The window is now open.
Following a surprising 85-77 season, during which their young core of position players along with one key starting pitcher emerged, the Twins are at a point in which chasing a division championship and penetrating deeper into the postseason is not wishful thinking.
“While it was an honor and a blessing to get to the wild-card game, a lot can happen in one single game,” Twins General Manager Thad Levine said, “and we aspire to play a series if we can in the near future.”
Making the right moves to help a team to that next level will be a significant challenge for a Twins brain trust that has made sweeping changes to every area of the organization — except to improve the roster. The Twins did run through 36 pitchers during the 2017 season, but that was the product of injuries and underperformance more so than big-picture management.
Keep in mind that Tuesday, the first full day of Major League Baseball free agency, marks the anniversary of the 2016 news conference unveiling Levine and Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey as the new leaders at 1 Twins Way. They rushed to assemble a coaching staff, signed catcher Jason Castro to fill their one pressing need and then spent most of the time getting a handle on the organization.
Now Falvey and Levine head into the offseason with a promising lineup but a clear need to augment the pitching staff. The Twins need a starter at least on the level of Ervin Santana and the emerging Jose Berrios. There is no closer, as Matt Belisle handled those duties during the second half of last season with a less-than-desirable 90-mph fastball. And they need late-inning setup help.
Twins baseball became relevant again in 2017. Their pitching decisions during this offseason will determine how long it will stay that way.
“Derek and Thad were not hired to think about this in the short term,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “They were brought in here to help unlock the talent that was already here when they got here. I think that they have done a nice job of helping accelerate that.
“But, moreover, they were brought here to build a foundation that would lead to long term, sustained success. We certainly want to try to find ways to try to take that next step, to accelerate the development of young pitchers and young [position] players. You also have to keep 2019, 2020 and 2021 in mind.”
The Twins had their key scouts — including recent hire John Manuel, the former editor of Baseball America — in town in mid-October for meetings to determine their offseason strategy. Since then, Falvey and Levine have been in touch with clubs about potential trades.
Free agency technically began at 4 p.m. Monday. Baseball free agency isn’t as action-packed when the bell rings like in other pro sports, so don’t expect many splashy signings, if any, right away.
This year, the Twins could be encouraged to sign one of the nine top free agents that received a qualifying offer of $17.4 million from his 2017 team, because they would not have to give up a first-round pick as compensation, after a change in the collective bargaining agreement.
Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta are the top two starters on the market. While the Twins likely will check in with those players’ agents, it’s unlikely the Twins will go deep in the bidding for those two.
Alex Cobb types — he has been projected to land with the Twins — are more realistic.
It can be argued the Twins need more than one reliever to boost a group that saw major outs recorded late last season from rookies Trevor Hildenberger and Alan Busenitz. They will check in with Brandon Kintzler, their All-Star closer who left open the possibility of returning to the Twins after they dealt him to Washington on July 31. But Kintzler would be coveted by teams who want a setup/closer hybrid.
Relievers Greg Holland, Bryan Shaw and Wade Davis could interest the Twins, too.
Levine hinted that a deliberate style early in the offseason is needed, because prices normally are so high that teams frequently turn to the trade route, then return to free agency later on. One thing the Twins might have to consider is parting with one of their position players to strengthen their pitching staff. They will listen to any scenario, but a deal involving Byron Buxton likely has less than a zero percent chance of happening.
Hot stove schedule
On Friday, Falvey and Levine will head to Orlando for the general managers’ meetings, where teams talk trade and agents engage teams about their players. The winter meetings take place next month; there, teams will try to complete trades and free-agent deals.
“Usually the prices are very high at the offset of the offseason,” Levine said. “You have to be patient but persistent in your communications. Prices will change as the offseason progresses, and you have to be ready to strike when they do.”
Will the Twins find the right man for their rotation? Is their next closer in house or out on the free-agent market? Three months from now, will the Twins look like a real threat to Cleveland’s grip on the AL Central throne?
“I’m a believer you can never take these windows of opportunity too lightly,” Levine said. “You are not entitled to be in the playoffs next year just because you were in the playoffs this year.
“We’re going to have to take some active steps. We’re not counting on just five teams in the American League having a winning record. We’re not counting on 85 wins getting you into the playoffs. We feel we are going to have to make discernible improvements to the club in order to compete. Not just for that second wild card.”