5 questions facing the Twins in 2021
MINNEAPOLIS -- Considering all of the uncertainty surrounding the 2021 season, it's no surprise that the offseason markets have been moving quite slowly for most teams. The Twins have been no exception despite their plethora of needs for both offense and pitching.
Since the Twins were eliminated from the 2020 postseason by the Astros in the American League Wild Card Series, the only external additions to the 40-man roster have been relievers Ian Gibaut and Brandon Waddell, while 11 players left in free agency, including non-tenders Eddie Rosario and Matt Wisler. As the calendar turns to '21, holes remain all over the roster -- with no concrete moves thus far to address them.
Where, then, do things stand as time continues to wind down until teams could convene for Spring Training? Here are five questions the Twins need to think about as they enter the new year.
1. Who will fill the utility roles?
Though Marwin Gonzalez had a difficult 2020 at the plate, with a .606 OPS in 53 games, he still occupied an important position on the roster thanks to his ability to slot in at first base, second base, third base and right field as the club dealt with the injury absences of most of its major offensive contributors at various points in the season. Gonzalez's brand of super-versatility is particularly important to a team like the Twins, who have an exclusive designated hitter in Nelson Cruz, which limits the defensive versatility of the roster.
The problem is that both Gonzalez and utility infielder Ehire Adrianza are now free agents, which means the Twins have a need for infield depth in particular but could use a player who could help in both the infield and outfield, especially considering manager Rocco Baldelli likes to use an extensive pitching staff.
Kiké Hernández fits the mold, as does Jurickson Profar. With that said, the Twins will also need a backup who can play capably at shortstop and likely fill in around the infield -- perhaps by bringing back Adrianza or finding someone with a similar skill set. This question could be more important than expected, considering the Twins hope to ease Josh Donaldson into the season and Jorge Polanco has undergone surgery on his right ankle in consecutive offseasons.
2. What happens if the Twins don't come to an agreement with Cruz?
The Twins had barely been eliminated from the playoffs when both Cruz and the club expressed a mutual interest in a reunion. Cruz has been the club's best hitter for the last two seasons, and the Twins could be entering a period of uncertainty in the heart of their lineup after Rosario's departure. Still, the sides have yet to come to an agreement, with Cruz reportedly seeking a multiyear deal and waiting on a determination regarding the DH in the National League.
The club has continued to make it known that re-signing Cruz remains a priority, but for the sake of a hypothetical, how would it affect the offseason if the Twins can't bring him back?
Minnesota has no shortage of bodies to fill the DH role on a rotating basis (Brent Rooker, Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Mitch Garver, Miguel Sanó and Donaldson all come to mind) but the more important consequence will be that the Twins would need to be in the market for another productive bat to make up for the lost offense of both Cruz and Rosario, the club's three and four hitters for much of the last two seasons. That could even be on a short-term deal considering the future of the Twins' top prospects, but the offense would need another jolt in 2021 -- especially as the Twins hope for bounce-backs from Polanco, Garver and Sanó.
3. Can the Twins count on Taylor Rogers to bounce back?
Rogers is already slated to return on a $6 million deal for 2021, so the club clearly believes the left-hander is due for a return to form after a difficult '20 campaign, and the underlying numbers largely support that idea. Though Rogers saw his ERA balloon to 4.05 due to a steep rise in the rate at which he allowed hits, his FIP actually improved from his elite '19 numbers, and his walk rate didn't drastically change.
On the other hand, Rogers' strikeout rate did decrease to 26.4 percent (the lowest it's been since 2017), while the average exit velocity on his sinker, his most-used pitch, saw an increase of more than 5 mph. Rogers himself remarked throughout the season that he didn't feel he was doing anything differently and couldn't necessarily pinpoint a cause of the issues. Baldelli said after the season that some of the underperformance could be attributed to bad luck.
The question then is how much the Twins can and should read into Rogers' performance in a shortened, pandemic-affected 2020 season. The club is already in need of significant bullpen help due to the departures of Tyler Clippard, Sergio Romo, Trevor May and Matt Wisler, leaving Rogers and Tyler Duffey as the only proven options in the relief corps. The ability to count on Rogers might be the difference between the Twins seeking a top-tier reliever to pair with Duffey and a less-costly search for solid late-inning options.
4. How many more pitchers do the Twins need?
The Rogers question is part of the broader question of evaluating the Twins' more general needs on the pitching staff. There are two spots to fill in the rotation and at least three in the bullpen after the addition of Hansel Robles on a one-year deal, but the organization does have prospects ready to step into both groups. Top starting prospects Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran should affect the Twins at some point in 2021, and Dakota Chalmers and Edwar Colina could also factor in.
Duran spent the entire 2020 season at the alternate training site, while Colina made one MLB appearance, so they might have the edge in terms of development (though the extent to which all of those players were able to develop without a Minor League season will likely continue to be evaluated). Will the Twins be able to rely on any of them immediately as part of the MLB roster on Opening Day? Considering the vast scope of need and the additional pieces that need to be filled on offense, it's an important question.
5. Who might be on the trade block?
It's no secret that the Twins are swimming in outfielders and need help elsewhere. The Twins have Max Kepler signed to a team-friendly contract through 2023; an oft-injured but high-ceiling talent in Byron Buxton; three top prospects on the cusp of the Majors in Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach and Brent Rooker; another prospect not far behind in Gilberto Celestino; and a pair of fourth-outfielder types in Jake Cave and LaMonte Wade Jr.
Kirilloff and Larnach figure to be in the long-term plans, but could more of the depth -- Rooker, Cave, Wade or Celestino -- be on the move in exchange for help in the infield or pitching ranks? Kepler has been a solid source of power and defense, but could his remaining years of team control net some strong pitching help? With No. 1 prospect Royce Lewis soon on the way, could the Twins part with one of their middle infielders -- cheap, productive and under team control?
The club appears to be ready to welcome a new core of position players to the lineup in Lewis, Kirilloff, Larnach and Ryan Jeffers over the next one or two seasons. Though most competitive teams look to add at this point in their window, the Twins could take care of some of their needs with a strategic trade of a contributor.