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Shopping for pitching in the NL Central

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Three NL Central teams are looking to shed salary and rebuild — which pitchers might make sense for Minnesota?

Cincinnati Reds v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Aside from the Padres post-Christmas trade aggressiveness, the offseason has gotten off to a slow start, much like last year. To this point, a lot of the offseason rumor mill has centered on three teams in the National League Central division where the Cubs, Pirates, and Reds have all publicly signaled they are looking to trade away established veterans. Each of the teams has completed a significant trade thus far (Darvish, Bell, Iglesias) and may not be done making moves.

With the Twins on the opposite side of the win curve from these three potentially rebuilding clubs, and getting stiff competition from the again aggressive White Sox, there are a lot of reasons why Derek Falvey and Thad Levine should be looking to add to the 2021 roster.

The 2021 ZiPS projections for the Twins dropped at Fangraphs on Monday and projected the Twins current roster to finish second in the AL Central, narrowly behind Chicago. In the writeup of the projections, Dan Szymborski also ran the projections for the scenario of Minnesota bringing Nelson Cruz back. In that scenario, the standings flipped and the Twins narrowly edged out Chicago.

The point is, the AL Central division projects to be a hotly contested race and every little addition Minnesota can make to it’s roster for 2021 is likely to be worth doing.

The time for the Twins to go for it is now and indications so far this winter are it is a buyer’s market. The Twins roster currently has holes to fill at designated hitter and on the infield — either in a utility role or at shortstop — in addition to several open spots on the pitching staff. The roster as presently constructed will be competitive, but making some good moves this winter could make the difference.

If the team is looking to the trade market to bolster it’s 2021 outlook, chances are decent they are looking to the NL Central teams as trade partners. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some NL central pitchers that might be available.

I used the trade value estimates from the trade simulator at baseballtradevalues.com to model what trades for these players could look like. The list below is loosely arranged by acquisition cost.


RHP Chad Kuhl - Pittsburgh

Age 28, 6’3, 216 lbs
Arsenal: Sinker (42%, 93.9 mph), Slider (34.5%, 87.8 mph), Curveball (18%, 81.3 mph), Changeup (4%, 88.1 mph)
Contract status: Arbitration eligible 2021, 2022, Free Agent: 2023

Kuhl looks like a prime candidate for the Twins’ now patented “breaking ball as your primary pitch plan”. He returned to Pittsburgh’s starting rotation in 2020 after missing part of 2018 and all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery. In 359.1 career innings, both FIP- and ERA- peg Kuhl as about 5 percent worse than league average as a starting pitcher and he has a 4.36 ERA / 4.45 FIP for his career.

Kuhl operated with mostly a sinker-slider-curveball arsenal in 2020, which was a deviation from the approach he deployed prior to his elbow injury. Last season he essentially scrapped his mid-90s four-seam fastball and increased his sinker usage by 6 points and his slider usage by 15 points.

He still seems to be an adjustment or several away from making a big impact as last season’s 5.48 FIP and 0.0 fWAR makes plain. The sinker seems to be the biggest issue. Hitters produced an eye popping .300 batting average and .667 slugging percentage against it last season, whiffing only 8% of the time. Those terrible numbers are surprisingly consistent with the damage done against the pitch in 2018 (.344 BA, .600 SLG, 15% Whiff%) as well. Given that, it doesn’t seem to be something that was caused by his injury. It remains a mystery why he continued to rely so heavily on the pitch.

Kuhl can spin the baseball, however, and his breaking balls present reasons for optimism and make a case for being used much more often. His slider allowed a terrific .194 BA and .254 SLG with an almost 40% whiff rate in 2020 — figures that are comparable to his results with the pitch in prior seasons. Similarly, his curveball yielded a measly .071 BA and .179 SLG last season with a 38.5% whiff rate. These figures are also comparable to prior seasons and the results with both pitches don’t seem to be 2020 small sample size mirages.

Of all the pitchers on this list he’d likely be the least costly to acquire in terms of prospects going back to Pittsburgh. In fact, baseballtradevalues.com’s model lists Kuhl as having zero trade value. He’s probably not the guy you want to count on to be the final piece of a contender’s puzzle, but he looks like a good buy-low, change of scenery depth piece. Perhaps putting him on the Kenta Maeda plan and minimizing his fastball can unlock his potential as a starter. Walks were a bit of a bugaboo last season (14.2% BB%) when he increased his breaking ball usage. If the new approach or lagging command prevent him from effectively starting, the velocity and breaking balls would surely play well in short stints out the pen.

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RHP Joe Musgrove - Pittsburgh

Age 28, 6’5, 230 lbs
Arsenal: 4-Seam Fastball (27%) Slider (24.2%) Curveball (19.9%) Sinker (11.9%) Changeup (10.7%) Cutter (6.2%)
Contract status: Arbitration eligible 2021, 2022; Free Agent: 2023

After the trade of first baseman Josh Bell to Washington, the former 1st round pick and Top 100 prospect Musgrove became the Pirates’ most likely trade candidate. Since joining the Pirates in advance of the 2018 season (he was part of Pittsburgh’s return in the Gerrit Cole to Houston trade), Musgrove has thrown 325.1 innings with a 4.23 ERA / 3.69 FIP and solid strikeout (22.8%) and walk (5.7%) rates. He’s generated 45% ground balls and held opponents to a .250 / .301 / .416 line that works out to .304 wOBA. In all, he’s been valued at 6.5 fWAR in that span, delivering solid mid-rotation numbers.

Part of Musgrove’s appeal are the signs that he might have another gear. His ERA has been about half a run higher than his FIP the past four seasons. With the already strong groundball rate, a few more strikeouts could put Musgrove in another tier. In the shortened 2020 season, he demonstrated he had the ability to get more strikeouts. In four prior seasons Musgrove’s career-high strikeout rate was 21.9% (2019). Last season, with a pitch mix adjustment to feature his slider and curveball (his most effective pitches, statistically) more frequently, instead of his fastball, Musgrove was able to strike out 33.1% (90th percentile) of the batters he faced.

The new approach also helped him suppress hard contact more effectively than before and he limited opponents to just 85.1 mph exit velocity on average (93rd percentile). These are positive developments and are in line with the approach Minnesota has applied to many of it’s pitchers in recent seasons. The concern is that Musgrove only made 8 starts and covered 39.1 innings in 2020, which is too small of a sample to have great confidence in how real the new level of performance is.

The underlying traits of Musgrove’s pitches are attractive — he can really spin the baseball. In addition to spinning the effective breaking balls, his fastball spin rate ranked in the 81st percentile each of the last two seasons.

As one of the most obvious trade candidates on the market, there is likely to be competition to acquire Musgrove. Toronto reportedly was close to dealing for him at the trade deadline last season when he was on the injured list, but it wasn’t completed. Being under team control for 2021 and 2022 via arbitration also adds to his value. Of the starting pitchers baseballtradevalues.com lists with a “high” likelihood to move, Musgrove has the most estimated trade value, with a median estimate around $36M. For the Twins, this likely means parting with a top prospect like Trevor Larnach (Twins #3) as the centerpiece plus another prospect that is farther away from the Majors like Gabriel Maciel (Twins #29). Pittsburgh might also want an arm that can help fill the innings lost with Musgrove’s departure on next year’s club, which might mean including left-hander Lewis Thorpe to round out the deal.

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RHP Sonny Gray - Cincinnati

Age 31, 5’10, 192 lbs
Arsenal: Curveball (27.6%) Sinker (26.1%) 4-Seam Fastball (25.8%) Slider (16.2%) Changeup (4.2%)
Contract status: Signed through 2022, Club Option for 2023; Free Agent 2024

The slightly built former Vanderbilt first rounder has experienced a resurgence the past two seasons working in Cincinnati’s pitching lab. Gray comes with multiple years of team control thanks to the two guaranteed years remaining on the deal he signed with Cincinnati. The cost is just over $20M, plus a $12M club option for the 2023 season.

Gray has pitched well for the Reds, delivering them 231.1 innings of 3.07 ERA / 3.33 FIP pitching while striking out 29.4% of the batters he faced in 2019 and 2020. He’s been valued at 6.0 fWAR in that span, ranking 14th among qualified starting pitchers, and has been roughly 25% better than league average by ERA- and FIP-.

Gray has always generated high ground ball rates (52.9%, career). In Cincinnati, the Reds pitching program helped him find more strikeouts (while maintaining the high ground ball rate) and he’s now posted career best strikeout rates in consecutive seasons.

Unlike the first two pitchers on this list, Gray likely is what he is at this point. He could stand to issue fewer free passes, but it hardly has been a fatal flaw. Decline due to aging could also come into play before his current deal is up, but he’s not shown any meaningful decline in stuff or velocity yet.

Despite the reasonable cost and solid recent performance, the Reds have declared they are open to offers for Gray as they look to retool at lower cost. It’s not clear just how open they are to moving him, which is why I’ve put him higher on the list than Musgrove (who the Pirates are clearly motivated to move).

The Reds have spent heavily on their offense in recent offseasons and appear to have corner outfield spots locked down with Jesse Winker and Nicholas Castellanos. It seems likely pitching is probably what they’d seek in return for Gray.

The Twins could then center a package around one of top pitching prospects Jordan Balazovic (Twins #4) or Jhoan Duran (Twins #5) with some further away prospects attached, like Keoni Cavaco (Twins #7) and Misael Urbina (Twins #20). Similar to the Musgrove trade above, Lewis Thorpe could be enticing as a major league ready arm that might benefit from a change of scenery.

Winker is a better DH than outfielder, however, so the universal DH, if enacted, could change that calculus and make a package built around Larnach (similar to the above deal for Musgrove) work here, too.

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RHP Kyle Hendricks - Chicago

Age 31, 6’3, 190 lbs
Arsenal: Sinker (34.4%) Changeup (28.9%) 4-Seam Fastball (20.1%) Curveball (16.6%)
Contract status: Signed through 2023; Club option for 2024; Free Agent: 2025

Much in the same way of the all-time great he often is compared to and shares a nickname with (Greg Maddux), “The Professor’’ quietly goes about his business, commanding four pitches anywhere he wants to throw them. With a career 3.12 ERA and 3.53 FIP over seven seasons in the Cubs rotation, the soft-tossing Hendricks is a master at avoiding hard contact (career average exit velocity allowed 86.5 mph), getting ground balls (47.5%), and limiting free bases (1.94 BB/9).

The raw stuff and velocity (~87 mph, 3rd percentile) might make it easy to dismiss Hendricks as a smoke and mirrors pitcher – but that would be ignoring his long, sustained track record of production. Since his Major League debut in July 2014, Hendricks ranks 15th in fWAR (21.1) among all qualified pitchers. Among starters, he is 10th in ERA and tied for 3rd in average exit velocity allowed. In fact, he has been in the top 15% of the league for average exit velocity allowed each of the past five seasons. All told he’s compiled a career ERA- of 76, tied with Blake Snell for 12th best among starters and 24 percent better than league average in that time.

Contrasting the other names in this post, Hendricks has not been rumored to be available this offseason. But with Chicago having already moved Yu Darvish for salary relief and several prospects that are a ways away from Wrigley Field, I wonder if Hendricks could be pried away too. The Twins would be hard pressed to find a better value in terms of cost control and production as Hendricks’ command and control profile isn’t one that is often highly valued by the industry anymore.

He’d be a clear upgrade over Musgrove or Gray and may even be more productive than the next player below. At a cost of just $42-million over the next three seasons, with a $16-million club option for 2024, acquiring Hendricks looks like a shrewd value move. The contract cost is certainly below what it would cost to acquire his level of production in free agency.

In the Darvish to San Diego deal, the Cubs got back a quantity over elite prospects package, and I’ve put together the same kind of deal here. This includes Balazovic as the key piece, augmented by 2020 1st rounder Aaron Sabato (Twins #8), Blayne Enlow (Twins #10), Gilberto Celestino (Twins #14), and Lewis Thorpe to provide innings next season.

While scouring over Chicago’s roster to assess trading for Hendricks, I couldn’t help but notice Kris Bryant’s value. With only one season remaining before free agency, Bryant has frequently been rumored as a trade candidate this offseason. That pressure seems likely to increase with the Cubs actually making moves to rebuild. Bryant is expensive from a contract cost perspective, with a pending trip through arbitration that will likely only build on his $18.6M salary for last season. The contract cost and Bryant’s lost 2020 season (76 wRC+, 2020) have decreased his trade value immensely.

However, he fits at third base and in the outfield and could make a lot of sense for the Twins as insurance on Josh Donaldson (injury) and Alex Kiriloff (rookie). The contract cost of acquiring him probably precludes a reunion with Nelson Cruz, but offers some additional roster flexibility. There’s also the fact that the Twins could extend Bryant a qualifying offer after next season, with the expectation that he’d decline it for free agency (Scott Boras is his agent), allowing the team to recoup a draft pick.

In working out a scenario to acquire both Hendricks and Bryant, I was also able to grab right-handed reliever Rowan Wick to bolster the bullpen for Royce Lewis (Twins #1) and 17 year old outfielder Emmanuel Rodriguez (Twins #25).

Minnesota is almost certain to seek some cash from Chicago as part of this kind of deal, especially to part with an elite prospect like Lewis. That isn’t included in the screen shot above, but seems like it would be a necessary part of such a trade.

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RHP Luis Castillo - Cincinnati

Age 28, 6’2, 190 lbs
Arsenal: Changeup (30%) 4-Seam Fastball (27.1%) Sinker (25.2%) Slider (17.7%)
Contract status: Arbitration eligible 2021, 2022, 2023; Free Agent: 2024

Now 28 years old, right-hander Luis Castillo has established himself as one of the game’s best young hurlers. Featuring two powerful fastballs and a devastating changeup and slider combination, Castillo ranks among MLB’s leaders in exit velocity allowed, strikeout rate, swing and miss rate, and ground ball rate (52.9%).

In 2020, Castillo delivered 3.21 ERA / 2.65 FIP and 89 strikeouts in 70 innings. Since his debut in 2017, Castillo’s 10.4 fWAR ranks 24th of 112 qualified starters. The last two seasons show him breaking out, though, as he’s increased his strikeout rate on the way to generating 6.5 fWAR in just over 260 innings. Of the 137 starters with at least 100 innings over the last two years, Castillo ranks 20th in park-adjusted ERA and only Jacob deGrom, Blake Snell, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer have gotten swings and misses at a higher clip.

Castillo possesses one the game’s premier power arsenals and is the type of pitcher that front offices and fans alike dream about. While the Reds moving Gray could be mostly about cost savings, a trade of Castillo is almost certainly about recouping elite talent in return. Arbitration eligible for the next three seasons, Castillo is relatively cost controlled and will be compensated far below what he would garner on the open market the next few seasons. The most similar comparable deal I could think of is when the Rays moved Chris Archer to Pittsburgh a few years ago. Archer was 29 when he was dealt, and had 1 and half seasons of guaranteed control remaining, plus two below market club options thanks to an extension he had signed with Tampa Bay. That trade netted Tampa Bay right-hander Tyler Glasnow, outfielder Austin Meadows, and right-hander Shane Baz. Glasnow and Meadows had both been rated as the Rays’ #1 prospect at different points and Baz is now rated as their #5 prospect. That provides a starting place for a Castillo deal.

Given Castillo’s contract status and stuff, acquiring him would be an incredibly expensive proposition. By the trade simulator estimates, Castillo is the 9th-most valuable trade asset in baseball this offseason. Assuming the Twins are not willing to part with outfielder Alex Kiriloff (Twins #2), who appears to be the front runner for left field next season, any trade package for Castillo likely then starts with Royce Lewis and includes other top 5 prospects, like Balazovic, Duran, and/or Larnach. To get the numbers to somewhat balance in the trade simulator, I had to include them all.

If that’s untenable — it at least feels like something Minnesota isn’t likely to do — another option could be to trade from the big-league roster in addition to giving up some prospects to make it work. A different configuration that includes Luis Arraez and Mitch Garver, plus prospects Balazovic, Larnach, and Misael Urbina (Twins #20) does the trick.

Here I was able to include Reds’ catcher Tucker Barnhart (a strong defender and left-handed hitter) to split catching duties with Ryan Jeffers. A move like this would likely necessitate some free agent spending on the infield to paper over the loss of Arraez, like adding a free agent shortstop and bumping Jorge Polanco to second.

What do you think, Twinkie Town? Which of these, or other deals, would you make?


John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.