When asked if he was done pursuing upgrades after the Jake Odorizzi addition last week, Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said, "I won't turn my phone off." That's good, because, soon enough, Logan Morrison's agent was on the line, and now a Twins offense that was already on the rise has added some affordable power in the form of a reported one-year, $6.5 million pact with LoMo.
But even with that move complete, Falvey better not power off that phone just yet. After all, an opportunity to legitimately contend in the American League Central might come calling earlier than people expect.
The Twins are on the short list of clubs that still ought to be seriously engaged in the markets for Jacob Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb. Any of the three are capable of providing the kind of quality innings that would make the Twins more serious threats to challenge the Indians' perceived stranglehold on their division.
Let's first address that stranglehold, shall we?
The Indians are back-to-back defending champs in the Central, and their quiet winter shouldn't force us to forget that they had the AL's best record in 2017. The Twins played their best baseball of the season in the final two months of '17, winning 34 of their final 57 ... and they got smoked in the Central anyway. They dropped 11 games in the standings in that stretch thanks in large measure to the Tribe's AL-record run of 22 straight wins.
Though it is obvious that the Indians likely won't be repeating that streak in '18 and lost some key pieces in Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce, Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith, it is equally obvious that they return as Central favorites.
Prior to the LoMo signing, the Indians were projected by FanGraphs to beat the Twins by 12 games and by PECOTA to win by 16 games. As I write this, those projections haven't been updated to account for Morrison's impact on the Twins at first base and DH, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess they don't have him down as a 12- or 16-win player. Really, there is no realistic addition the Twins could make between now and Opening Day that is going to alter the bottom line that the Indians are prohibitive favorites in this division.
But knowing what we do about baseball -- especially in my tortured hometown of Cleveland -- it's not impossible to imagine the calculus changing as 2018 evolves.
The Indians are a juggernaut, yes, but possibly a more fragile one than they were a year ago. I mentioned the free-agent losses, with their only substantive addition being Yonder Alonso, who, like Morrison, is no sure thing to repeat his 2017 successes. (Both Morrison and Alonso have career OPS+ marks of 109, but Alonso had a 133 mark and Morrison a 135 mark in '17.)
Cleveland went out of its financial comfort zone in adding Edwin Encarnacion a year ago, and that has proven to be a one-time splurge after what the Indians hoped would be another deep October run burned out quickly in the Division Series against the Yankees (the Indians remained in baseball's lower-third in attendance). The Indians are largely counting on whatever gaps arise from their free-agent losses -- especially in the bullpen -- being plugged internally or addressed with in-season trades.
Here's the number that stands out to me when assessing the Indians' staying power: seven. That's how many starters they used last season, the fewest in MLB. Their starters accounted for 66 percent of their total innings pitched, the most in MLB. That's good fortune and impact that we know too well can be difficult to maintain in this game, and the departure of Shaw, who averaged 72 innings out of the 'pen over the last five years, might be a big deal if the Indians don't maintain health and length from their splendid starting staff. (Danny Salazar's shoulder inflammation is an early test of their depth.)
Analysis of literally any team in baseball can involve the "key injuries would change things" rationale, sure. But because pitching health has such an air of etherealness in this sport, the Tribe's situation is worth highlighting.
And the Twins' opportunity is worth maximizing.
The Twins, who scored the most runs in baseball in the second half last season and have already rebuilt their bullpen with Fernando Rodney and Addison Reed, went into this winter hoping to capitalize upon general manager Thad Levine's past Texas connections in an effort to lure Yu Darvish into their rotation. They've had to settle instead for the swap for Odorizzi, who pitched through some back trouble en route to an ERA+ that was exactly league average last year, and a non-guaranteed pact with Anibal Sanchez, whose last two seasons have been an absolute mess.
It can't be overstated how much the Twins' pitching culture has changed with the arrival of Falvey and Levine and their analytical inputs, and it's possible they can "fix" both of those guys. But even with staff ace Ervin Santana only expected to miss a month following finger surgery, Jose Berrios coming off a bit of a breakout (113 ERA+ in 145 2/3 innings) and capable of more, and valuable prospects Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero on the horizon, the Twins need more in the realm of reliability.
Morrison's arrival already has the Twins looking at a franchise-record payroll just north of $117 million. But this club has just $38 million on the books for 2019 and literally nothing locked in for 2020, aside from the obvious expenditures that will come from guys like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton making bank in arbitration. Maybe something in the realm of $20 million per year for Arrieta, who reportedly is still seeking a six- or seven-year commitment at age 32, is simply too rich for the Twins' tastes, and if so, that's understandable. And giving up the 75th overall pick in the Draft for signing any qualifying-offer recipient is not nothing.
But if something in the general range of the three-year, $38 million deal Tyler Chatwood signed with the Cubs presents itself with Lynn or Cobb (and that feels increasingly realistic with Opening Day approaching), the Twins ought to pounce.
At worst, such a move would strengthen their standing in what could be an elevated bar of entry in the AL Wild Card picture this year (as I write this, the Twins are projected by FanGraphs at 81 wins, with the Blue Jays penciled into the second Wild Card at 86) and in a division that's going to evolve considerably come 2019, when the Indians will be faced with the free agencies of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.
At best, such a move would properly position the Twins should the Indians start falling and an AL Central opportunity come calling in 2018.