If the Twins will, indeed, point themselves back toward contending in 2022 following their unexpected last-place finish in the American League Central, it's no big secret that the path to doing so will involve pitching, pitching and more pitching, via both free agency and the trade market.
As the annual General Managers Meetings get underway in Carlsbad, Calif., Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey indicated that the club has already started to engage the free-agent pitching market -- from which Andrew Heaney has reportedly already agreed to a deal with the Dodgers -- and is around two-thirds of the way through preliminary connections with teams at the Meetings around possible trades for pitching.
"We're going to have to explore both," Falvey said. "Every year, there's challenges in the free-agent pitching market. There's a certain number of guys, and sometimes, they go off the board early. We've had some conversations on that already and ultimately, haven't had anything come to fruition. We're going to have to dive into both markets."
With the current roster featuring only rookies Bailey Ober and Joe Ryan as starting pitchers to experience any degree of success in small sample sizes at the big league level and only untested youth among the existing depth, the Twins have a long way to go to improve upon a pitching staff that finished second-worst in the American League with a 4.83 ERA in 2021.
While big names are out there on the free-agent starting market, including Max Scherzer, Kevin Gausman, Carlos Rodón, Robbie Ray and Marcus Stroman, the Twins' front office previously committed to a multi-year, big-dollar addition when the window of contention was clearly open -- as they did with Josh Donaldson's four-year, $92 million deal before the '20 season -- and that's less clearly the case this offseason, coming off a 73-89 finish in a quickly improving AL Central.
Considering the Twins' current roster composition, with a glut of position players, Falvey indicated that the Twins are still hoping for the trade market to expand in the coming weeks and months.
"I would say I hope so, to some degree, for our needs," Falvey said. "I would say I hope there's a little bit more availability on the market."
Falvey and general manager Thad Levine have an example of taking advantage of such opportunities for controllable pitching, when they traded then-top pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol before the 2020 campaign for four seasons of Kenta Maeda.
With that said, there's an interesting balance to be struck in their quest for pitching, because the Twins do already have a glut of controllable, talented arms on the cusp of the big leagues in a group that features Jhoan Duran, Josh Winder, Jordan Balazovic, Simeon Woods Richardson, Matt Canterino, Drew Strotman and Cole Sands, among others.
"A lot of these guys just didn't have the normal last couple of years, so they're a little bit behind where, if you'd asked me two or three years ago, where I'd hoped they'd be," Falvey said. "They're like a half a year to a year behind that part of their development. So we're hopeful that those guys come back and are a big part of next year -- not just next year, but the years beyond that."
That could possibly leave a greater need in the short term than in the long term if the Twins want to surge again in '22, knowing they have these pitchers on the way but hindered a bit in their development due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Twins comfortable keeping both Garver, Jeffers
For many teams, one clear area from which to deal might be the catching position, where the Twins have former Silver Slugger Award winner Mitch Garver coming off an injury-hampered season with an .875 OPS and under contract for two more seasons alongside 24-year-old Ryan Jeffers, the former top prospect who struggled at the plate in '21 but remains highly considered by the organization.
But Falvey didn't speak on Tuesday like someone looking to deal from that area of depth.
"We're a little less concerned about having both those guys at once," Falvey said. "That's always some concern for some teams, but if we have the ability to -- sometimes we overprotect for that as an industry. We're going to try to keep those guys as actively in the lineup as we can. We think we can."
While Jeffers didn't flourish in the roughly even split of playing time the Twins established at the start of the '21 season and indicated that he was helped by consistency, Falvey noted that the Twins could use the designated hitter spot and looks at first base to a greater extent than before to keep Garver's bat in the lineup when he's not catching.
"I think it's never a problem to have good catching in the big leagues, to have multiple good catchers," Falvey said. "It's hard to find right now in the game."
How do the Twins view the DH spot?
The Twins opened the last three seasons with Nelson Cruz as their everyday designated hitter, and the 41-year-old team leader is once again a free agent this offseason. Could there be a reunion in the cards?
Falvey didn't directly address that particular case, but spoke about the advantages offered by freeing up the possibility of a rotation at DH, which the Twins used heavily with Donaldson throughout the second half to keep him in the lineup even when he wasn't at full health.
Considering that and his previously stated possibility of Garver getting additional looks at DH to keep him in the lineup, there could be reasons with this roster composition to having such a rotation at DH -- though Falvey also noted that it would also be tough to match the performance of a truly elite hitter like Cruz at the position.
"We saw the benefit play through the season, whether it was [Donaldson] -- he was dealing with a couple of things along the way and if he wasn't feeling the best, he could go DH for a day," Falvey said. "[Jorge] Polanco, right? As well as anybody, maybe go get him a day. Get him off his feet. Maybe not play second today, but go DH. So the benefits are the ability to rotate through."