Ranking the best free agents for the Twins (non-pitchers)
Happy World Series Day, to those who observe!
MLB Insider Jon Heyman was on MLB Network recently and was asked to parse through a list of top available free agents and prognosticate where each will land.
An impossible exercise. Although with his specific insight and willingness to hazard a guess that will, eventually, almost definitely be proven partially or wholly wrong, it makes for some fun jumping off points.
The one that I’m latching onto today was his prediction for middle infielder and free agent extraordinaire Marcus Semien. Can you guess where he’ll land?
Heyman picked the Twins. He noted that the team had interest in him last winter as well, before Toronto swooped in and, as the thinking goes, took Minnesota’s offer and blew it out of the water. (Heyman said that Semien would play shortstop for the Twins, while 2021 team MVP Jorge Polanco would stick at second base; in Toronto, Semien ceded his traditional position to the young gun Bo Bichette.)
Today we’ll go through some top free agent targets for the Twins, this time the non-pitchers. If you haven’t yet seen it, my top-25 free agent starting pitchers is led by Max Scherzer.
Let’s start by noting the positions of interest. This whole list, mind you, is assembled under the belief that the Twins will spend money (and trade capital) to try to contend this year. If that’s not the case, then just trade a few stars this winter, sign Freddy Galvis and be done with it. But in the case that contention is viewed to be within reach, my top targets after the rotation would be at shortstop, left field, and a backup plan in center field.
You can at this point, dear reader, jump to the bottom of the list for the players that I’d want to see the Twins in on. For the sake of completeness, I’m going to run through the positions and why I arrived at those three spots as my secondary targets. We do that by circling the diamond for 2022 and quickly touching on the relative need to address it in the short- and medium-term.
Catcher – I’m good.
First base – I expect that it will be some Miguel Sanó and some Alex Kirilloff.
Second base – Jorge Polanco. I wouldn’t try to move him back if I’m trying to win.
Third base – Likely will be some Josh Donaldson — who also frequently will go to DH — and some of either Luis Arráez or Jose Miranda.
Shortstop - What’s the plan?
DH – Some fans will want a reunion with Nelson Cruz. I personally would wish him the best, and book a significant portion of the DH plate appearances for Donaldson, maybe up to half. The Twins right now seem to have more players that you like as hitters than they have guys you like at a specific position (Arráez serves as a prime example). If an upgrade is available over Donaldson’s bat for the other half of those plate appearances, then by all means bring in a DH as the third or fourth priority this winter. But that’s a high bar to clear and at least 3 other spots appear to me to be of greater need. Plus, with the possibility of 15 more DH jobs getting added this winter, I’ll be curious to see how the overall market fills out. More willingness from sub-par fielders to become DHs? More money for bat-first types? Stronger long-term contracts for good hitters in their early 30’s, knowing the DH could soon become a universal fallback?
Left field – If there’s a clear answer here, it’s not clear to me. Kirilloff can play in a corner, but I thought he looked best at first base. Trevor Larnach is easy to root for and definitely has plus power, but the youngster struggled in his first taste in the big leagues, so you shouldn’t be writing his name in pen for opening day. Luis Arráez has unique plate skills and questions about his fielding if he were to be an everyday outfielder. Kyle Garlick? I could see him as the small side of a corner outfield platoon, basically holding a roster spot to mash against lefties. The question then would be: who starts in left when there’s a right-hander on the mound, some 60-70% of the time? (Or do you consider that platoon in right field with Kepler and try to find an everyday left fielder somewhere else?) Brent Rooker showed big power, big strikeouts, and didn’t appear quite ready to be a Major League outfielder in 2021. Jose Miranda could maybe step back to the grass, but that’s yet unproven. Jake Cave had a miserable year in part because of injury. Nick Gordon’s versatility should help him make the team but I don’t know about an everyday job just yet. Willians Astudillo didn’t have a great year and doesn’t really have a position, it appears. Rob Refsnyder? Gilberto Celestino?
Center field – It’s Byron Buxton until it’s not. And I still think it pays to have an insurance policy, unless we know for a fact that Max Kepler would be fine in center field and Alex Kirilloff would be a plus in right field. That contingency arrangement slides Sanó into an everyday role at first base, and it’s not bad as far as emergency lineups go. But unfortunately in this situation as with the past few years for the Twins, it’s just not the same competitive club without Buxton out there everyday in center.
Right field – As for Kepler, he had another underwhelming season. He’s been above-average at the plate in two of his 6 MLB seasons, and again missed that mark in 2021. For a corner outfielder to do that says a lot more than if a catcher is a below-average hitter, for example. On the other side of the same coin, Kepler is a plus in right field, and he might be plus-plus in Target Field’s right field. I’m really not too sure what you do here other than run him out again and hope the offense returns to those nice 2019 levels (.252/.336/.519 with 36 homers and 98 runs scored). Some corners of the internet suggest trading him, but of course that comes with its own set of perils.
So here are the free agent names that I’m on:
Marcus Semien – The top target. After a fantastic year in Toronto, Semien should be in line for a big payday. Unfortunately for him, he hits the market at a time of apparent labor tension and “in line” behind several other big-name shortstop with comparatively fewer years on this Earth. Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and Trevor Story all are set to become free agents – and two big potential buyers might no longer be in need at the position after the Dodgers traded for Trea Turner and the Mets traded for and then extended Francisco Lindor.
(Note: I also like Seager, Correa and Story. But as we think through the roster, without spending $200+ million you will eventually have to make choices on the margin, and I would rather a) spend this year’s capital on pitching upgrades; and b) reserve the right to sign Byron Buxton.)
Anyway, Semien is a great baseball player and swung a powerful bat this year. In his first year with the Blue Jays he hit .265/.334/.538 with 45 home runs. Jorge Polanco, over whom we all rightfully gushed, hit .269/.323/.503 with 33 home runs, for the sake of comparison. And Semien is reported to be one of the most diligent workers around — in a field as competitive as this one, that’s certainly saying something. On the back of a napkin, you’d conclude he’s pretty easily worth $100+ million. Considering supply and demand, we ask: Will the market bear it? Would the Twins?
Javier Báez – Flawed and magical. He struggled in a big way during the first pandemic season, and was traded to the Mets midway through the second. There, he hit .299/.371/.515 in 47 games and slid to second base because of Lindor. He strikes out a lot and rarely walks but has 30-homer power and rates as a plus fielder.
Chris Taylor – How is the secret not out about this guy yet? He’s been an above average hitter and Swiss Army knife for 5 seasons with the Dodgers, and he really showed out this postseason. During the regular season he hit .254/.344/.438 with 20 homers, while players second base, third base, shortstop and all three outfield positions (mostly center). On a stacked Dodgers team, he started the second- or third-most games at 5 different positions. He’s 31 years old and I expect that he’s going to get paid handsomely.
José Iglesias – He’s not as highly rated as Andrelton Simmons with the glove at shortstop. Iglesias hit .271/.309/.391, which would fairly be classified as a “light-hitting” middle infielder – except that Simmons redefined that phrase in 2021.
Andrelton Simmons – Everyone loves a good buy-low candidate, right? Personally, I would aspire to more, but I have to admit my bias there after a hugely disappointing season. If somehow the Twins can have conviction that he’ll be better in 2022, in theory the considerable savings here could go into paying better starting pitchers.
Infielders I would smile on if the market made sense: Freddie Freeman, Brandon Belt and J.D. Martinez (who started 38 games in the outfield this year).
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I tried to avoid participating in that maddening practice that we do here every year, when we consider the list of free agents, look right past the best ones to determine the “Twins-range free agents.”
But then, when you consider that the biggest ambitions should rightly be focused on the mound – and you might expect any number of Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Brent Rooker, Austin Martin and Royce Lewis to emerge in the next year or two, I do believe that the best way to deploy non-infinite resources might not be on an outfield corner bat.
Consider that, here are a few names to think about:
Mark Canha – Solid regular more than a star, Canha batted .231/.358/.387 in what might be his final season with Oakland. More of an on-base than a power profile.
Avisaíl García – Has a good situation on a winning team in Milwaukee. If money is a motivator, he can opt out of his $12 million contract and instead collect a $1.5 million buyout and become a free agent. If so, I would think he’ll do all right financially after big power season in which he hit .262/.330/.490 with a career-high 29 homers.
Kyle Schwarber – He reportedly has a mutual option in his contract, which belongs to the Red Sox. So this would be, of course, only if that didn’t get picked up. If the Twins had any interest previously then you’d expect that they’ll be curious after a career year offensively for the former No. 4 overall pick.
Andrew McCutchen – There are a few numbers that I’d like to note on the former N.L. MVP, and I’m happy to do more of a deep-dive for you readers if there’s interest. One number worth mentioning is that he just turned 35 years old. Another: he just hit 27 home runs. According to top sprint speed from Statcast, he would have been the second-fastest player on the Twins’ roster, at 28.7 feet per second. The final number I’d like to mention is 13 – as in, Andrew McCutchen has been an above-average MLB hitter in 13 of his 13 MLB seasons. The Phillies do hold a $15 million club option, so we’ll see what happens there.
Outfielders that I would gladly take on my team, but who might want a longer deal than I’d be looking to give out this winter: Starling Marte and Michael Conforto.
This week’s Twins Links.
I enjoyed this Star Tribune blog by Mike Rand, comparing NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario to the freelance guitar soloist who helped make a Steely Dan hit. Here’s Mike on Eddie Rosario.
Here’s Betsy Helfand of the Pioneer Press on the pressing questions facing the Twins this offseason.
And here’s Betsy with a note on the first year of the partnership between the Twins and Saints.
I had no idea “5 questions” was such a popular concept this time of year. Here’s Do-Hyoung Park of MLB.com with the 5 key questions for the Twins this winter.
As a side note, I do remember getting made fun of in local media circles for the “5 Thoughts” bit when I first started using it in my Twins coverage. Imitation and flattery and all that, I guess!
Aaron Gleeman of The Athletic wrote about whether the Twins should trade Josh Donaldson. No firm conclusion but I think you’ll find it a very worthwhile read.
Also from Gleeman, he wrote in a mailbag column that the sticking point in a midsummer negotiation between the Twins and Byron Buxton was the value of the proposed incentives, and not the base salary in the contract.
On a Buxton-related note, I spent time thinking about the framework of a Buxton contract extension for the Twins last week. You can read that here if you haven’t already seen it. I was excited to get some good feedback on that piece so thanks to those who reached out to me!
This piece from Jack Moore in The Hardball Times came to my attention this week, and I thought it was a pretty interesting read on the history and near-present of baseball’s TV broadcasts.