinion, a successful offseason for the Twins MUST include signing Wheeler unless we can swing the perfect trade for another starter with some big league success and frontline potential.

We will look into potential trade opportunities in our next installment of our series!