It seems like it was years ago that I published my 2020 Rotation Plan Two: Free Agents, where I outlined some of the best free agents on the market for the Twins to go after. I put a lot of stock on the Twins signing Zack Wheeler, which obviously didn’t occur.
Of the 14 pitchers I outlined as solid options to pick up, only four are still available. Hyun-Jin Ryu has lasted longer in free agency than I imagined, and his market is finally now picking up with a 4-year, $80 million contract seen as his minimum—he is almost guaranteed to get a higher AAV than Madison Bumgarner’s $17 million. Ryu will be 33 for all of next season and has only started 30 games once in his career (which was his debut season in 2013). I don’t expect the Twins’ savvy front office to shell out an expensive, long term deal for a player with such significant durability concerns.
The other “big” name free agent available is Dallas Keuchel, whose extreme ground ball tendencies would be a tough fit even if the Twins sign a third baseman and move Miguel Sano to first. Homer Bailey, Ivan Nova, and Julio Teheran are the only other remaining pitchers who you can rely on for 30 starts, even if poor analytics mean they are only #5 starters. Guys coming off injury or ineffectiveness like Alex Wood, Rich Hill, Taijuan Walker, and Drew Smyly are there, if you trust them.
Unless the Twins land Ryu or trust their defense with a guy like Keuchel, there really isn’t a way to properly impact the top 3 spots in their rotation unless they do so by trade, so let’s look at some options, sorted by team.
Arizona Diamondbacks - Robbie Ray
Fresh off the signing of Madison Bumgarner, the Diamondbacks find themselves in good order for their rotation: Bumgarner-Kelly-Ray-Gallen-Leake is pretty solid, and that doesn’t include guys with potential like Luke Weaver, Alex Young, or Taylor Clarke, who all made at least 12 starts for the D-Backs in 2019.
After an 85-win season in 2019, the Diamondbacks are clearly in the Wild Card hunt to begin this season and could hold on to trade chips like lefty Robbie Ray until the trade deadline unless blown away by an offer this off season. Ray is a strikeout artist, with a K% above 31.4 in each of the last three seasons. He also has very high walk rates, between 10.7% and 13.3% in that same time frame which isn’t the only wart for Ray: he has lost almost 2 mph on his average fastball since 2017.
Perhaps working with Wes Johnson could help Ray get his velocity back up and his control and command a bit better. Even without significant improvement, Ray’s 2019 with a 4.34 ERA but 4.29 FIP and 3.76 xFIP would make him a solid #3 pitcher with upside and a left handed compliment to the Berrios-Odorizzi-Pineda rotation we currently feature.
The biggest problem, of course, will be cost. The Diamondbacks are well-suited to play to win until they fall out of the race, with Ray likely the top trade target for contenders in that scenario. They simply don’t need to trade him now, and won’t do so unless they get a favorable package. Furthermore, Ray will be a free agent after the 2020 season and will probably want to test the market after a stellar year for free agent arms this winter.
Colorado Rockies - Jon Gray
I’m not going to spend much more than this sentence on German Marquez: he is a great young pitcher who hasn’t yet turned 25 and is on an incredibly team friendly deal, so the Rockies have no reason to move him unless we blow their socks off. You might even have to give up too much to acquire Jon Gray, since the Rockies have enough money tied up in their current roster to try to win now despite their obvious flaws.
To a team like the Twins, Gray represents a lot of what Zach\k Wheeler represented as a free agent: plenty of current ability with loads of untapped potential. A former first round pick, Gray throws a hard hard fastball with an average MPH of 96, good enough for the 87th percentile in the entire league. He pairs it with two great breaking balls that opponents couldn’t hit in 2019 (slugged just .297 off his slider and .271 off his curve). Gray is still fairly young as he just turned 28 and he will be under team control through the 2021 season.
His 4.34 career ERA is inflated by a mediocre team and Coors Field, posting a 3.77 FIP and 3.62 xFIP so far through 641.1 innings with an unlucky .321 career BABIP. His fastball gets hit hard (.541 SLG in 2019 and .538 in 2018), but maybe Wes Johnson can find the right pitch mix to limit that weakness and improve his solid but not great K% of 23.6% this last year (which would have been tied with Zach Wheeler had he been qualified and just a spot above Jose Berrios).
But because there is that untapped potential and two years of team control, there is bound to be a high asking price from the Rockies. In a recent piece for The Athletic ($$) Eno Sarris mentioned the Twins might be able to get away with offering a smaller trade package if they are willing to take on Daniel Murphy and his salary back in the trade. Murphy struggled away from Coors Field this year but was solid in 2018. A first baseman only now, he plays average defense there and would fit that hole the Twins currently have in the corner infield. Murphy is owed $8 million dollars in 2020 and then has a mutual option for $12 million in 2021 but with a hefty $6 million dollar buyout if the Twins were to decline.
Chicago Cubs - Tyler Chatwood
While I would prefer to trade for Yu Darvish or even Jose Quintana, those two are likely staying put in Chicago: Darvish has a full no-trade clause and likes Chicago while Jose Quintana is simply too solid for his price: the $10.5 million dollar option the Cubs just picked up earlier this off season.
Having let Cole Hamels get paid handsomely by another team in free agency, Tyler Chatwood should seemingly slide back into the Cubs starting rotation after a dreadful 2018 pushed him into a long reliever/spot start role in which he thrived in 2019. But if the Cubs elect to not move one of their expensive position players like Kris Bryant, moving Chatwood’s $13 million dollar salary would potentially help them get under that luxury tax.
And that 2018 for Chatwood, if you forgot, really was terrible. He walked 95 batters in just 103.2 innings while posting a 5.30 ERA (5.60 FIP and 5.76 xFIP). That is a 19.6 BB% which is flat out yips-like. But moving into a long reliever/spot starter role helped reset Chatwood, who became a Statcast darling with his reduced workload. His four-seamer averaged 96.1 MPH while his sinker sat at 95.7, putting his fastball velocity in the 79th percentile while his fastball spin rate was in the 95th percentile and his curveball spin rate was in the 99th percentile. He posted only a mediocre K%, though, and his stats and metrics were slightly worse in his 5 starts throughout the season compared to his relief appearances.
Perhaps Chatwood would benefit even more from a change of scenery, or from the tutelage of Wes Johnson. He might only require a low-level prospect since he is in the last year of his contract. If you stretched him out in the spring and he failed to show promise, he has a solid—if expensive— fall back plan as an opener or piggyback for whichever rookie ends up in the Twins 5th rotation spot.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Joe Musgrove and Chris Archer
The Pirates are tough to evaluate. They have a bevy of players in their mid-20s who range from ‘eh’ to above average. That group of players lost 93 games in 2019, but with a new general manager and a great new skipper in former Twins bench coach Derek Shelton, they might be able to coax out new levels of output from the same player group and be in the wild card hunt in 2020. Still, the only player they have signed so far this off season has been a blah backup catcher and they are rumored to be shopping their best trade asset, Starling Marte.
For pitching in 2019 they were led by Joe Musgrove, acquired in the deal that sent Gerritt Cole to the Astros. There is a lot to like about Musgrove, who lost a bit of velocity on his fastball this year (from 93.5 mph to 92.7) but maintains solid spin rates and has a wipeout slider (.238 SLG against with a 40.9 K%). While his 21.9% K% is only okay, his 5.4% BB% is excellent. At 27 years old he has room to improve and three years of team control remaining, which makes him valuable but hard to trade for a team on the fringe.
The one pitcher the Pirates might be more inclined to trade is Chris Archer, who has been a sad acquisition for the Pirates. The team paid a steep price for the former Ray, giving up Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows—both of whom blossomed and played key roles for the Rays this year—as well as pitching prospect Shane Baz. Archer struggled in Pittsburgh, both with injury as well as a 5.19 ERA and 10.5 BB%, the highest since his rookie year, through 119.2 innings this year. Maybe the combination of the bad trade and poor performance is enough to make the Pirates trade Archer if the price is right, since his stock is still plenty high.
While his fastball velocity has dipped from 95.8 mph in 2015 to just 94.1 mph this year, it still ranks in the 69th percentile in velocity and 51st percentile in spin rate. He had thumb and shoulder issues in 2019 that also may have sapped some of that velocity. Still, he has a solid curve, with spin rates in the 76th percentile and very good strikeout numbers, in the 74th percentile. His worst pitch in 2019, his sinker, was a pitch that the Pirates tried to get him to use more until midway through the season. It was a pitch he didn’t throw it at all for the Rays between 2015 and 2017, the years of his prime with the Rays, so who knows who made that tactical decision to try to bring it back. Maybe the poor clubhouse culture and management in Pittsburgh masked Archer’s true talent level.
If that shoulder injury is not a long term concern, Archer still possesses top-of-the-rotation potential with a very cheap $9 million dollar salary in 2020 with a $11 million dollar option for 2021. Of course, the financial cost and potential make him a big target with high trade costs if the new management even choose to trade him.
Miami Marlins - Anybody?
The Marlins have a bushel full of young arms that are quite enticing. Sandy Alcantara is the biggest name in their rotation, but is only 24 in 2020 and has enough team control and untapped potential to grow into the team’s ace when they are ready to compete in a few years. It would take a major deal to get him, if he is even available at all.
Caleb Smith is a lefty with team control and good Statcast numbers but plenty of reasons for concern. Lets start with the positives: while a 91.6 MPH fastball is quite pedestrian in the 30th percentile, it has excellent spin rates in the 85th percentile that allows it to play above its velocity. He was able to limit hard contact in 2019 with an average exit velocity in the 63rd percentile and a Hard Hit% in the 58th percentile. He also had a K% in the 68th percentile thanks to solid secondary pitches in his slider and change-up. He has 4 more years of team control including 2020, not reaching free agency until the age of 31 after the 2023 season. Even with this year’s active free agent market, pitchers typically don’t do as well as 31-year-olds on the market, which is favorable to a solid extension if he deserves it later in his career.
The problem with Smith is that even though he can strike people out and limit hard contact, he still succumbs to walks and homers. He gave up a league-leading 33 homers in 2019 despite Marlins Park having the third least homers hit in it during the season (but the Marlins hit the least homers in the NL so maybe that plays more of a factor in that stat). His mediocre ERA of 4.52 may have even been lucky, as he had a FIP of 5.11 and a xFIP of 5.05. His BB% of 9.3 isn’t terrible, but his HR/FB rate of 15.6% would have put him with company like Tanner Roark and Ivan Nova had he qualified. Since Smith has a groundball rate of only 29%, there are a lot of fly balls going up that even our outfield can’t catch. Smith also has a history with injuries. He missed most of last season with a shoulder issue and then 30 days this year with a hip injury, so that is a concern as well.
Today, Caleb Smith would be a solid #4 in our rotation, but with the potential to become a #2/3 and pair well with Berrios for a long time.
Recently the Twins have been linked to other Marlins’ pitchers, with Elieser Hernandez being an option for the Twins in a trade for Jake Cave in particular.
At the Winter Meetings, a source indicates the Twins & Marlins discussed a potential deal that would send Miami SP Elieser Hernandez to Minnesota for OF Jake Cave.— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) December 13, 2019
Hernandez has a solid if unexciting profile that might fly under the radar just enough to make him available for the right trade.
His fastball only sits at 90.6 mph, in the 11th percentile, but it plays up due to average spin rates in the 48th percentile. For comparison, Jake Odorizzi’s fastball had velocity in the 23rd percentile this year (while being the highest velocity of his career) with a spin rate in the 40th percentile. With a Wes Johnson velocity boost, that fastball could potentially be more useful than Odorizzi’s was this year. Hernandez also uses a slider that limited opposing batters to a .359 SLG this season and a change-up mostly used against lefties (.178 BA against but .489 SLG means it is good unless he hangs it). But Hernandez did a phenomenal job of limiting hard contact in 2019, in the 92nd percentile for average exit velocity and 84th percentile for Hard Hit%.
But like Smith, Hernandez gave up a lot of homers despite limiting hard contact. He gave up 20 homers in just 82.1 innings and has given up 31 homers in 148 career innings. With a ground ball rate of only 32.7 percent, he is giving up a lot of fly balls. That might work well with Byron Buxton and Max Kepler patrolling Target Field, but its hard to judge. Hernandez would certainly represent a project, a #5 starter with only minimally more experience than the Twins current rookie starting pitchers.
The real prize to snag from the Marlins might be Pablo Lopez, linked to the Twins by Mish in the potential trade for Eddie Rosario.
Twins perhaps willing to move from Alcantara to Pablo López for Rosario says source. Miami not doing that either though. Could Rosario’s defense play in Marlins Park ? Something to ponder. Again, James Rowson knows this player. Have to trust his evaluation on a potential deal.— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) December 11, 2019
Lopez has about a season’s worth of experience with a decent line of a 4.76 ERA (4.35 FIP and 4.30 xFIP) across 170 innings in 31 career starts for the Fish. A 19.7 K% is only okay but a 6.3 BB% is quite good. His career HR/FB rate of 14.9% is also a bit more manageable than that of Smith or Hernandez thanks to a career groundball rate of 49.3%.
Lopez has interesting stuff, throwing a four seam and two seam fastball along with a change-up and curveball. While none of his pitches ever graded out as plus for prospect rankers like Fangraphs and MLBPipeline, they play up thanks to his control. His fastball ticked up to above average this year at 93.6 MPH (58th percentile and up from 92.6mph last year) but it lacks spin (11th percentile). His change-up has been considered his best secondary pitch and was filthy in his rookie season (.150 SLG against in 2018, .409 SLG in 2019) but his curve has been solid in both seasons so far (.368 SLG in 2018 and .387 SLG in 2019) despite lacking spin (31st percentile). Maybe the Wes Johnson/Jake Odorizzi cutter would be the perfect addition to help Lopez become more than a #4/#5 starter.
If the Twins were to land Lopez they would have plenty of time to help him figure it out, since he won’t become a free agent until after the 2024 season. It is worth noting that he missed the last month of 2018 and 69 days in the middle of 2019 with shoulder injuries, which could potentially be a major issue.
If all of these young controllable assets aren’t enough, the Marlins also have Jose Urena available. Urena started 28 games in 2017 and 31 games in 2018 only to struggle and lose his spot int he rotation this year. A groundball pitcher with a 95.8 MPH sinker, Urena has never figured out how to miss bats (10th percentile K% in 2019) but has had decent success despite that until this year. The current Twins regime helped get Kyle Gibson to strike out guys at a good rate, so maybe they could do the same to Urena, who has team control through 2021. At worst, Urena could be the placeholder for the suspended Michael Pineda and then move to the bullpen and really crank up that sinker/slider combo for multiple innings at a time if the Twins acquire another starter beyond Urena.
Boston Red Sox
With the Red Sox looking to shed salary to get under the luxury tax, they are reportedly shopping David Price hard and at least entertaining talk about trading Chris Sale.
Both lefties were injured for a portion of 2019, with Sale making 25 starts and Price making only 22. Sale also missed some time in 2018, making 27 starts that year, while Price has missed at least one start in 2018 and started only 11 games in 2017. Both pitchers also had their least effective seasons in some time, or maybe even their career, this last season.
Sale will earn $30 million in 2020 while being under contract through the 2024 season with a vesting option for 2015 and a bunch of money deferred. Price will make $32 million through the 2022 season.
If the Red Sox are serious about dumping salary, perhaps to be able to extend Mookie Betts, any team could probably swing a trade straight up for a decent trade package. The Twins would likely need the Sox to eat some of that salary, maybe $12 million per year for Price and $10 million per year for Sale to get them both to the $20 million per year mark. That would require the Twins to send back a slightly nicer trade package.
Sale could easily return to form and Price could be a useful pitcher for the remainder of the contract, but there is also a chance both flame out with very expensive contracts on the Twins books for a good chuck of time. This route for the Twins would be high risk, high reward and I’m not sure the Twins brass is the type of Front Office to make the deal.
If the Twins ultimately choose to add to their rotation via trade, there are a few options that are intriguing. Jon Gray would provide the most bang for the buck, having a ton of untapped potential alongside decent big league success and two years of control remaining. Chris Archer has the same amount of control available and might come slightly cheaper than Gray if the Pirates decide to sell this off season. I think Archer could easily rebound from his 2019 woes and will make whatever team he is on quite happy considering his low cost.
Team control might end up being an important factor, or even the key factor, after free agent pitchers did so well for themselves this off season. Would you trade Jhoan Duran and another mid-level prospect or two for two years of Gray or Chris Archer? I think that two year allotment is going to be something the Twins try to avoid, and for good reason. With Jake Odorizzi a free agent after 2020 and Michael Pineda a free agent after 2021, I think the Twins will try to avoid another situation like this offseason where they have to sign multiple pieces of their rotation.
The young, controllable pitchers with the Marlins become much more attractive options with that in mind. I think Pablo Lopez or even Elieser Hernandez are solid options. They lack the big name right now, but if you trust Wes Johnson and our development staff, they could be solid #3 pitchers throughout a longer contention window.
Conversely, maybe the Twins front office think the 2020 and 2021 seasons are the peak of our window with the White Sox spending big money this off season and their best prospects finally reaching the majors. That would mean that Gray and Archer’s current level of talent would be more worthwhile than the team control of younger starters. it will be an interesting dynamic to watch and if a trade comes, we can use that control as a lens into what the front office is thinking.
The trade market is often far quieter than free agency for media, as so many conversations happen behind closed doors compared to the free agent scramble of the last month. Still, we should start hearing more rumors with the Twins at the forefront of the market pretty soon.