The retirement of Joe Mauer freed up an annual $23 million allocation from Minnesota’s payroll and the free agent market remains wide open with spring training just a week away.
Now, though, is not the time for the Twins to spend. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine of the front office are instead focused on pushing several underperforming young players for more.
Don’t mistake the upcoming season for a teardown, not with Nelson Cruz as the offseason acquisition on a $14 million salary, but the Twins aren’t exactly on the verge of a World Series. Their relatively quiet winter said as much, along with the hiring of 37-year-old Rocco Baldelli as the youngest manager in the major leagues.
“Buying wins just through free agency is a little bit of fool’s gold,” Falvey said. “You need to invest in the group that you have, and I feel really good about ours.”
That starts with center fielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano, the long-linked duo of 25-year-olds that has a long way to go to reach franchise cornerstone status. Both players had a particularly rough 2018 season, a setback that, fair or not, contributed to the firing of manager Paul Molitor after a 78-84 finish.
One of the first items on Baldelli’s to-do list was to travel to the Atlanta area and the Dominican Republic to start getting to know Buxton and Sano.
“Just getting down there and spending just a little bit of time and having a meal and giving them the chance to talk about the things that they want to talk about, I think, was very important,” Baldelli said.
With Cruz, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop, the Twins have added three players who’ve each hit the 30-homer mark within the past two seasons. Cron also came with an established relationship with Baldelli, who came from the coaching staff with Tampa Bay, where Cron played in 2018.
“Rocco’s the man,” Cron said. “I have nothing but good things to say about him.”
The first pitchers and catchers workout is set for Feb. 14 in Fort Myers, Florida.
Cron will replace Mauer at first base. Schoop will take over at second base for Brian Dozier, one of the seven veterans traded last summer in the dismantling triggered by a disappointing start that saw the Twins fall to 12 games out of first place by the Fourth of July. The addition of Cruz ought to make the biggest impact. The six-time All-Star, who will serve as the primary designated hitter, averaged 41 home runs over the last five seasons. The 38-year-old was targeted for his presence in the clubhouse, too, which could prove particularly helpful for his fellow Dominican, Sano.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Despite the focus on developing players, the Twins are not actually that young. They probably won’t have any position players under 25 on the opening day roster. All-Star Jose Berrios, who is 24, is the only significant player in that age bracket. Thus, no legitimate 2019 American League Rookie of the Year candidates will be in camp.
Two of the organization’s top prospects, however, will be there as non-roster invitees: shortstop Royce Lewis and outfielder Alex Kirilloff. Lewis, the first overall pick in the 2017 draft, and Kirilloff, the 15th overall pick in the 2016 draft, each finished last season with Class A Cedar Rapids.
Twins starters were only 22nd in MLB with a collective 4.54 ERA last year, but the rotation looks stable. Berrios, Kyle Gibson and Jake Odorizzi each made 32 starts last season, with Odorizzi carrying the strongest potential for improvement after a career-worst 4.49 ERA in his first year in Minnesota. Though injuries limited him in several seasons, recent signee Martin Perez first cracked the rotation with Texas in 2012. Michael Pineda, who sat out last year to complete the rehab of his elbow following Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, has 687 strikeouts in 680 career innings and will make a guaranteed $8 million.
The most unsettled spot is the closer role. Newcomer Blake Parker handled that last season for the Los Angeles Angels, and Trevor Hildenberger, Trevor May and Taylor Rogers each recorded saves after Fernando Rodney was traded last summer. Addison Reed has the most ninth-inning experience. Those five relievers are near-locks for the opening day roster, but there are still two or three bullpen spots open.
If Buxton can get back into a groove, Max Kepler can increase his power and 2018 team MVP award winner Eddie Rosario can pick up where he left off last summer, the Twins would boast one of the most skilled outfield trios in baseball. Baldelli’s moves will be worth watching over the coming weeks, too, for clues about how the bullpen and the lineup will be arranged leading up to the season opener on March 28 against Cleveland.