July 14, 2016
Where These Terrible Twins Go From Here
The first half was a mess for the Twins.
Offseason optimism that followed last year’s surprising climb over .500 gave way to a 0-9 start, and any notion of contending for the division title (or even a wild card spot) all but vanished by the end of April. Their record is an AL-worst 32-56, which just narrowly avoids the worst mark through 88 games in team history and makes a fifth 90-loss season in the past six years inevitable. Pitching continues to be a disaster, as the Twins have again allowed the league’s most runs after ranking dead last in ERA from 2011-2015, and the young lineup that was supposed to be a strength has instead scored the league’s 10th-most runs.
There’s no saving this season, and the stink of 95-100 losses would make it difficult to believe in the Twins’ ability to bounce back as contenders next year, which would be Year Seven of a rebuilding process that started with a collapse in 2011. However, the second half is crucial for the Twins as they try to figure out exactly where the franchise is headed and whether longtime but increasingly ineffective general manager Terry Ryan should be the one leading them there. There are a dozen veterans who conceivably could be moved by the trade deadline, and at least as many prospects who need roster spots and playing time to be evaluated for 2017 and beyond.
Ryan has said repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that the Twins will be active in trade talks and expect to complete multiple deals, which are uncharacteristic public pronouncements from one of the most conservative, tightest-lipped general managers in baseball. While losing 99, 96, 96, and 92 games from 2011-2014, the Twins had numerous opportunities to trade veterans for long-term help, but almost always opted against it and clung to declining assets, (misguidedly) believing the team was close to contending again. This season’s first-half crash has apparently convinced even Ryan that something further needs to be done to push things along.
Joe Mauer has two years and $46 million remaining on his contract in addition to a full no-trade clause, so he’s not going anywhere, and Glen Perkins and Phil Hughes have significant injuries that make moving them impossible. Every other veteran on the roster should be available in the right deal and there are a handful who may actually fetch something of value in return. If you trust what Ryan has been insisting for weeks now they seem likely to deal at least a few of them, but his track record suggests one or maybe two trades followed by plenty of post-deadline quotes explaining how the Twins’ asking prices were fair but teams just wouldn’t bite.
Here are the five veteran players the Twins figure to receive the most calls about…
Ervin Santana: Minnesota handed out $170 million to Santana, Hughes, and Ricky Nolasco in the hopes of stabilizing the rotation via free agency, but only Santana has held his value. He had a 3.88 ERA in the five seasons before signing a four-year, $55 million contract with the Twins and has a 4.03 ERA one and a half seasons into the deal. Santana is 33 years old and no better than a third starter on a good team, but $13.5 million per season for 2017 and 2018 with a $14 million team option for 2019 is reasonable money for 180 innings of a 4.00 ERA. Several contenders have already been linked to him in various reports.
Given the Twins’ nearly decade-long rotation problems, trading away Santana might seem counterproductive, but 90-loss teams with at least another year of rebuilding in front of them don’t really need to be paying a premium for 180 innings of a 4.00 ERA from a mid-30s starter. If they can get a decent prospect for Santana it makes sense, because the Twins need all the long-term assets they can get and there’s value in clearing his salaries off the books—and clearing his rotation spot for Jose Berrios. If the Twins are as serious about making multiple moves as Ryan claims, it’s hard to imagine Santana staying.
Brian Dozier: Picked for last year’s All-Star game, Dozier slumped badly in the second half and then continued to struggle this year. He was hitting .202/.294/.329 through the end of May, but a monster six-week stretch in which he hit .300/.385/.600 raised his overall numbers to their usual norms. Dozier’s pull-heavy approach can be frustrating to watch amid five consecutive seasons with a sub-.250 batting average, but he’s cleared a .750 OPS in each of the past three seasons thanks to 25-homer power and a decent walk rate. Toss in plus speed with palatable defense at second base and he’s an above-average starter at the position.
Dozier is 29 years old and signed for just $6 million in 2017 and $9 million in 2018, so he should be desirable for teams looking to solidify an up-the-middle position for multiple seasons. Because of that, the Twins certainly shouldn’t be trying to unload him without getting back a solid prospect haul, but they do have a replacement waiting in the wings. Jorge Polanco is playing shortstop in the minors for now, but projects better as a second baseman long term and would bring a much different skill set than Dozier. He’s a 22-year-old switch-hitter with gap power and good contact skills, hitting .283/.341/.442 in 83 games at Triple-A and .262/.385/.476 in limited Twins action.
Trevor Plouffe: When the Twins signed Korean slugger Byung-ho Park this winter, the immediate assumption was that he’d be their primary designated hitter and Miguel Sano would take over at third base, leading to a Plouffe trade. Instead, whether because the Twins found little interest in Plouffe or never really intended to move him in the first place, he remained and Sano was forced to play way out of position in right field. Sano’s outfield days are mercifully over, but it’s unclear if Plouffe is still in the team’s plans, and his current disabled list stint to finish a rough first half may rule out a July trade.
Plouffe is a poor man’s Dozier offensively, offsetting a sub-.250 batting average with 20-homer power, but his plate discipline has never been a strength and unraveled in the first half with eight walks in 231 plate appearances. When healthy he’s an average third baseman on both sides of the ball, but he’s also 30 years old, with a raise to around $10 million expected via arbitration in 2017. There are teams that could use a .250/.315/.430 bat and decent glove at that price, but even if trade interest is minimal it makes sense to move on from Plouffe and turn third base over to Sano while keeping designated hitter open for another better-than-Plouffe bat.
Eduardo Nunez: “Wanna trade for an All-Star shortstop?” is a pretty effective way to begin your pitch to a general manager, but the problem is that most teams probably view Nunez as neither. He’s played well this year, without question, hitting .321/.347/.489 with 12 homers and 22 steals to represent the Twins on the AL squad Tuesday night. However, he’s also a 29-year-old career .278/.317/.410 hitter with ugly K/BB ratios and terrible defensive numbers. Fielding Runs Above Average has Nunez at -13.6 runs for his career, including -2.6 runs this season, and those totals get much worse if you focus strictly on his time at shortstop.
The good news is that because he’s a career-long backup Nunez is making just $1.5 million this season and is under team control for next year via arbitration, so if any teams are convinced his breakout first half is sustainable and/or his defense isn’t that bad he could fetch a solid prospect in what is almost always a seller’s market for middle infielders. Even the teams rightly skeptical of Nunez’s improvement could see him as a decent hitter who can be plugged into the lineup as a shortstop, third baseman, or second baseman, which is hard enough to find that his modest track record should only be part of the equation.
Kurt Suzuki: In what has become a typical Twins move, they smartly added Suzuki on a cheap one-year deal in 2014 and then reacted to a good first half by taking him off the trade market and signing him to a two-year extension. He turned back into a pumpkin in the second half and then hit .240/.296/.314 last year while struggling just as much defensively. He looked washed up again this season, hitting .212/.266/.293 through the end of May, but when the Twins cut back on his workload Suzuki responded by hitting .378/.402/.602 from June 1 through the All-Star break. At age 32, his current .778 OPS would be the highest of his career by more than 50 points.
There’s no reason to think teams will go out of their way to acquire Suzuki because of a great six weeks, but the demand for catching help may outstrip the supply enough that the Twins can get a mid-level prospect for him and make a move they should have made in July of 2014. Because of John Ryan Murphy’s struggles after coming over in an offseason trade with the Yankees, there’s no obvious in-house replacement for Suzuki like there is with Plouffe or Dozier. But there’s also no obvious reason to keep him around for the second half if any teams come calling. And while they’re on the line, the Twins should see if anyone will bite on a free Nolasco tossed in.