Welcome to Part One in a three-part series examining free agent targets for the Minnesota Twins.
The 2020 offseason is a weird one for the Twins. Yes, Rocco Baldelli’s squad won its second consecutive A.L. Central title last year. And yes, they were once again swept out of the playoffs. And, indeed, they should enter next season as the obvious pick to win the division yet many will be far too excited to elevate the Chicago White Sox to favorite status.
Last year, the Twins needed to fill a couple of slots in the starting rotation and weren’t expected to spend much, if any, money on position players.
This winter, the pitching situation is much improved compared to where it was 12 months ago with Kenta Maeda and Michael Pineda back in the fold, but the offense is coming off an alarmingly terrible performance and has potential holes to fill. (Yes, the offense was middling by most accounts, but on the heels of the 2019 Bomba Squad, it’s fair to be concerned after plummeting to league-average status as a unit.)
First, let’s identify the potential positional needs on offense.
- Designated hitter. Nelson Cruz is a free agent, and while there’s a solid chance he returns, it’s far from a guarantee. The Twins need to keep their options wide open here.
- Left field. Eddie Rosario has one final year of arbitration eligibility but is likely non-tender candidate. The Twins will plan to fill this role internally with one of a host of prospects who appear to be ready for The Show, but don’t count out the possibility of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine adding a veteran to play the outfield corners.
- Utility. Marwin González and Ehire Adrianza are both free agents and effectively represented 100 percent of the Twins’ utility innings this season. The Twins would love someone who can handle shortstop, as Adrianza was the only reliable option behind Jorge Polanco there in recent years.
The rest of the lineup is largely set. Byron Buxton is an extension candidate and Mitch Garver and Ryan Jeffers will share innings at catcher, at least until one of them emerges as the more consistent option. Along centerfield and catcher, Josh Donaldson is locked in at third base, Miguel Sano at first, Luis Arraez at second, and Max Kepler in right field.
Now, let’s go position by position and highlight the most realistic options on the free agent market for the Twins. (Note: trade targets are not being considered for this article.)
Incumbent Nelson Cruz is a free agent and wants to be back, though he is reportedly seeking a multiyear deal. Of course, he turns 41 next July and the Twins would be wise to consider alternatives. If they can get 80 percent of the production while spending 50 percent of the cost for 50 percent of the contract length — or something like that — then you have to believe they’d strongly consider it.
Now, can the Twins find 80 percent (or thereabouts) or Cruz’s production on the free agent market?
If Minnesota is hell-bent on replacing Cruz in a similar way — meaning finding a primary DH instead of piece-mealing the role by giving position players opportunities to rotate into the DH spot — the only reasonable alternative would be Marcell Ozuna.
Ozuna hasn’t been an All-Star since 2016 and 2017 with Miami, but had a monster year last season after signing a one-year deal with the Atlanta Braves, slashing .338/.431/.636 and led the National League with 18 home runs. His two previous years with St. Louis weren’t anywhere near that impressive, but they were solid nonetheless. With the Cardinals, he hit .262/.327/.451 and played a solid left field.
Other than age, the one advantage that the 30-year-old Ozuna has over Cruz is that he can play in the field. Although he spent half of the 2020 campaign as the designated hitter for the Braves in a season with the universal DH, he’s been a decent fielder for much of his career.
If the Twins move on from Rosario and plug Alex Kirilloff or Brent Rooker into left field, Ozuna could DH four or five days a week and spend a day or two in left field.
Prediction: Marcell Ozuna will be seeking a multi-year deal following his huge season in 2020. He’ll want something close to $20 million per year. Unless the Twins pay a premium and use him as a one-season bridge to the prospects, it’s hard to see them ponying up for Ozuna. And at that point, couldn’t they/wouldn’t they rather convince Cruz to stay for $18 million or so with a mutual option for a second year?
Rosario is likely to move on. The Twins are surely planning to give Kirilloff every opportunity to win the job in left field, with Rooker and Trevor Larnach lurking as better options to fill-in in right-field and at DH but possibilities in left field.
Jake Cave and LaMonte Wade, Jr. are still options as fourth outfielders, but aren’t inspiring starting options if the Twins were worried about their prospects being ready for Opening Day after not playing in true, competitive games for over a year-and-a-half — save for Kirilloff’s A.L. Wild Card Series performance, of course.
But let’s consider the possibility that the Twins could bring in a left-fielder to bridge the gap.
We’ve already talked about Ozuna, who would be more of a part-time option. Michael Brantley is an option, although he’s probably another player who would be best-served to play DH a solid chunk of the time. And while he wouldn’t cost nearly as much as Ozuna, Brantley will still surely command something in the $13 - 15 million range per season.
Joc Pederson is a less appealing (yet still expensive) option. Jurickson Profar played some left field for the Padres last year, but more on him later.
Prediction: The Twins will plan to start the season with Alex Kirilloff in left field and Jake Cave as the fourth outfielder. If things get out of hand with Cruz, perhaps the Twins turn to Brantley or Ozuna as a one-year option to split games between LF and DH, but don’t count on it.
The Twins are likely to lose their backup shortstop in Ehire Adrianza and their super-utilityman in Marwin González. There aren’t any other shortstop options in-house except for Nick Gordon, the former first-round draft pick who missed the majority of 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19 prior to summer camp. He’s best-suited to play second base, however, and doesn’t have much positional flexibility beyond the middle infield.
Let’s cover the Marwin role here and focus on shortstop next. Although in a perfect world, the person filling the Marwin role would have the ability play shortstop in a pinch, and ideally, at a level higher than Gonzalez or Arraez could.
The best options both come from the National League West. Let’s start with Los Angeles Dodgers utilityman Enrique Hernández, or Kiké, as the kids call him.
Hernández didn’t pack much punch offensively this season, but in the three years prior to 2020 posted a palatable line of .238/.317/.435 while averaging more than 16 home runs per season. It’s acceptable production for a player who is above-average at virtually every position he plays in the field. While he didn’t play much shortstop this season, he has handled the position fine in past years and would check that box.
The other, more offensive-minded option would be Jurickson Profar, who fits the mold of what the Twins wanted González to be: average-y in the field at most positions but above-average at the plate, especially if tasked with playing in the middle infield. He’s a streaky offensive player but was valuable for the upstart Padres this year.
Both players will probably command something in the $4 to 7 million range per season — far less than Marwin’s expiring deal.
Prediction: The Twins will go hard after Hernández and land him for two years and $13 million. A little rich, maybe, but having that kind of defensive flexibility and a bit of offensive upside is important for contending teams out of the super-utility role.
Next, we’ll take a look at the starting pitching market and a few options for the Twins to shore-up a rotation that was much-improved in 2020 but will inevitably have several moving pieces heading into 2021.