Now that the second week of the MLB lockout is almost through, it is as good a time as any to recap and break down the roster moves the Twins made before the offseason came to a screeching halt.
Let’s walk chronologically through the transactions made since the regular season ended and I’ll offer some thoughts and analysis along the way:
#1: Making space on the 40 man roster
The Twins came out of last season with a whopping 49 players assigned to the 40-man roster thanks to heavy use of the 60-day injured list. That necessitated a significant effort to clean up the roster after the regular season ended.
Seven players were removed from the roster in early October:
RHP Edwar Colina (lost on waivers to Texas), RHP Ian Gibaut, RHP Luke Farrell, RHP Kyle Barraclough, RHP Nick Vincent, INF Drew Maggi, LHP Andrew Albers
There was nothing very surprising in these transactions. All of these players, maybe save for Colina, were about removing the kind of veteran depth that makes sense to have around in a lost season, but not that you would really want to be part of the plan going forward. Colina is an exception in that he is much younger with power stuff. But, he was also coming off an elbow injury that had required multiple surgical procedures in the past year. Clearly, the Twins were not comfortable with his future health outlook and decided to move on. The Rangers subsequently were successful in passing Colina through waivers and outrighting him to AAA.
These seven transactions, combined with RHP Michael Pineda and SS Andrelton Simmons becoming free agents after the World Series, got the Twins roster down to the maximum 40 players.
#2: Declining Alex Colomé’s option ($1.25MM)
I wrote in depth about the decision for Colomé’s option shortly after the season ended. In the poll included in that post, 53% of you wanted to decline the 2022 option. Those voting that way got their wish on November 5, when it was announced that the Twins had declined the option on Colomé’s contract and paid him a $1.25MM buyout. Colomé is a free agent free to sign with any team.
Roster count = 39.
#3: Claiming RHP Jharel Cotton off waivers
Cotton joined the Minnesota organization after being claimed on waivers from Texas. In a corresponding move, utility player Rob Refsnyder was outrighted. (Refsnyder has since signed on with Boston on a minor league deal).
The addition of Cotton is a speculative play by the Twins on a player with a strong prospect pedigree and a long line of health issues. Cotton was a global top 100 prospect back in the preseason of 2017 as a member of the Oakland organization. The previous season he was acquired by the Athletics as part of the midseason trade that saw LHP Rich Hill move from Oakland to the L.A. Dodgers. Then, Cotton was graded as a 55 future value, #4/#5 starting pitching prospect with a chance for more thanks to great athleticism and a plus “bugs-bunny” changeup and above average cutter. To put that projection in context, it is instructive to note that none of the Twins current bumper crop of highly regarded pitching prospects are graded at 55 future value by FanGraphs.
Cotton had a strong five start debut in the second half of 2016, but mostly struggled through 24 starts in 2017 before going down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2018. A hamstring injury that required surgery impacted Cotton’s 2019 and he spent the season in the minor leagues trying to work his way back from the injuries. Oakland moved on from Cotton after 2019 and he spent 2020 at the Chicago Cubs’ alternate training site working as a reliever. Chicago released Cotton after that season and Texas picked him up for last season. He finally made it back to the majors after trade deadline moves left Texas with innings to fill.
In 30.2 relief innings in August and September last season, Cotton pitched well and worked to 3.52 ERA and 3.13 FIP while striking out about 22% of the hitters he faced. He worked mostly with a 93 MPH four seam fastball and that highly regarded, 80 MPH changeup while also mixing in both a curveball and a slider. Both the fastball and changeup were effective and each accumulated -4 run values last season, per Statcast. The breaking balls are mostly “show me” pitches that he can mix in for strikes and chase, but they will get hit if used too heavily.
While we don’t know what role the Twins envision Cotton playing in the 2022 bullpen, it seems logical that part of his draw is the ability to work multiple innings. He showed a small reverse platoon split last season (i.e. he’s more effective against LHB than RHB, probably because of the changeup and lack of dominant breaking ball), which lends some confidence that he can be deployed against batters on both sides of the plate. To that point, the former starting pitcher got more than three outs in 8 of his 23 appearances last season for Texas.
It remains to be seen if Cotton will survive the full offseason on the Twins’ 40-man roster, but it appears the Twins have some hope for him to be a piece of the puzzle and might be betting he could have more to offer after a (mostly) normal offseason and additional time away from the major injuries. So far, they’ve chosen to keep him rostered while moving other pitchers off the roster to make room for the rest of the moves detailed below.
Roster Count = 39
#4: Making space for protecting prospects
November 19 was the deadline to add prospects to the 40-man to protect them from being eligible for the Rule 5 draft. With a nearly full 40-man roster, the Twins again needed to create some open spots.
They started that activity by outrighting RHP John Gant, who was acquired at last season’s trade deadline from St. Louis and served to soak up innings down the stretch in a swingman role. With a projected $3.7MM price tag via arbitration, but struggles with command and a 5.61 ERA over 33.1 innings with the Twins, the veteran Gant was an obvious non-tender candidate. The Twins outrighted him far ahead of the arbitration contract tender deadline, though, and Gant was able to become a free agent thanks to having more than three years of MLB service time. He has reportedly signed with the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan.
With the roster then at 38 approaching the Rule 5 deadline, the Twins cleared four more spots by designating UT Willians Astudillo, LHP Charlie Barnes, OF Kyle Garlick, and LHP Devin Smeltzer for assignment. Barnes, Garlick, and Smeltzer all passed through outright waivers unclaimed and remain in the Minnesota organization. Odds are decent that any or all of the three will find themselves back with the Twins at points in the future.
Astudillo cleared release waivers and became a free agent. His popularity, starring role in several fun and meme worthy moments, and willingness to take one for the team on the mound the past few years might have made his removal from the roster a little surprising and disappointing for some, but there are few objective performance reasons for the Twins to keep him on the 40 man roster. Over parts of four seasons with the Twins, Astudillo took 533 plate appearances while playing all around the diamond defensively. Both FanGraphs (-0.1 fWAR) and Baseball-Reference (-0.7 bWAR) measured his total contributions as below replacement level. Much like the various veteran pitchers removed from the roster earlier in the offseason, Astudillo is a fine player to have around as depth to guard against injuries and to soak up playing time in a losing season, but he doesn’t offer enough value on the field to merit being on the plan A roster of a team with purported competitive aspirations.
Roster Count = 34
#5: Adding six prospects to the 40-man roster
Now with six open roster spots, the Twins quickly added six of their most promising prospects to the 40-man roster, headlined by Royce Lewis. Also added to the roster were 2021 breakout prospect Jose Miranda and four right handed pitchers — Cole Sands, Blayne Enlow, Chris Vallimont, and Josh Winder.
Lewis, Miranda, Winder, and Sands were no-brainer additions as consensus top 20 prospects in the Twins system with track records of performance in AA and AAA. There was a little uncertainty if the Twins would add Enlow and Vallimont for reasons I’ll illustrate below.
Lewis did not play last season while recovering from a torn ACL suffered before last spring training. Despite the major injury, the former #1 overall draft pick still rates as the Twins’ top prospect. The injury, combined with a mostly lost 2020 season due to the pandemic and increasing concerns about how much Lewis swings and misses and if he can stay at shortstop defensively make his outlook one with a wide range of potential outcomes. His raw skills and tools are still among the best in the minors and when he was last seen in competition, he won MVP of the Arizona Fall League. If fully healthy, Lewis could find himself playing at Target Field some time next season.
Miranda was Rule 5 eligible last winter and was not added to the Twins 40 man roster. He was coming off a .248/.299/.364 season in high-A in 2019 and had not been invited to participate in the Twins’ alternate training site. In hindsight, Minnesota might have caught a break that Miranda was not selected by another team, because he broke out in a huge way last season. Starting the season in AA, Miranda posted a .345/.408/.588 line in 47 games before a promotion to AAA St. Paul. Then, all he did was produce a similar .343/.397/.563 line in 80 games.
Miranda’s skill set at the plate is driven by very strong contact skills that have proven to be a double edged sword. Prior to 2021, Miranda’s ability to put the ball in play contributed to an expansive approach that suppressed his power production. The Twins challenged him to get more selective and hunt for pitches he could drive and Miranda responded with the tremendous 2021 numbers shown above. Defensively, he’s mostly played second and third base, but is limited at both. His profile in total looks a bit like a right handed Luis Arraez starter kit (but with more power) and if Miranda can maintain his new approach, his odds of becoming an impactful, bat first utility man will increase significantly. At this stage, Miranda might be the first prospect of this group to reach the majors.
Winder is on track to be one of the first finished products of this management regime’s revamped pitching development pipeline. A 7th round pick out of the Virginia Military Institute with an advanced ability to throw strikes and command his pitches, Winder has added strength and velocity as he has steadily progressed through the minors. He’s now working in the mid-90s with his fastball and low 80s with his breaking pitches and spent most of 2021 in AA where he pitched to a 1.98 ERA over 54.2 innings with very impressive 31.3% and 4.8% strikeout and walk rates, respectively. A late June promotion to AAA was quickly followed with an opportunity to represent the Twins in the MLB Futures Game during All Star weekend. Unfortunately, Winder suffered a shoulder injury that ended his season just a few weeks later. The injury did not require surgery and he should be ready to go for spring training. If healthy, Winder should have an outside chance at making the Twins roster out of camp and almost certainly will debut in the majors at some point next season.
Sands is another strike throwing college draftee who has seen his raw stuff improve in the Twins system. He spent last season pitching for AA Wichita, working 80.1 innings across 19 appearances (18 starts). Sands missed about a month of work due to an undisclosed injury, but otherwise pitched regularly and effectively, yielding a 2.46 ERA with a 28.7% strikeout rate and 10.5% walk rate. He has a chance to stick as a back of the rotation starter thanks to a three pitch mix and solid control. Like Winder, he has a pretty good chance to see time in the majors next season.
Vallimont was acquired as the afterthought part of the Sergio Romo trade with Miami a few years ago and might end up being a nice little piece of scouting and development for the Twins. With four average or above pitches in his repertoire, Vallimont has to stuff to be a starter, but it was uncertain if he would get added to the roster this winter because of the recurrence of command issues that have plagued him off and on all the way back to his amateur days. Vallimont walked 61 batters in 94 innings (14.2%) this past season, which he spent primarily with AA Wichita. That compares poorly to his last full season (2019) when he walked a much more palatable 41 batters in 127.2 innings (8.2%) across A and High-A. Should the command continue to lag, there should be enough stuff in Vallimont’s arsenal (especially the slider) for him to be a useful relief pitcher, perhaps as soon as 2022.
The uncertainty about Enlow being added to the roster is two pronged. Mostly it had to do with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in the middle of last season, but his case was also hampered in that he has yet to pitch above A-ball. As a result of being a high school draftee and the Twins moving him up the ladder slowly, Enlow is further away from the majors than the other pitchers on this list. When healthy, he projects to have four average or better pitches and he had seen his velocity tick up late in 2020 and in his limited playing time in 2021. He’s likely to miss the majority or all of next season rehabbing his elbow and will likely be moved to the 60 day injured list as soon as that is allowed. Enlow is probably looking at a mid to late 2023 debut, barring a shift to the bullpen that might shorten his timeline. Enlow is still just 22 years old, which allows the Twins to be patient.
Roster Count = 40
#6: Extending Byron Buxton (7 years, $100MM + incentives)
With the 40 man roster business taken care of, the Twins headed into the Thanksgiving weekend focused on their most important piece of offseason business — coming to a resolution on the Minnesota future of Byron Buxton. Few things have been covered as thoroughly throughout the Twins blogosphere in the last year or so as the Buxton conundrum. Few players can impact a game the way Buxton can when he’s on the field, but through parts of seven seasons with the Twins, he’s rarely been on the field often enough to make his full mark.
A healthy Buxton has the talent and skills to be considered among the kind of players that have started earning free agent pay days of $250MM to $300MM+. But his injury history made an outlook like that improbable and made committing to him for the long term a huge gamble for the Twins (or any other team that might have wanted to acquire Buxton in trade and work out an extension).
Reflecting the huge range of potential outcomes of a long term contract for Buxton, the Twins and their star got creative to find enough common ground to agree to one of the more unique contract extensions in recent memory. The 7 year, $100MM deal they consummated will cost about $10MM in 2022 and then have an average salary of $15MM per year for the next six seasons.
That total guarantee, while significant, serves to partially protect the Twins from roster crushing downside risk should Buxton never find consistent availability. At the same time, that amount is a bargain for a player of his capability. The deal also has significant upside for Buxton in the form of unique availability and performance incentives, the latter of which are huge bonuses awarded for placing high in the annual MVP voting. Should Buxton win an MVP, he’ll earn an extra $8MM after that season. If he finishes second in the voting, he’ll earn an extra $7MM. The contract structure scales accordingly through fifth place in the voting and settles at an extra $3MM for Buxton finishing any of 6th to 10th in the voting. There are also $500K bonuses embedded in the contract for Buxton exceeding certain plate appearance benchmarks above 500 plate appearances in a season.
Given that the deal is the second largest total contractual commitment the Twins franchise has ever made to one player (behind Joe Mauer’s extension), some might intuit that the club is taking on a big risk. After all, $100MM is a lot of money on a mid-market payroll and Buxton has been injured more than he has been available for the past seven seasons.
Here’s the thing, though: Buxton does not have to be available any more than he has been for this to break even. He’s played 493 games since his debut in 2015. In that span, he batted a cumulative .248/.299/.461, which worked out to a near league average .321 wOBA and 99 wRC+. That production, combined with Buxton’s outstanding defense and baserunning racked up to a total of 12.9 fWAR. (If you prefer Baseball-Reference’s bWAR, that checks in at 16.2).
Using FanGraphs’ methodology for valuing WAR, those 12.9 wins were worth an estimated $102.8-million. (The B-ref value would be worth about $129-million). So, even the inconsistent, often unavailable Buxton of the past seven years stands a good chance of breaking even on the investment made with this extension.
Moreover, Buxton has turned into a completely different hitter under the current management regime and their emphasis on hitting the ball in the air for extra base damage. Over the past three seasons, the new Buxton has compiled a .277/.321/.575 line that was good for .370 wOBA and 135 wRC+. That level of production at the plate provides a comfortable cushion against the value derived from his speed in the field and on the bases beginning to decline with age or injury over the course of the new contract.
Perhaps the best part of the new contract is the way it is structured so both parties benefit from Buxton playing well (and often) and generally provides cost certainty so the team can make investments around him. Unlike other contract incentive structures, where the player and team can be put at odds with one another, this arrangement has the team and player on the same side.
Nothing about the future is guaranteed and all transactions have a meaningful probability of failing — including this one. But, this a calculated gamble that secures the chance for a big payoff while balancing the downside to a somewhat manageable level. Smaller market teams have less margin to absorb deals like this one going south, but that does not mean they should avoid those risks altogether. This was the most important question the Twins had to figure out this winter and this extension makes their claims of wanting to compete in 2022 a little more believable.
Roster Count = 40
#7: Claiming RHP Trevor Megill off waivers, outrighting OF Jake Cave
On November 30, the Twins announced they had claimed 6’8” right handed pitcher Trevor Megill off waivers from the Chicago Cubs and outrighted OF Jake Cave to AAA St. Paul after he went unclaimed on waivers.
Megill is an interesting addition because of his raw stuff — a fastball that averages better than 96 MPH and two mid-80s breaking balls. Beyond the strong velocity, Megill has a rare ability to impart spin on his pitches and the average spin rates on his fastball and curveball last season rated in the 87th and 82nd percentiles, respectively. Despite the quality stuff and striking out more than a quarter of the batters he faced, Megill was hammered to 8.37 ERA and nearly two baserunners per inning pitched over 23.2 innings last season. With this addition, the Twins are hoping they can unlock a diamond in the rough with some adjustments and better execution.
With Buxton secure in his new deal, the Twins were more comfortable moving on from Cave, who was a solid role player in 2018 and 2019 when he combined to hit .262/.329/.466 (.337 wOBA, 111 wRC+) while playing average-ish defense across all three outfield spots. The shortened 2020 season proved to be a different story. Cave struggled to .221/.285/.389 (.293, 83) and then a fracture in his back contributed to an even worse .189/.249/.293 (.241, 49) line last season.
Cave had the option to elect free agency instead of being outrighted to St. Paul but chose to remain with the Twins organization. This was, no doubt, influenced by the fact that the arbitration eligible Cave and the Twins had agreed to a $300K/$800K split contract for 2022 a few weeks earlier.
Roster Count = 40
#8: Arbitration eligible decisions
The day they claimed Megill was also the moved up deadline to tender contracts to arbitration eligible players. When the offseason began, eight teams had more arbitration eligible players than the Twins’ twelve. By deadline day, that number had been whittled down to eight by the moves discussed above. They were:
LHP Taylor Rogers, RHP Tyler Duffey, C Mitch Garver, LHP Caleb Thielbar, LHP Danny Coulombe, RHP Juan Minaya, RHP Jharel Cotton, UT Luis Arraez
Brandon took a look at these players and their projected salaries through arbitration. On deadline day, Minnesota reduced this group further by choosing not to tender major league contracts to Minaya and Coulombe.
Both pitchers had good numbers last year after being pressed into duty. Coulombe had a 3.67 ERA that nearly matched his 3.75 FIP and Minaya had a 2.48 ERA that outperformed his (still good) 3.97 FIP. But, the same theme as before. At age 32 and 31, respectively, neither of these veterans are the kind you include in plan A. Either or both would be good to have around on minor league deals to guard against attrition next season, so it makes sense that the Twins decided to open those roster spots here.
The Twins also non-tendered Megill, who had just been claimed earlier in the day, even though he was not eligible for arbitration. That might seem like a curious decision (and a rough part of the baseball business), but this tweet from ESPN insider Kiley McDaniel explains the logic:
Quick reminder if you’re confused why a team non-tendered a player not eligible for arbitration: once-a-year chance to get a player off of the 40-man without putting them through waivers. Normally is followed by a pre-arranged minor league deal with a decent salary/incentives.— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) December 1, 2021
Doing so with Megill was a way to help keep him in the organization while also freeing up a roster spot.
The remaining six arbitration eligible players were offered major league contracts for 2022 and three of them agreed to terms (avoiding arbitration). Cotton accepted $700K for his future services, Thielbar agreed at $1.3MM, and Duffey agreed at $3.8MM. Rogers, Garver, and Arraez are scheduled to go through arbitration to determine their 2022 salaries and the Twins roster was at 37 players after this set of transactions.
Roster Count = 37
#9: Signing RHP Dylan Bundy (1 year, $4MM)
Amid the flurry of free agent activity across baseball in the run up to the expiration of the CBA on December 2, the Twins quietly secured free agent starter Dylan Bundy for next season. The announced deal was a 1-year, $4MM contract for 2022 that comes with an $11MM option for 2023 that can be bought out for $1MM.
Had 2021 gone differently, the Twins signing Bundy might have been met with quite a bit of fanfare. After all, he is a former consensus top prospect and finished in the top 10 in the Cy Young Award voting in 2020. But, 2021 was a disaster for Bundy. His numbers backed up in all the wrong ways and he dealt with a shoulder strain on the way to an 6.06 ERA and a lost rotation spot.
As a result, this signing has been met with reactions ranging from derision about the Twins being cheap to shrug emojis. Nonetheless, the Twins need starting pitchers and this is one.
There are some plausible reasons to think Bundy could bounce back to being a capable back of the rotation starter. For one, all the main ERA estimators suggest he was somewhat unlucky last season. Much of that disparity is driven by Bundy’s propensity for allowing home runs, which he did at a rate of 1.99 per nine innings last season. By Statcast’s models, Bundy was unlucky in the home run department as well — he allowed 20 but had an expected mark of 16.7. Helping pitchers suppress home run tendencies is something the Twins have had some success with in the recent past (Odorizzi, Pineda) and if that can be turned around for Bundy, it would go a long way towards him being serviceable next season.
Beyond the fly ball fortune, there are also some obvious pitch mix tweaks that might pay off. Last season Bundy operated more than 50% with his four seam fastball and sinker despite those being his worst performing pitches (a career trend). Twelve of his 20 home runs allowed came off these pitch types and opposing batter’s slugged .490 and .609 against them, respectively. At the same time, Bundy’s slider has long been his go to secondary offering and his best performing pitch — but he only throws it about one out of every five pitches. On the surface, he looks like a prime candidate for the “Maeda plan” of using the slider as his primary pitch.
This is a low cost, buy low signing of a still just 29 year old former top prospect with little downside risk. If Bundy can’t turn it around, all the Twins will be out is $5MM. If he can, they might have a bargain for a back end starter and have the option to retain him again for the following season. It’s not the kind of high profile signing that helps teams win the offseason (and it shouldn’t be the only pitching additions they make), but it has the potential to be the kind of value signing that helps teams win during the season. Some Twins fans may be tired of seeing this kind of move in lieu of a higher profile signing, but it’s clear that this is the team’s strategy.
Roster Count = 38
#10: Signing some minor league pitching depth
Right before the CBA expired, the Twins made three moves to add some pitching depth to their minor league clubs, announcing the re-signing of LHP Danny Coulombe and RHP Trevor Megill, who were both non-tendered earlier. In addition to those, they also added RHP Jake Faria to a minor league deal.
Faria is probably most well known for his time with Tampa Bay, where he was a starting pitcher prospect and had some success as a rookie in 2017. He spent last season working primarily as a reliever for Arizona and pitched to a 5.51 ERA / 4.58 FIP over 32.2 innings. He works mostly with a low spin fastball that clocks in the low-90s and a low-80s split-finger pitch that generated a whiff on more than a third of swings against it last season. Like Bundy and the slider, the Twins might try to ramp up Faria’s splitter usage in hopes of conjuring an effective reliever.
Roster Count = 38
John is a writer for Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analysis. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.