There is no real single blueprint for a rebuild in baseball. Of the teams that were in the postseason this year, some like the Astros and Cubs took the “blow it up” model. Others like the Yankees or Indians were a bit more subtle about it and simply got good players when they could, whether through the draft or trades, and have excellent developmental tracks for prospects. The Dodgers just went from being mediocre, poorly managed and rich to great, brilliantly run and rich.
Then there’s the Twins.
In 2016, they were dreadful. They lost 103 games and sealed their sixth straight losing season. It was their worst record since moving to Minnesota. It was ugly. The young guys were stalling in their development, Joe Mauer continued to underwhelm, and the front office was cleaned out.
What a difference a year makes, though. Eighty-five wins, a playoff berth, and some stunning performances by those formerly stunted young players and suddenly the Twins are well on their way back to contention.
So why wait? It’s time to force the issue. There’s no reason to think the Twins won’t win at least as many games as they did a year ago. The division outside of the Indians is still terrible, which means some easy wins; Jose Berrios was good in his debut and is sure to get better; and that bevy of positional talent they have will have another year of growth. If the team taking the field in 2018 is pretty much the same as last year, Minnesota every chance of taking a Wild Card spot again.
But the Twins shouldn’t aim so low, especially with other teams making improvements around the league. Their best players are on cheap deals. The only real big outlay on the team is Mauer. Even that is a pretty team-friendly deal, assuming he performs like he did in 2017. Free agency beckons, and owner Jim Pohlad’s billions need spending. The club needs to go all-in to try and challenge the Indians for AL Central supremacy.
If the Twins want to contend, they need something more than Ervin Santana fronting their rotation. In the 500 innings he’s thrown for Minnesota, he owns a 3.47 ERA, but that’s with a 4.16 FIP and 4.49 xFIP. It’s not to say he’s a bad pitcher; he just probably isn’t the ideal guy to run out there in a winner-take-all game. Berrios showed flashes of dominance in 2017, and anyone should be excited when a 23-year-old rookie is posting a 3.53 ERA/3.86 FIP while striking out 23.7 percent of batters and walking 8.6 percent.
The obvious move would be to chase a pitcher, and these rumors about them going after Yu Darvish are everything that needs to happen. Adding Darvish to that pair and suddenly, that’s a true contender’s rotation. It’s not quite up to par with the Indians, but I’d say they could go up against the Red Sox, Yankees or Astros and come out looking decent.
Even if they can’t get Darvish, the idea of the Twins signing someone like Lorenzo Cain keeps creeping into my skull.
I know what you’re thinking — they don’t need a center fielder. They have one of the best outfield defenders in baseball in Byron Buxton. By Baseball Savant’s defensive stat Outs Above Average, he’s actually the best, with 25. If that 130 wRC+ he put up in the second half of the season is in any way real, he learned how to hit. A .378 BABIP is likely unsustainable, but he’s very, very fast, so not as much as you’d think at first blush.
Here’s the thing, though: Cain is a dazzling defender in his own right, with 15 Outs Above Average. He’s had to work in one of the largest outfields in baseball for his whole career. Coming to Minnesota — a place he knows well anyway — would be a respite for him. Move Cain to left or right field is an incredible idea.
The only real worry would be like what happened with Mike Cameron and Carlos Beltran. Center fielders own the outfield, and others defer to them; with a pair of true center fielders, you run the risk of communication issues. If the Twins actually got Cain, though, they could play a literal pile of cinder blocks in the other corner spot and still have one of the best outfield defenses in the game. Luckily, Max Kepler at 5 Outs Above Average is at least a pretty good outfielder. Having Eddie Rosario — he of the 27 home runs and a 116 wRC+ — as your fourth outfielder, that’s bordering on luxury. With both Berrios (40 percent fly ball rate) and Santana (42.5) decent fly ball pitchers, they could have even better numbers next year if Cain joined the team.
The Twins are not known for spending a lot of money. Giving Mauer $189 million was a huge outlay for them. And that has kind of almost worked out in a dollar per WAR basis for them — especially if you go by the current $8ish million cost per win as of today. It would have been way better if he remained the best catcher ever, but decent first baseman is okay, too.
It's unlikely that Minnesota is going to spend some $400 million in combined salary that Cain and Darvish are likely to demand. That’s too bad. Contention windows don't run on a schedule. The Twins are good right now, and adding a couple top-flight stars would only increase their depth and allow them to actually challenge the Indians. There's not much in the way of pitching coming down their prospect pipeline, and outside of Darvish there's nothing particularly sexy on the free agency market that will allow guys like Berrios and Santana to flourish in less-than-ace roles.
But the Twins in the past always seemed content with making the playoffs and then seeing what happens. Seeing as they utterly cut ties with the old ways after firing Terry Ryan last year, why not go whole hog for once? Patience is a virtue, but a brash move now and again, that’s where riches are found.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about a bunch of baseball stuff at Beyond the Box Score, and Indians stuff at Let’s Go Tribe. His podcast, Mostly Baseball, is entering its second year. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.