As we enter the final week of May, teams around the Majors are finding the standings quite cozy. Well, most of them, anyway.
Only nine clubs entered the week more than six games out of a postseason spot, setting up a fun summer for the majority of the baseball landscape.
Of those nine teams with a lot of ground to gain to make their season relevant, none had higher hopes coming into 2021 than the Twins, who had their sights set on a third consecutive American League Central title.
Instead, Minnesota has woefully underperformed, its 17-29 record tied with Baltimore for the worst in the AL. With a 9.5-game spread between the Twins and the first-place White Sox -- not to mention an 11-game margin between Minnesota and a Wild Card spot -- it’s fair to wonder whether the Twins -- who lost Kenta Maeda to the injured list over the weekend, the 11th player from the Opening Day roster to land on the IL this year -- will become one of the season’s early sellers.
“We are a franchise that is going to strive to make decisions to help our team, either for today or for the future,” Twins general manager Thad Levine said. “Where we -- like so many teams -- try to stay disciplined is not being caught in that middle range, where you're kind of doing neither and you're missing opportunities.”
Levine recalled a lesson that he learned from Oakland's executive vice president Billy Beane early in his career: During the six-month season, executives should use the first two months to assess their team, the next two months to make the necessary changes, then sit back for the final two months and see how it plays out.
The first two months of 2021 are almost over, leaving the Twins with some harsh realities to consider.
“We still believe in the team,” Levine said. “We think it's very talented, but we're getting close to an inflection point where we're going to need to see some more sustained momentum, as we believe we're in a very competitive division, let alone league.”
Despite their record, the Twins don’t appear ready to declare 2021 a lost season just yet. Given their preseason expectations, the front office’s belief is that the club is good enough to contend, though the sluggish start has certainly thrown a wrench into those plans.
“We knew this was going to be a very competitive season, even if we were clicking on most cylinders,” Levine said. “The fact that we've gotten off to the start we have, where we haven't necessarily been blessed accordingly, we just have some more work to do here. There's only so much of a hole you can dig yourself.”
Cruz, Simmons, Happ, Colomé, Robles and Shoemaker all signed one-year deals with the Twins this past offseason.
“That team is not what they thought it would be,” an AL executive said. “Most people thought they would be No. 2 in the division. They added pieces.”
Although the Twins’ rocky start has thrust them firmly in the “potential seller” category, some executives around the league aren’t sold on the idea that Minnesota’s front-office duo of Levine and Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey will throw in the towel anytime soon.
“I can’t imagine they’d sell, but if this lasts much longer, they could,” a National League executive said. “I know that they believe in that group, so it may be difficult to pull that plug. At some point that issue will be forced, but knowing those guys, I would bet they’ll wait as long as possible.”
Cruz would be the most appealing bat of the bunch, though as a designated hitter, his market would be limited to AL teams. Simmons is having a subpar year at the plate, but his work at shortstop could make him attractive to a defensively challenged club.
Pineda was pitching well when he landed on the injured list last week following a procedure to remove an abscess from his thigh, but both Happ and Shoemaker have struggled to find consistency this season.
Colomé lost his closer job in April, though he bounced back in May, posting seven straight scoreless appearances before taking a loss Saturday. Robles has picked up some of the slack following Colomé’s demotion, earning a pair of saves. Either right-hander could prove to be a bullpen upgrade for a contender.
“There are some small pieces like Robles, Happ and Colomé,” the AL executive said. “Thad and Falvey are very bright and savvy; I think if it made sense [to move any of them], they would.”
The impending free agents would be obvious candidates to be moved, but what about players under control? The prospect of a new collective bargaining agreement creates uncertainty about the future of the Qualifying Offer, making it possible that the Twins could look to move a player with years of control beyond 2021.
• Jorge Polanco will earn $5 million in 2022 and $7.5 million in '23 with a pair of vesting options for '24 ($10.5 million) and '25 ($12 million).
“I think they could get creative at this point and look to move some guys with a little control left if they wanted to,” the NL executive said. “Otherwise, they don’t have an obvious group of impact pending free agents. They tend to be a patient group and stick to their plans, so they’ll be interesting to watch.”
With so many teams likely to wait until the 11th hour to decide whether to buy or sell, could early sellers have an advantage by jumping the market?
“Teams are inclined to wait as long as they possibly can, so while on paper it seems as if it could favor the seller just from a supply and demand, I do think the buyers tend to tamp that down a little bit by showing great restraint and patience,” Levine said. “I would expect this season probably will be no different.”
Between injuries, COVID-related issues and the social unrest that enveloped Minneapolis earlier this season, the Twins have had their share of challenges. But wins and losses are the bottom line in this business, so if Minnesota is unable to turn things around soon the way that the Nationals were able to do in 2019 following their 19-31 start, the front office may have no choice but to unload some pieces with an eye toward '22 and beyond.
“In the grand scheme of luck, as we all try to define it in baseball, we've certainly been on the unluckier side of things, which would stand to reason that there should be regression in a positive way towards the norm for us,” Levine said. “But we also have to be realistic about -- as much as we're all engrossed in the process more than the outcomes, the wins and losses are a bit of a bellwether measure of how your team is doing. Those [wins] are going to be necessary for us to get back into this race.”