MINNEAPOLIS -- In their vision for 2021, the Twins would still be playing baseball, and questions regarding an important offseason of change wouldn't have come into focus this early.
But here they are, reeling from a last-place finish in the American League Central in a year when they hoped to contend for a third straight division title. Minnesota faces an uncertain several months and the stated goal of improving for 2022, with the hope that this unexpected 73-89 finish in '21 was a fluke -- and not the indication of a possible rebuild to come.
Let's take a look at the five biggest questions the Twins face in the next few months.
1. What will Byron Buxton's future look like?
The Twins and Buxton's camp weren't able to agree to extension terms ahead of the Trade Deadline, leading to speculation and reports that he could be traded, much in the way that José Berríos was dealt to Toronto for a pair of top prospects. Both sides remain open to continued discussions, with Buxton having said that he hopes to finish his career in Minnesota.
It's not difficult to see why an agreement has been challenging to reach. When healthy, Buxton was one of the best hitters in baseball in 2021, with a 169 wRC+ that ranked ahead of even Vladimir Guerrero Jr., showcasing the exemplary hit, power and speed tools rivaled by few -- if any -- in baseball. He'll want to get paid as such.
On the other hand, Buxton has played in only 215 games over the last four seasons, which makes for elevated risk that the Twins (or any other team) would have to assume over the life of any long-term deal.
Buxton has remarked that he feels no rush to get a deal done. But if it appears unlikely that an extension is in the cards, the Twins would only heighten their return by trading him earlier, as opposed to a move at next year's Trade Deadline -- or to letting him walk at the end of next season, if the Twins aren't sellers at the Deadline and no extension gets done.
2. What kind of coaching staff will the Twins assemble?
The Twins got through 2021 as best they could following the untimely death of bench coach Mike Bell on March 26. The question of who will serve as 40-year-old manager Rocco Baldelli's permanent number two will be just as important as any Minnesota will face this offseason, especially following the retirement of Major League coach Bill Evers, who helped to fill that role.
The Twins also announced the reassignments of co-hitting coach Edgar Varela and Major League field coordinator Kevin Morgan to Minor League player development roles, creating additional vacancies through which Minnesota can change the tenor of its coaching staff.
It's looking like the Twins will have three primary roles to fill this offseason: bench coach, hitting coach and Major League coach. There's no clear-cut mold as to the types of coaches they're looking for. But it's worth noting that Baldelli will be entering his fourth season as a first-time manager, pitching coach Wes Johnson is also a first-time Major League coach and the Twins are losing a wealth of professional experience with the losses of Evers and Morgan.
3. How much external pitching help will they need?
Pitching was the Twins' downfall in 2021, with their 4.83 ERA ranking fifth worst in the Majors. That's where they'll need to make vast improvements in order to surge back up the standings.
The problem is that they don't have much certainty to build on. The only two pitchers who appear likely to break camp with the Twins are rookies Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober, who have a combined 25 big league starts under their belts. There are plenty of depth options like Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe, Drew Strotman, Griffin Jax and Charlie Barnes -- but none has a significant track record.
In addition, the next wave of prospects the Twins hoped to get into the big leagues by now -- Jhoan Duran (club No. 5, per MLB. Pipeline) and Josh Winder (No. 9) among them -- had their 2021 seasons derailed by injuries. Between those two and the likes of Jordan Balazovic (No. 3), Cole Sands (No. 19) and Louie Varland (No. 28) behind them, there's upside in the pipeline -- but who knows how and when they'll factor into the big league picture?
4. Could position players be headed out the door?
Considering the depth of the Twins' pitching needs, it's likely not realistic to expect them to buy their way to a full complement of arms -- and that's where trade options might come into play.
The Twins have redundancy around the diamond even before accounting for youngsters like Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach and No. 8 prospect Jose Miranda, who should all push for significant playing time in 2022. That could afford Minnesota the flexibility in the trade market to create some deals for controllable pitching.
Their outfield redundancy might make Max Kepler a trade option, considering his team-friendly contract, in addition to the possibility of a Buxton deal. Perhaps Luis Arraez or Mitch Garver could come into play as productive players with significant club control remaining. It would be tough to see any of those players leave, but the depth of the pitching needs could make for some tough decisions once the uncertainty of baseball's Collective Bargaining Agreement subsides and teams have more clarity in player valuation on the trade market.
5. Can they realistically contend in 2022?
President of baseball operations Derek Falvey has said that the Twins plan to invest in their '22 team and make it better, emphasizing that the club isn't planning to enter a rebuild.
Considering the depths of their 2021 struggles, the significant need on the pitching staff and an improving division, can they actually make a push in '22? Or would it make more sense to move on from Buxton and others with one remaining year of club control -- such as Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffey -- and orient themselves more toward '23, when their current rookies will be more seasoned and top prospects such as Royce Lewis (No. 1), Austin Martin (No. 2), Balazovic, Duran and Matt Canterino (No. 10) might be big leaguers with upside?
That's not to say that orienting themselves toward 2023 would necessarily involve a direct tradeoff with possible '22 success. But there's certainly a balance there.