5 Thoughts: My top-25 free agent starters [narrated column]

Here's the big list -- plus my narrated article. The top-25 free agent starters for the Twins.

  
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If you’re listening to the podcast, my top-25 list starts around the 10:00 mark.

This column presents 5 Thoughts on the Twins as the 2022 offseason gets underway.

1 – We don’t know exactly what the Opening Day payroll will be in 2022 but the latest projections for arbitration salaries can help by giving us a starting point. 

MLB Trade Rumors is in its 11th year publishing these modeled estimates, and in my opinion their track record is strong for at least being in the ballpark of the final arbitration salary. With that in mind, let’s look at the Twins’ figures published at MLBTR:

Year 3 arbitration candidates --

Byron Buxton, $7.3 million
Taylor Rogers, $6.7 million
Tyler Duffey, $3.7 million
John Gant, $3.7 million

Buxton, yes. The question is not whether you’d pay him that money for his final year of team control; it’s whether you’re planning to keep him around long-term or trade him this winter (or next summer?). Trust me, we’ll get into that in future columns. 

Rogers should be an easy yes, too. When healthy, he’s a top-shelf reliever and even if the plan is to strip the roster down to the studs, wouldn’t you sign the lefty and look to trade him in July? That salary in 2021 would have made Rogers the 23rd highest-paid reliever, according to Spotrac.com.  

On Duffey, some will argue. If the strategy is Go For It, and you have the money, why not? Others will say that money on the margins can be better spent elsewhere. I disagree with that idea. I do concede that only about 40 relievers are making more than that, although I have to also admit to being fascinated by Duffey’s adaptability and ironically steady nature.

Gant is a challenge if your thought is to bring him back as a reliever. If you feel he’s earned a spot in the rotation, that isn’t very much money to guarantee. 

Year 2 arbitration candidates --

Mitch Garver, $3.1 million
Caleb Thielbar, $1.2 million

Two slam dunks, in my book. Thielbar is their 3rd best reliever and Garver is a slugging catcher who dealt with multiple injuries in 2021. Want an off-the-wall idea? Garver could make an interesting contract extension candidate, as a guy who ranked as the third-best hitting catcher this year. 

Year 1 arbitration candidates --

Luis Arraez, $2.0 million
Willians Astudillo, $1.2 million
Jake Cave, $1.1 million
Juan Minaya, $1.1 million
Rob Refsnyder, $800,000
Danny Coulombe, $800,000

The roster resource that FanGraphs uses for payroll estimates has Arraez technically eligible for arbitration for the first time next year. So perhaps this is in case of a possible ‘Super 2’ candidacy, which I haven’t confirmed as of this writing. Either way, you’re going to cut that check. I would also add Minaya as a player I’d pay on this list -- though the Twins have turned down the chance to pay successful middle relievers in recent years, so we’ll have to wait and see. The same can be said for Coulombe.

Lastly, there’s the roster-salary decision about whether to retain Álexander Colomé for $5.5 million or buy out his final year for $1.25 million. 

Derek Wetmore's Newsletter
5 Thoughts: Know this Buxton stat and Duffey tweak entering final week for Twins
For those watching the scoreboard hoping that the Twins can claw their way out of 5th place in the division, they open this week 2 games back of the Royals and they’ll wrap their season this weekend with 3 games in K.C. I personally don’t pay much mind to that and that’s why this analysis will take a slightly different tone…
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2 - The price tag for the Qualifying Offer has been set.

Last year, the Qualifying Offer salary across Major League Baseball was $18.9 million. This year, it will go down to $18.4 million, according to Buster Olney. That shouldn’t impact the Twins’ roster directly -- I’m going to guess that you wouldn’t offer Michael Pineda the one-year deal for $18.4 million? We’ll wait and see on that. The way this will impact them, though, is by establishing the market of available players, most notably starting pitchers. 

For a quick refresher on how it works: You can offer any of your pending free agents a 1-year deal worth the average of the top-125 highest paid players in the league. That’s why it changes each year. When the Twins and Jake Odorizzi reached this one-year agreement in 2020, it was worth $17.8 million. The player can also reject the offer, in which case the team’s willingness to offer the deal earns them some draft pick compensation. Players can only be offered a QO once in their career. Players that got traded last summer are likewise ineligible to receive a Qualifying Offer.

Among the most notable starters on my top-25 starters list who might get a QO from his current employer: Clayton Kershaw (if he’s deemed healthy), Noah Syndergaard, Robbie Ray, Carlos Rodón, Eduardo Rodríguez, Justin Verlander, Jon Gray, and Yusei Kikuchi. If any of those guys accept the offer ahead of the Dec. 1 deadline, they’ll be off this year’s free-agent board and could potentially impact the price of the remaining starters available. If they turn it down, they will become a free agent and their team will get draft pick compensation under the current system outlined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. 

3 - The Twins won’t be the only team to shuffle their coaching staff this winter. 

I wrote last week that bench coach Bill Evers is retiring, and the Twins are reassigning two Major League coaches to more organizational development roles, in Kevin Morgan and Edgar Varela. 

The always-interesting Mets fired their manager, Luis Rojas, and the Padres sacked Jayce Tingler following their remarkable collapse in 2021. Those are the only two managerial firings we know of so far. 

And according to an ESPN report, Yankees manager Aaron Boone just finished the final year of his deal, with the powerful Yankees bowing out of the postseason to division rival Boston. Buster Olney reports that Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner “seems inclined to keep Boone as manager.”

Reports and rumors this time of year can very often be much ado about nothing. Just note that the Twins had interest in Boone joining their organization -- though not as manager -- four years ago, when he was set to leave the media world for a job back in baseball.  

4 - Looking to work in baseball?

The Twins have posted a series of job openings, including next year's fellowships and internships. Also of note, they’ve created a new position and are looking for a Director of Baseball Research. For those interested, I’ve heard that one is a highly technical position with a leadership role in the baseball research department. 

Other positions currently hiring include an analyst of business intelligence, marketing and promotions manager, social media coordinator and community relations coordinator. 

To anyone interested: Good luck! 

5 - The top-25 free agent starting pitcher list for 2022.

Previous installments revealed my top-5 starters and then Nos. 6 though 10

1. Max Scherzer
2. Kevin Gausman
3. Clayton Kershaw
4. Carlos Rodón
5. Robbie Ray
6. Marcus Stroman
7. Noah Syndergaard
8. Alex Wood
9. Anthony DeSclafani
10. Eduardo Rodríguez
 

Here’s the rest of my list, as it stands right now:

11. Justin Verlander, 39

He’s 39 years old and a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery and while he’s been out, the accusations flew over MLB’s Sticky Stuff rule bending, where Houston was one prime defendant. (Note: not Verlander specifically.) Verlander was absolutely the hardest person on this link to rank, since I know so little about all of those circumstances.

12. Wade Miley, 35

The Reds hold a $10 million club option (or a $1 million buyout). If he gets to free agency, consider me interested in a guy with a sub-4.00 ERA in 2 of the past 3 seasons. This year he made 28 starts and kept the ball in the ballpark.

13. Zack Greinke, 38

Pitched well enough for 4 innings of Game 1 of the 2020 Wild Card round vs. the Twins (the ‘Jorge Polanco Game’). This year, the ALCS-bound Astros have moved him to the bullpen in the postseason. He’s a command artist who has lost his fastball (89 mph) and now relies on the changeup and two breaking balls to out-maneuver big league hitters. He missed some time this season on the COVID Injured List and more recently with a sore neck. Declining strikeout rate and a home-run rate on the rise. Greinke has long been a fascinating pitcher and person, and I have no idea what he’ll want this time around in free agency. Despite pitching parts of 18 seasons for 5 different clubs, he’s only effectively picked his employer twice – with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. What’s he going to command on the open market this time, at 38? And how many more years is he planning to pitch?

14. Alex Cobb, 34

It’s the splitter. Cobb pitched 93 1/3 innings this season. Among pitchers with at least that many innings, only 5 pitchers threw a “better” split-finger than Cobb this year, according to FanGraphs’ weighted pitch values. One of them was Gausman and one of them was Shohei Ohtani. The pitch was Cobb’s signature with the Rays; then it wasn’t valuable for him for a couple years. Based on the numbers anyway he appears to have found it.

15. Steven Matz, 31

After parts of 6 seasons spent in Queens, the lefty joined the Blue Jays and found 3 new homes in 2021: Buffalo, New York; Dunedin, Florida; and Toronto. He pitched 150 2/3 innings with a 3.82 ERA in his 29 starts. Fighting for their postseason lives, the Blue Jays won 6 of the final 7 games Matz started for them down the stretch, with the lone blemish coming at Target Field against the Twins (the ‘Nick Gordon Game’ on Sept. 23, for those who celebrated). As long as we’re having some fun with arbitrary endpoints, let’s point out that over his final 11 starts, Matz ran a 2.69 ERA with a 53:18 strikeout-to-walk ratio. At the time he was traded from the Mets to the Jays, it appeared to be a depth move. Instead, Matz teamed with Ray, Hyun-jin Ryu, Alek Manoah and later Berríos to form the AL’s 3rd best rotation by ERA, behind only the Astros and White Sox. Jays manager Charlie Montoyo called Matz and “unsung hero” of the group, and with the Jays hoping to re-up Robbie Ray again and perhaps retain star second baseman Marcus Semien, if the other free agent on the mound is to leave Toronto, the Twins should at least have him on their radar.

16. Corey Kluber, 36

A Derek Falvey reunion would be intriguing after their time together in Cleveland, although there’s of course some age-related-decline risk as well as the injury risk (shoulder). After his no-hitter on May 19, Klubot had a 2.86 ERA for the Yankees. He was removed from his next start though, and missed 3 months with a strained shoulder before returning to pitch in pinstripes down the stretch. In his 6 starts since the return, the 2-time Cy Young winner has a 5.40 ERA, although that earned-run number still came with a 27:10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26 2/3 innings.

17. Jon Gray, 30

Based on his career strikeout rate, walk rate and ERA, you might consider him a slightly lesser pitcher than José Berríos. Whether you think that — plus the age difference — is a small gap or a medium-sized gap depends on what you think of the relative difficulty of pitching half your games at Coors Field in Denver.

18. Rich Hill, 42

Take 2, anyone?

19. Yusei Kikuchi, 31

Made the all-star team in Seattle but his numbers didn’t wow this year. Plus, the Mariners can effectively choose to exercise a 4-year, $66 million extension this winter if they choose. If they decline, Kikuchi can choose the player-option for one year and $13 million. And if they both decline, I believe that the M’s could still pin him with the Qualifying Offer for $18.4 million, which he can accept or reject in favor of free agency.

20. Tyler Anderson, 32

Here’s the complete list of qualified starters that made opponents chase pitches out of the strike more often than Tyler Anderson this season: N.L. Cy Young favorite Corbin Burnes.

21. Kwang-hyun Kim

In his two partial seasons with the Cardinals, the lefty Kim has a 2.97 ERA in 145 2/3 innings. That’s in part because of his ability to keep homers from happening; his strikeout rate of 17.2% is one of the lowest on this list, and compares with that of J.A. Happ when he was with the Twins this year.

22. Merrill Kelly, 32

The possibility exists that Arizona brings him back for the $4.25 million club option. If they instead buy him out for $500,000, I’d be intrigued. (The usual caveat emptor applies here: ask yourself why the team with the most information on him would not want him at that price, and then proceed.)

23. Michael Pineda, 33

It does certainly seem to be the popular sentiment among those that cover the Twins that a Pineda reunion makes all the sense in the world. I’m not very big on the idea. I like Big Mike fine and all, and I think he’s been better than some people realize. I just don’t think his case is so outstanding that the Twins would be required to sign him, when that same money might be better spent on a different arm. He had a 3.62 ERA, which is a lot better than the A.L. average ERA of 4.46. I’ll just point out that 102 MLB pitchers made more starts than Pineda this year.

So by all means, if you are in need of a guy with 3.75-4.25 ERA or if he’ll offer a discount and you can get some better value there to reinvest more money in another starter somewhere else, then by all means I would want Pineda if I was the Twins. But if you’re choosing between Big Mike and just about any other pitcher on this list, I personally don’t see how we can arrive at a ‘no-brainer’ to bring back Pineda. I still remember he was pitching so well in 2019 that I was ready to throw him in Game 1 of the postseason vs. the Yankees. Then he got suspended for a banned substance that he said he was using to try to lose weight. I may differ from the Twins on this one; if I’m being perfectly honest, that's a hard one for me to forget.

24. Zach Davies, 29

Not good in 2021 but good results the two seasons before.

25. Chris Archer, 33

Recent track record is nowhere near the pitcher you might be imaging when you read his name. The last season his ERA was better than league-average was 2017 — incidentally that’s also his most recent All-Star campaign and the last year he would have worked with Twins VP of Strategy, Josh Kalk. His fastball is down from 95-96 mph at his peak to finishing the season at 92.5 mph. I wouldn’t hate it, though I would expect a gamble like that to not be the only pitching move made.


All right, readers. If I give you two names from this list to sign next year, which two would you pick for the Twins? And do you think they’ll go for two?

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