Coming off a 103-loss nightmare, the post-Terry Ryan era begins with an attempt to right the ship. The newly hired team of chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine pledged to do their part to build a team capable of sustainable success.
Veteran catcher Jason Castro was brought in via free agency on a three-year, $24.5 million contract, the richest for an outside free-agent position player in franchise history. Beyond that, there were only modest adjustments. A blockbuster trade involving second baseman Brian Dozier continued to be discussed into the new year, but the Los Angeles Dodgers appeared unwilling to meet the Twins’ lofty asking price for the 42-homer man.
With the reigning pennant winners from Cleveland (Falvey’s former employer) ramping up for another long postseason run, the Twins joined their other three division rivals in cutting back on payroll, at least modestly. Whether that means another year or two of pain before the Twins’ contention window reopens remains to be seen.
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A lesser man might have exploded at some point amid the second-worst run support in the majors, but veteran righthander Ervin Santana somehow maintained a sunny disposition throughout a 7–11 season that saw him finish 10th in the American League with a 3.38 ERA. Now 34, Santana has two years (plus an option) left on his contract, but the Twins seem intent on keeping him for now to front baseball’s worst rotation. Lefthander Hector Santiago, acquired at the Aug. 1 trade deadline in a swap with the Los Angeles Angels, reversed a miserable four-start introduction with the Twins and should prove a valuable innings-eater, if nothing else, as he enters his walk year. Sinkerball specialist Kyle Gibson still doesn’t miss many bats, but he’s solid on and off the field. Veteran Phil Hughes is coming off a double whammy of a broken leg and surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome, but he’s expected to be ready for spring training. The final rotation spot could fall to one of several young righthanders: Jose Berrios, Tyler Duffey or Trevor May. Berrios, shelled to the tune of an 8.02 ERA in 14 starts as a rookie, enters as the favorite.
Journeyman Brandon Kintzler was a revelation after stepping into the closer’s role in mid-June, nailing down 17 of 20 save chances. He could open 2017 in that same capacity as three-time All-Star Glen Perkins tries to work back from shoulder surgery in late June. Setup man Ryan Pressly opened eyes with his improved velocity, and rookie Taylor Rogers made a successful conversion from minor-league starter to situational lefty in the majors. Hard-throwing righties J.T. Chargois and Michael Tonkin remain to take up the slack if May earns one of the starting spots.
Thirty-three of Dozier’s homers came in a dizzying span of 73 games that started on June 25 at Yankee Stadium and carried through Sept. 14 at Detroit’s Comerica Park. Entering his age-30 season, Dozier knows he still must prove himself to a legion of skeptics, but the fact remains he has averaged 28 homers over the past four seasons since making the permanent switch from shortstop. He probably doesn’t get enough credit for his defense, baserunning and leadership, so any decision to deal him with two years left on his contract must be taken quite seriously. Switch-hitting Jorge Polanco has excellent plate discipline at 23, but his defensive skills, especially his arm, profile better at second than short.
It took a hamstring strain to liberate Miguel Sano from an ill-fated experiment in right field, but the rust was apparent once he returned to his natural spot at third base. A late-season flare-up in his surgically repaired throwing elbow proved no cause for lingering concern, so the Twins opted to cut ties with incumbent Trevor Plouffe as he entered his final year of arbitration. Joe Mauer, who turns 34 in April, struggled to stay on the field over the final six weeks due to a quadriceps strain. Unable to maintain a sizzling start, the six-time All-Star figures to see increased time as the designated hitter.
Scouts always caution against reading too much into September stats, especially when a team is out of the playoff race, but Byron Buxton hit as if the light finally went on in his fourth crack at the majors. His defense in center field was every bit as impressive as expected, but he was still getting the hang of basestealing at the highest level. Fellow rookie Max Kepler had the opposite experience, sagging over the final six weeks after showing a surprising power stroke across the midseason portion. Lefties continued to trouble him, so it’s possible switch-hitting reserve Robbie Grossman could spell him more frequently in 2017. Free-swinging Eddie Rosario, who endured a difficult sophomore season that included a six-week demotion to the minors and a season-ending thumb injury in September, returns in left.
Castro doesn’t have to be Pudge Rodriguez in his prime to make an impact on his new club. The ability to throw out runners and frame pitches should make him a clear upgrade over predecessors Kurt Suzuki and Juan Centeno, both of whom struggled on the defensive side. Castro’s lefty power (13.5-homer average over the last four seasons) should come in handy as well for a team that ranked in the bottom seven in slugging and isolated power against right-handers by lefty hitters. John Ryan Murphy’s pitch framing ranked as the minors’ best over the four months he spent at Rochester.
Byung Ho Park’s debut, which ended in August surgery on his right hand, was considered a disappointment, but he still hit 22 homers in 93 games between the majors and Triple-A Rochester. Grossman, picked up off the scrap heap in mid-May, showed the ability to pound lefties even as he had his share of woes in left field. Veteran utility man Eduardo Escobar, who failed to hold the Opening Day job at shortstop in 2016, was brought back as insurance up the middle. Speedy switch-hitter Danny Santana remains, but the bulk of his sporadic playing time now comes in the outfield.
Falvey and Levine, the latter of whom spent the previous 11 years as assistant GM for the Texas Rangers, vowed to work closely with their inherited manager — Paul Molitor, entering the final season of a three-year contract — and his staff. Just as notably, they kept nearly everyone in place in the scouting and farm departments.
Saddled with the majors’ second-most losses over the past six seasons, the Twins are finally joining the game’s analytics revolution while maintaining a strong emphasis on traditional scouting. Their payroll figured to remain right around $100 million as they continued to break in young talent and sought new methods of procuring future weapons. The honeymoon for the new front-office duo figures to last for at least a couple of years while the Twins find their footing once more in a difficult division.