5 Pivotal Questions Heading into the Twins Offseason
Image courtesy of David Berding, USA Today Sports1: Will fans be back at at Target Field in 2021?
In some ways, this question is more pertinent to fans like myself than it is to the team. I missed seeing games at Target Field this year, and I know I'm not alone. Summer isn't the same without regular trips to the ballpark. I dread the idea of another one stripped of this cherished staple.
But, it's also a legitimate factor for the Twins and their planning. The reality is that if ownership and the front office are anticipating another season of no fans in the stands, or severely diminished capacity, it's going to affect revenue expectations. And that is going to impact spending.
We'd all like to hope and believe that 2021 will bring a return to normalcy, or something close. But the sad fact is that right now, there is no specific reason to think that'll happen. The world, and especially our country, have a lot of progress to make before packed outdoor venues are a plausible scenario. And, suddenly, spring training is less than five months away.
Another key question that falls under the same largely uncontrollable pandemic-related scope: will there be minor league baseball (at least as we've come to know it)?
2: Will Nelson Cruz return? Should he?
The Twins have a number of major decisions to make on players, but none loom larger than this one. Cruz has been the heart of this team. He was named Twins Most Valuable Player last year, and was a top 10 finisher for AL MVP. Both will likely be true again this year. Cruz is without question the foremost clubhouse leader, and the outward face of the franchise. (Did you happen to see any MLB postseason promo relating to the Twins?)
While some might not like to hear it, there is a fairly good chance the Boomstick is not back in 2021.
If it were simply a matter of picking up a reasonably-priced team option, as was the case last year, this would be a no-brainer: he'd be back. But that's not the case. Cruz is hitting the open market as a free agent, and his suitors have doubled since last time around via the universal DH. Minnesota will have far more competition for his services, especially after he put together two of the best seasons of his career here.
Cruz indicated in mid-September that he hoped to stay with the Twins, but was angling for a multi-year contract. The good news is that it's now a little hard to envision him getting a guaranteed two-year deal, but the bad news is that — for the very same reason — the Twins may shy away from a competitive bidding war.
As incredible and elite as Cruz looked for the vast majority of his time here, he is at an age where baseball players can lose it very quickly. And in the final weeks of the 2020 season, the 40-year-old started to look his age in a hurry.
After participating in both ends of a doubleheader on September 8th, Cruz hit .154/.267/.256 with one home run, one double, and two RBIs in his final 11 games. And while he was the team's sole source of offense in the playoffs, driving in two runs on two doubles, it wasn't exactly Nelly Takeover Mode as we've come to know it. The versions of Cruz we saw during the opening series in Chicago, and the final series against Houston, were plainly and obviously very different.
It's a small sample, of course, but the timing and circumstances make the drop-off impossible to ignore. Minnesota has a number of young hitters looking for opportunities, and no shortage of bats they could theoretically rotate through the DH spot next year. The front office will have to deliberate on just how hard it wants to pursue Cruz this winter.
3: What is this roster's biggest need?
Heading into the offseason a year ago, the Twins' top priorities were fairly well understood: they needed a front-end starting pitcher, and a star-caliber acquisition to build upon their momentum. Many of us assumed those would be one in the same. Instead, Minnesota ended up going two different routes, trading for Kenta Maeda and signing Josh Donaldson.
Now, they have already given up one of their premier young talents and committed $23 million over the next three years, for long-term fixtures. When you add in the likelihood of dialed back spending, it's unlikely the Twins will venture quite as far into the aggressive ends of the market this offseason.
Besides, it's tough to pinpoint exactly what they need in order to take another step forward.
Could they use another high-end starting pitcher? Sure, but it's not the glaring hole it was a year ago. The Twins were one of the best pitching teams in the league, and their starters were lights-out against Houston. I'd trust Maeda, José Berríos and Michael Pineda — all due back in '21 — as my top three in the rotation once again.
The lineup underperformed, but there aren't obvious opportunities to resurrect it through offseason tinkering. Mainly they just need guys to stay healthy and get back to producing. I don't know that any starting position player is likely to be replaced from this year's (albeit rarely seen) optimal lineup, with the possible exception of Eddie Rosario.
Bench depth, bullpen arms, back-end starters ... all areas that the Twins are likely to address. But as of now, it isn't clear where they would aim to make a true impact addition.
4: Should Edgar Varela be back as hitting coach?
There's no way around it: Every Twins hitter took a significant step back in 2020, with performances ranging between mildly disappointing and confidence-shattering. The team's OPS dropped by nearly 100 points. Several mainstays never managed to navigate out of season-long slumps, and in the postseason, Houston's pitching picked Minnesota's long-tenured core apart:
What has changed since last year? Well, in a sense, everything. (And that really should be taken into account when assessing anybody's struggles.) But when it comes strictly to the Twins and baseball, we know this: heralded hitting coach James Rowson was fished away by Miami last winter, and replaced by a relatively unknown commodity in Edgar Varela.
To what extent were the offense's shortcomings attributable to this change? Personally, I have a hard time believing it's a very significant factor. But in a results-based business, Varela could be vulnerable. Assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez might also be on the hot seat, though that seems less likely since he was also here for the 2019 bash-fest.
5: What strategy will drive the Twins forward?
This really is the ultimate question. A forum thread here at Twins Daily the other day put it well: Should the team reload, retool, or rebuild?
Those three words represent very different paths, and there's an argument to be made for each.
On the one hand, this has been a .600+ team over the past two seasons, winning back-to-back division championships. The Twins have the ability to keep things mostly intact if they choose to do so. It's just not a given that they will.
Those aforementioned core pieces who came out flat, again, in the playoffs – Kepler, Sanó, Rosario, Polanco? They're all holdovers from the previous regime. So is Byron Buxton, whose game-changing ability on the field is as undeniable as his inability to stay on it. Not to mention Taylor Rogers, who hasn't been a consistently effective reliever since the 2019 All-Star break.
To what extent is the Twins front office, under Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, committed to sticking with this group, which has yet to produce a postseason victory in about half a decade of playing together?
Falvey and Levine have already begun to filter in some of their own hand-picked pieces, like Ryan Jeffers and Brent Rooker and (most recently) Alex Kirilloff. There are more on the way. Would the Twins consider shipping out ostensible building blocks they inherited, in order to create paths for their own guys?
It really comes down to the big-picture strategy. Either the Twins are going to stay the course, making minor moves on the fringes and hoping it all comes together for this (clearly capable) nucleus, or shake things up in a big way.
That choice will dictate items two through four on this list, and it could well be dictated by the first one.
If the Twins see an unfavorable economic outlook on the horizon, and want to take a more frugal approach in 2021 – giving Cruz's at-bats to the up-and-comers, passing on major offseason additions, allowing Varela more time to settle in as hitting instructor – that can all be explained reasonably. It wouldn't be a bad strategy on its own merits, financial implications aside.
At the same time, this current team has played at a 100-win pace over a long period, and the postseason sample – while utterly gut-wrenching – is minuscule. There's also evidence that almost every regular was hampered by injury as things unraveled (although, this recurrent theme is not exactly a point in favor of the status quo).
As Falvey himself put it, the Twins have some "soul-searching" to do, and they'll need to do it while swimming through an ocean of unknowns.
What to expect in 2021?
What to expect in December?
What to expect next week?
It's going to be an interesting several months ahead.
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