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Best Remaining No-Risk Starters on the Free Agent Market

As we march into mid-January, with spring training suddenly only weeks away, the Twins' roster is coming into focus. Through various avenues, they've supplemented both the offense and the bullpen.

If they are to address the rotation, it's looking less likely they'll do so through a major-league contract. That doesn't necessarily rule out an interesting addition though.
Image courtesy of Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports (Clay Buchholz)
The Twins haven't signed a starting pitcher of note this offseason, and haven't really been connected to any via rumors. It's becoming apparent the front office is comfortable with a rotation of Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda and Adalberto Mejia. That's rational. The first four are clearly viable, and Mejia's out of options. (I wouldn't be surprised if Mejia operated as a "primary pitcher" behind an opener. In fact, it'd surprise me if he didn't.)

What's needed now is depth. They've got some with Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves, Chase De Jong and others. But they need experience behind the top five. And the way to get it, without having to commit a 40-man spot or guaranteed salary, is a minor-league contract plus spring training invite.

With a sizable pool of free agents remaining, and serious question marks attached to many of them, plenty of starters should be available on non-guaranteed deals. The Twins are in good position to attract such players, offering ample opportunity (Mejia's grip on the fifth job isn't exactly ironclad).

Here are six starting pitchers who may end up having to settle for minor-league contracts, and look like potential good fits for the Twins:

Clay Buchholz, RHP (34)
Buchholz is, to me, exactly the type of pitcher Minnesota should be targeting. He's a talented arm whose only risk point is health. Granted, it's a considerable risk point – he's thrown only 105 total innings over the past two years, and his 2018 ended with a worrisome flexor strain – but before he went down he had a 2.01 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 16 starts for Arizona, and his career numbers are rock solid. If he comes into camp healthy and looking good, he's probably the team's best fifth starter option. If he proves to be damaged goods, nothing hurt.

Marco Estrada, RHP (35)
From 2015-16, Estrada was a fantastic pitcher, posting a 3.30 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 357 innings in the power-packed AL East. In each season he was one of the stingiest starters in the league when it came to allowing hits. He's fallen off over the past two years (5.27 ERA, 1.40 WHIP) and is hitting the market with his stock way down after posting a 7.17 post-break ERA in 2018. While not always healthy, he's been durable enough to throw 128+ innings every year since 2012. Estrada would be nice to have around in the event of a spring training injury in the rotation.

Drew Hutchison, RHP (28)
Once upon a time, Hutchison was considered a premier young pitching talent in the game, debuting at age 21 for Toronto after rocketing through the minors. The righty has snuffed out most of his own intrigue through many seasons of poor performance and injuries, but preserved enough to get chances with three different teams in 2018. He's only 28 and would be an interesting low-risk camp project for new pitching coach Wes Johnson.

Chris Tillman, RHP (30)
Similar deal here. Tillman hasn't shown many promising signs over the past two seasons (8.42 ERA in 120 innings) but from 2012 through 2016 he put up a 3.81 ERA for the Orioles while rarely missing a start. He might be cooked, but what if he's not? What if Wes could help him turn it around?

Josh Tomlin, RHP (34)
Ken Rosenthal reported last week that the Mets were interested in Tomlin on a non-roster deal, but nothing has come to fruition as of yet. If he doesn't go to New York he'd be a logical target for Minnesota, given the Derek Falvey connection (Tomlin has spent the last nine years in Cleveland). The right-hander was brutal last year, and at his best he's merely an average MLB starter, but as a strike-throwing fly ball pitcher he could benefit from the Twins defense.

Ervin Santana, RHP (36)
Reunion? Red Sox reporter Chris Cotillo relayed a month ago that Santana was "drawing widespread interest" but "more likely to sign when he feels he is fully healthy later in winter." Presumably he'll put on a showcase within the next month, and if he looks good he might get a big-league deal. If not, he'd make sense for Minnesota. His 2018 was a loss, but we saw how good Santana could be during the balance of his time here. He would infuse veteran familiarity. Then again, this bridge might be burnt after sourness emerged toward the front office late last season.

There are plenty of other starters on the market who could land on minor-league deals, including Bartolo Colon, Yovani Gallardo, James Shields and Martin Perez. Any of these names interest you? Or do you still feel the club should aim higher on a guaranteed big-league contract?

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95 Comments

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Nick Nelson
Jan 11 2019 10:23 AM

 

Why not take a chance on Martin Perez?? Whether he remains a starter, or is sent to the bullpen, any lefty that’s capable of throwing 95+ is worthy of being signed.
.

He was a borderline choice for this list. His age (27) definitely makes him interesting. But I kinda expect him to get an MLB deal somewhere after finishing really strong last year. 

    • ChrisKnutson and Doctor Wu like this

I understand the argument for using a down year to audition and improve young pitchers, not block them with one-year veterans who won't be here beyond that anyway.

 

But you usually need 8 to 10 starters by year's end, so I'm not convinced anyone would really be blocked. Several will fail due to injury or ineffectiveness, so it's not either/or.Realistically we need them all.

 

Also, I'm not convinced the Twins should be playing for 2020 yet. Cleveland could suffer some injuries, and the rest of the division is weak enough that the Twins could be competitive.

 

I'm not optimistic about 2019. There is playoff upside on the hitting side. But this team is not a playoff team as currently constructed, because the pitching staff is far, far short of contender level. 

 

So if they have the budget to invest in a few more starter candidates and a few quality relievers, on one-year deals, why not?

 

These are all low risk players, in that they would not require guaranteed salaries past 2019, if that.

 

Would Mejia having to earn a spot (I'm not convinced he has yet), or Romero refining his pitches a bit more before starting his service clock, really be so bad?

 

You have to expect at least two injuries, and at least two guys not pitching well. Do we really want to work your way down to Dejong starting in the majors in 2019?I'd hoped we'd put those years behind us.

 

Personally I'd love to see Buchholz or Miley on the roster, as well as anyone else the scouts think might bust out.

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diehardtwinsfan
Jan 11 2019 10:35 AM

 

What is the risk/downside in signing one or more of these guys to a minors deal? 

 

I'll tell you what's risky: going into camp with only what they currently have. In fact it is inexcusably risky. 

 

 

 

I suppose to a minors deal I could get behind that. The risk though, is locking up a roster spot for guys that we should be playing such as Romero or Mejia.

 

Truthfully, there's enough AAA depth that I'm not going into camp with what we have is risky. Risk, in my opinion, is not taking advantage of some of the relievers still on the market and ignoring the pen.

    • birdwatcher, TheLeviathan, KGB and 1 other like this

 

I like Mejia as #5.But rather than using an opener, why not give the bullpen the day off and stack Romero with him.Let Mejia go 4-5 and bring in Romero to close the game with another 4-5.Would keep Romero's innings down to say 130-140 which works with previous year's work loads.

That results in both a 13 man staff and a 7 man bullpen. If you're going to have a 7 man bullpen, I'd prefer the benefits of a 12 man staff and a four man bench.

 

"Stacking" just doesn't work.

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Tom Froemming
Jan 11 2019 10:48 AM

It's pretty funny last year the Twins signed one of these type guys and it ended up being a critical mistake that they replaced him with a much higher profile signing.

 

How different may have things gone if the Twins had kept Anibal Sanchez instead of signing Lance Lynn? Never would have guessed in a million years I'd be asking that question at the time of that signing. I literally laughed why they signed Anibal, who had been pretty much the worst pitcher in baseball for multiple seasons.

 

Obviously those two guys are both at the extreme ends of potential outcomes, but it's an interesting thing to look back upon.

    • Nick Nelson, birdwatcher, Twins33 and 4 others like this
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LA VIkes Fan
Jan 11 2019 10:55 AM

 

I like Mejia as #5.But rather than using an opener, why not give the bullpen the day off and stack Romero with him.Let Mejia go 4-5 and bring in Romero to close the game with another 4-5.Would keep Romero's innings down to say 130-140 which works with previous year's work loads.

I completely agree and have suggested this in the past. The logical next step after the opener strategy is a shared rotation position, ideally with a RH and LH pitcher sharing that spot. They can both spot relieve in between starts as mop up guys but prepare as starters. You start the side that is the best match up with your opponent's top half of the order and it gives two guys starting experience. The first goes as long as he is effective and the hope is that you usually get at least 6-7 innings between the two, protect the first from that dreaded third time through the order, and protect your bullpen a little from the classic 5th starter 2 inning start. If we need to pull the first guy in the middle of an inning, we use a middle reliever type to close that inning out and give the second guy a clean slate the next inning.

 

Mejia is perfect from the left side for this role. We can use either Stewart or Romero for the RH part of this platoon, depending on whether Romero becomes a back end relief guy this year. What do you guys think?  

    • Minny505, Original Whizzinator and rdehring like this

No thanks. Bring in quality, or let the young guys have a crack.

    • TheLeviathan, KGB, Hosken Bombo Disco and 2 others like this

After seeing last fall’s playoffs, the Twins need a #1 & a #2 starting pitcher.Berrios has been our best pitcher, but he was a #3 or #4 on all those teams in last year’s playoffs. 

 

Cleveland is the frontrunner to win the Central again this year.This is how the Twins SP’s compared to Cleveland’s SP in inning/game in 2018.

• Gibsonaveraged 6.13 innings/game  vs  Kluber average 6.61 innings/game
• Berrios average 6 innings/gamevsClevenger average 6.25 innings/game & Bauer average 6.25 innings/game
• Odorizzi average 5.13 innings/game  vs  Carrasco average 6 innings/game

 

Cleveland had 3 pitchers with over 200 innings pitched and the Twins had 2 pitchers with over 190 innings pitched.We all know how Cleveland did in the 2018 playoffs and they realize how far out they are from championship action. 

 

The odds of the Twins relief pitchers failing are very high simply because they will be called on to often for too long.The Twins have a fundamentally sound core of players at the positions and in the batting order, but Twins have a good chance to be out of contention by the 2019 All-Star break.No matter who the relief pitchers are.

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ChrisKnutson
Jan 11 2019 11:23 AM

He was a borderline choice for this list. His age (27) definitely makes him interesting. But I kinda expect him to get an MLB deal somewhere after finishing really strong last year.


If you forget his 2018 season, you’d notice that throughout his career, Perez has actually been somewhat durable (when healthy) and effective (especially 2016-17) in one of the more hitter-friendly parks in the entire league. So I have no problem with the Twins taking a chance and signing him to a 1yr ML deal.
    • Minny505 likes this

 

I was hoping we had turned the page on dumpster diving by now. We have DeJong, Littell, Stewart, Gonsalves, Thorpe and even Duffey who used to be a starter waiting in line behind Mejia should he falter. That's 7 guys right there for 1 spot, no shortage of competition if that's what you're wanting. 

 

I would argue that planning on any of the guys you listed is dumpster diving for 2019.

I really HOPE DeJong, Littell, Stewar and Gonzo become reliable major league pitchers in any capacity and I HOPE Thorpe becomes a solid starter in 20 or 21, but planning on it 2019 is well not a real plan.

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Nick Nelson
Jan 11 2019 12:03 PM

 

If you forget his 2018 season, you’d notice that throughout his career, Perez has actually been somewhat durable (when healthy) and effective (especially 2016-17) in one of the more hitter-friendly parks in the entire league. So I have no problem with the Twins taking a chance and signing him to a 1yr ML deal.

Personally I'd rather just go with Mejia than guarantee Perez a roster spot. He's not a clear enough upgrade to me. Despite the solid velo his K-rates have been terrible. 4.78 FIP over the past three seasons. If you're talking about adding him as a reliever that's another story (though not really germane to this particular thread).

 

 

I would argue that planning on any of the guys you listed is dumpster diving for 2019.

I really HOPE DeJong, Littell, Stewar and Gonzo become reliable major league pitchers in any capacity and I HOPE Thorpe becomes a solid starter in 20 or 21, but planning on it 2019 is well not a real plan.

Exactly. There is value in experience, and having some track record of actual major-league success. Obviously none of the guys I listed are especially attractive right now (thus the "buy-low" concept) but there's more substantive reason to believe in them -- if healthy -- than someone like Littell or De Jong. 

 

If you don't think players like the ones in this article ever turn it around and get back on track, you're just not paying attention. Sanchez last year is as good an example as any. 

    • Tomj14 likes this

I am in favor of using our depth this year to sort out 2020.Twins have about 5 to 7 starters for one spot.Let's find out what we have, still have faith that maybe Stewart will figure it out.

    • Original Whizzinator likes this

You can pencil in Mejia or any of the other twins extra starters last year for that last spot.We just need to see what we have before we do any signings that will block spots, Perez and Buch are the only two who will interest me at all, and that only if you feel the Pineda is too much of a risk to not have a backup plan. 

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Nick Nelson
Jan 11 2019 12:23 PM

 

You can pencil in Mejia or any of the other twins extra starters last year for that last spot.We just need to see what we have before we do any signings that will block spots, Perez and Buch are the only two who will interest me at all, and that only if you feel the Pineda is too much of a risk to not have a backup plan. 

They're not blocking spots. That's the whole point! You don't have to remove anyone from the 40-man roster to add them, and you're not beholden to them in any way. The only way one of these guys beats out a Mejia is if they convince you they're clearly better options. 

 

I'm pro-Mejia. I want to see him in that fifth starter role. That's why I don't really want anyone on an MLB deal. But failing to equip yourself with feasible backup options is malpractice. 

    • Twins33 and Tomj14 like this

It took me a couple readings to figure out what Nick is talking about (I think the headline is a little misleading...). Anyway, I think the article would have benefited by laying out a hypothetical state of the Twins rotation on March 15th, something like the following scenario:

 

"Gibson's already-once-repaired UCL blows out again. He is out for the season. Romero's shoulder has been a little sore, so he was shut down early in Spring Training for rest and there is no way for him to build up innings until mid-May at the earliest. The coaching staff is concerned about Pineda's durability coming off basically an entire season off, and really want him in the 5 slot of the rotation so they can regularly skip starts during the first part of the season."

 

So then, the question is "Does it make sense for the Twins to have a veteran pitcher on a minor league deal in camp?" Personally, I have almost zero faith that Stewart or Gonsalves will be effective big league pitchers, and so I would welcome any additional competition at that tier. Basically:

 

Pitchers I'm comfortable having in the rotation:

Berrios

Gibson

Odorizzi

Pineda

Meija

Romero

 

Pitchers that I don't want to have to rely on in any context on Opening Day:

Gonsalves

Stewart

Littell

De Jong

 

If two or more of the first group are out for whatever reason (injury, performance), then having an additional, veteran arm (or two) in camp on a minor league deal makes sense. More options; higher probability at least one will break out/bounce back.

Yankees announced just now that they signed Drew Hutchinson yesterday. No word on the terms. I assume a minor league deal. 

 

 

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howieramone2
Jan 11 2019 12:45 PM

Mejia or Romero will start the season in the pen. Fair chance Stewart will also. 2 of those 3, plus Gonsalves, Littell, DeJong, and sometime during the season Thorpe, will be emergency starting pitching depth. If the search committee had selected me, I'd trade for a youngish 2/3. There is nothing to wait for, the Central is just sitting there. Overpay with prospects from our very deep and talented farm system.

Yup, minor league deal... 

 

Someone is getting hurt, and the AAA reserves are getting significant starts in 2018. A 2-3 year or longer deal is certainly palatable and would provide continuity beyond Berrios. There's not many pitchers left that I would want to do that with. Maybe Gio.

 

 A lightning in a bottle type contract that doesn't impact the 40 man is fine, but should be independent of the opening day rotation. If they can't get a 2-3 year contract on a decent mid rotation starter, it's OK to roll with Romero or Mejia as your 5th starter and still have Bucholtz in AAA for when someone gets injured.

 

Someone is getting injured...

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Battle ur tail off
Jan 11 2019 01:45 PM

 

What if Romero gets hurt in spring training and Mejia doesn't look ready for a starting job after throwing <100 IP and ending last year on the DL? This is a very plausible scenario, and presently it would force the Twins to turn to someone like De Jong, Gonsalves, Littell etc because they have no choice. 

 

Again, this isn't about pushing the young guys aside or robbing them of opportunities. That's why I'm looking exclusively at non-roster deal candidates.

 

That is why the damn cheapskates should have been signing 2 of the best relievers they could find. Or they should trade for them still. You have May and Romero. Either can start if someone gets hurt. Then you have Stewart, Gonsalves, and a whole gaggle of other guys that can fight for a start here and there. 

 

I'd ask Bucholz to come to spring training, but the rest, count me out 100%. I honestly don't think he would accept that kind of deal to a team like the Twins. He will get something guaranteed, or take a spring training invite to a contender before he comes here. 

 

Talent, high end talent on trades and FA or roll with the young guys. That is what I will preach. No use wasting roster spots on washed up guys, or guys that weren't ever any good anyway when you have a whole bunch of young ones waiting for their chance. 

 

 

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birdwatcher
Jan 11 2019 01:45 PM

 

They're not blocking spots. That's the whole point! You don't have to remove anyone from the 40-man roster to add them, and you're not beholden to them in any way. The only way one of these guys beats out a Mejia is if they convince you they're clearly better options. 

 

I'm pro-Mejia. I want to see him in that fifth starter role. That's why I don't really want anyone on an MLB deal. But failing to equip yourself with feasible backup options is malpractice. 

 

 

I guess I'd take minor issue with the following:

 

1. The current likely depth in AAA represents feasible backup options. Going with a AAA rotation of Stewart, Gonsalves, De Jong, Thorpe, and Littell is hardly an act of malpractice, even if you knew for sure all of them were going to be called upon to start one or more MLB games. This is particularly the case when you might have other options pushing their way up from AA, you might have other options toiling in your own MLB pen, and finding an emergency arm in the market isn't exactly tough in this era of desperate selling. Every one of those five has a decent chance of settling in as acceptable mid to back end starters.

 

2. If we have three of Berrios, Gibson, Pineda, Mejia, and Odorizzi go down for the count, we're in deep doo-doo anyway, even if a guy like Buchholz comes in and cuts the mustard and sends Mejia to the pen or something. I don't see signing one of these guys to a make-good contract as a compelling need.

 

3. However, I suppose I'd be fine with taking a shot with one. My concerns would be with the message it sends to this AAA group, that your window of opportunity just got narrower, that your opportunity is less tied to your own merits now. Was the guy a clear upgrade from them?

 

4. And what about the slight risk of a guy in the clubhouse pretty much auditioning for other teams and not being a great team player? These attitudes are hard to anticipate. I'd hope they are being more careful about this after their admitted failings in this area last year. I could see them being hesitant about going in this direction.

 

 

    • diehardtwinsfan and howieramone2 like this

 

That results in both a 13 man staff and a 7 man bullpen. If you're going to have a 7 man bullpen, I'd prefer the benefits of a 12 man staff and a four man bench.

 

"Stacking" just doesn't work.

I don't see it that way.Romero is limited to every 5th day, but with the other 6 guys they have a 7 man bullpen (12 man staff + 13 position players).The other 6 only need to cover the other four starters.If those four starters average more than 6 innings each start (Berrios and Gibson at 7+ with Odorizzi and Pineda at 5+), they would pitch about 12 innings every time thru the rotation (4 of 5 games).That works out to 2 innings every 5 games for the 6 other guys in the pen...or about 64 innings for the season.Now no manager will have them all pitching the same and there are a few extra inning games, but that would be a light load for the pen.

    • LA VIkes Fan and Original Whizzinator like this

 

I believe Miley will require a major-league contract to sign. I'm looking for guys that won't require any commitment – no guaranteed deal, no 40-man roster spot required. All upside, no downside. 

 

If the Twins aren't getting Keuchel (and let's be honest, they're not), I'm not sure I wanna guarantee anyone else on the market a job over Mejia or Romero. 

 

 

This isn't an alternative to that. It's about having depth and creating competition for jobs. You want these young guys to earn it, right? Mejia did so over Vogelsong in 2017. Similar concept, except I think these players listed all have more legitimate upside than Vogelsong did. 

I understand what you're saying. There is value in bringing in one of those guys but I would rather have Gonsalves, Romero, Thorpe Littel and whoever else battle for innings. 

    • Mike Sixel likes this
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ChrisKnutson
Jan 11 2019 02:25 PM
I’d rather garantee Perez a spot on the 40 man roster than Duffey. Also, who says Perez has to either be a starter or reliever, why can’t he pitch in some sort of hybrid role (primary/spot starter/multi inning reliever/etc).
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Nick Nelson
Jan 11 2019 03:32 PM

 

The current likely depth in AAA represents feasible backup options. Going with a AAA rotation of Stewart, Gonsalves, De Jong, Thorpe, and Littell is hardly an act of malpractice, even if you knew for sure all of them were going to be called upon to start one or more MLB games. 

It's a fine Triple-A rotation. I just don't wanna be pigeonholed into having one of those guys in the season-opening rotation because I failed to install any legitimate veteran safety valves. To be clear: these deals are mostly just spring-training auditions. I suspect most of the players listed would opt-out if they don't make the team and that's fine.

 

 

And what about the slight risk of a guy in the clubhouse pretty much auditioning for other teams and not being a great team player? These attitudes are hard to anticipate. I'd hope they are being more careful about this after their admitted failings in this area last year. I could see them being hesitant about going in this direction.

This happens in spring training pretty much every year. I don't see it as an issue. These players don't have guaranteed deals or roster spots so of course they're in it for themselves.

    • birdwatcher likes this