The best starting pitching in baseball in the regular season belonged to, in order; Dodgers, Indians, Diamondbacks, Nationals, Yankees, Astros, Cubs, Red Sox. While ERA might be a limited statistic, that’s a telling trend. In 2017 the Twins were 19th on this list, starters combining for a 4.73 ERA, (as opposed to dead last in 2016 at 5.39). They were only 26th in strikeouts in 2017 (as opposed to dead last in 2016). Most of the improvement in their pitching was due to soon to be Gold Glove center fielder Byron Buxton. Consider this, the median MLB team (in this case, the Mariners) scored 4.63 runs per game in 2017. Buxton had an Rtot of 32 (a stat which combines a variety of statistics to form an overall defensive contribution above or below average). In 2017 Buxton was so good in CF, he negated an average MLB team’s offense over a 7 game stretch, that’s absolutely bananas. The story here ultimately is that aside from Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana, the Twins starting rotation is both uncertain, and decidedly average.
The Twins have a stable of in-house candidates looking to fill out the back end of their rotation. Kyle Gibson seems to be a lock, after ‘turning a corner’ down the stretch (I’m too jaded to be convinced of this). Adalberto Mejia has shown flashes of potential despite being about as efficient as Gabriel Moya’s mechanics. Trevor May is working his way back from surgery, Stephen Gonsalves and Francisco Romero offer intriguing rotation options although both should start the season at AAA Rochester. If I’m in the front office, I don’t want to rely on someone with limited experience stepping up or a AAA guy being ready close to the beginning of the season (remember Berrios’ 2016 debut?). Assuming the Twins choose to pursue a starter in free agency and not through the trade market, here are some options they might consider.
Cashner had an Ervin Santana-like year in 2017, in that, his peripherals did not match his overall performance. As a result, he is likely to get a solid contract this off-season. Signed to a 1 year, $10 million deal with the Rangers, he posted a 3.40 ERA (compared to 5.30 xFIP, which resulted from him cutting his HR/FB% almost in half from 2016, an unlikely feat in Arlington. Cashner put up a poor K/9 (4.64), is injury prone (has surpassed 180 IP just once since 2013), and struggles with control 3.54 BB/9. The Twins would do well to leave Cashner alone after a year where he was more lucky than good.
Cobb would be an interesting free agent acquisition for the Twins, particularly if the Jim Hickey to Twins pitching coach rumors come to fruition. The 30 year old made $4.2 million in 2017 and is due for a substantial raise in a thin FA market, despite missing 2015 and part of 2016 after undergoing TJ surgery. The deceptive righty put up a 3.66 ERA (4.24 xFIP), an OK 6.5 K/9, and great control (2.29 BB/9). Cobb underwent an evolution in 2017 in which he dramatically increased his LOB%, despite increased hard contact, fly ball percentage, and decreased ground ball rate. Cobb used his curve significantly more in 2017, throwing it 34% of the time (up from 22% in 2016). This pitch turned into a major weapon for Cobb, adding a value of 6 runs over the course of his season. Cobb will likely have a strong market in the off-season due to a poor smattering of SP free agents.
Chatwood is an interesting option for the Twins. The 27 year old was the definition of a league average pitcher (if you factor in Coors Field) in 2017 (4.27 xFIP, 7.31 K/9). Chatwood’s biggest issue remains an unacceptably high walk rate 4.69 BB/9, which was by far the highest of his career. Chatwood repeatedly escaped trouble thanks to a ground ball rate of around 60% (compared to league average of around 45%). Despite an uptick in fastball velocity (to 95.3 mph), Chatwood saw that pitch be dominated at Coors Field. A move to Target Field could potentially suit his pitch mix and push him into the realms of above average starter.
I initially saw Lynn as ‘the bigger name candidate the Twins might push for’ but upon reflection, I don’t think the Twins would be willing to pay the money Lynn would command, given a closer look at his season. Lynn put together an impressive 3.43 ERA, despite an xFIP of 4.75. He had a decent K rate of 7.39 and a typically high 3.77 BB/9. Lynn is also a year removed from Tommy John surgery in 2016, so there is a chance his second season back improves some of his peripheral numbers. Lynn relies heavily on a solid fastball and slider combination and falls in line with league averages for ground ball/fly ball percentages. He would undoubtedly be a good fit with the Twins exceptional outfield defense. Lynn made $7.5 million last year and will likely earn significantly more than that over a deal which might be his last long term contract. I would not expect the Twins to make a strong push here.
While the Twins should make a push to bolster their rotation their best option may be through a trade. With a strong lineup which happens to be the youngest in the majors, the Twins have solid prospect depth in outfield positions. Next, I’ll look at what the anatomy of a trade for a young, controllable starting pitcher might look like.