Twins’ Owner: Team “Absolutely Not” Going Into Rebuild

Anyone who’s even loosely followed the 2021 MLB season knows it’s been a disaster year for the Twins. The American League Central’s last-place club, Minnesota has already traded Nelson Cruz, will likely trade Michael Pineda in the coming days and will surely have interest in several other key pieces. That said, given the team’s payroll space, cost-controlled group of young hitters, solid farm system and other factors, it’s long seemed likely they’ll aim to reload and be competitive again in 2022. Owner Jim Pohlad effectively confirmed that this week in an interview with Dan Hayes of The Athletic.

Asked by Hayes whether this nightmarish season could “change your direction to rebuilding,” Pohlad replied emphatically: “Absolutely not. We want to be in the win window all the time. We expected that to be the case this year.”

Obviously, that didn’t happen for the Twins, who have weathered absences for Byron Buxton, Mitch Garver, Luis Arraez, Max Kepler, Kenta Maeda, Pineda and others. More problematic has been that nearly all of Minnesota’s offseason free-agent expenditures (the since-traded Cruz being a notable exception) have failed to live up to expectations.

The subsequent 43-58 record has positioned the Twins as a clear deadline seller, but Pohlad’s comments today reinforce what was already widely expected: this isn’t likely to be an “everything must go” fire sale. The team is receiving interest in players controlled beyond 2021, most notably top starter Jose Berrios, but the asking price on him has reportedly been high and focused on near-MLB assets. Given Pohlad’s comments and the fact that the Twins zeroed in on Triple-A pitchers in last week’s Cruz trade — both Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman could be options in Minnesota this year — that focus on big-league-ready talent is to be expected.

All of this is particularly worth considering as the clock ticks toward Friday’s 4pm ET trade deadline. For instance, MLB.com’s Jon Morosi tweeted this morning that the Twins have had some early talks on Kepler. That was already known after multiple reports linked Kepler to the Yankees last week, but the broader question of Kepler’s general “availability” (or lack thereof) should be considered in conjunction with ownership’s comments. Were the Twins looking to completely start over, players like Kepler, Berrios, Taylor Rogers (prior to his finger injury) and others would be strong trade candidates. As it stands, they’re more long shots with weighty asking prices.

It’s also possible that some of the impending free agents who do seem like locks to move could be flipped and then again pursued in free agency. Pineda, who pitched well tonight in what could be his final start with the Twins, told reporters after the game that Minnesota has come to feel like home and he hopes to remain (Twitter link via MLB.com’s Do-Hyoung Park). A trade still seems overwhelmingly likely, but Hayes tweets that Pineda would have interest in returning for 2022 and beyond even if (or when) he is ultimately traded this week.

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Taylor Rogers Exits Game With Finger Sprain

Twins closer Taylor Rogers exited Monday night’s game against the Tigers with a sprained middle finger on his pitching hand, the team announced to reporters (Twitter link via Betsy Helfand of the St. Paul Pioneer Press). Rogers threw five pitches, missing his spot badly on the fourth offering and checking his left hand. His fifth pitch then sailed a few feet wide of the strike zone, at which point Rogers called to the dugout and quickly departed with the training staff.

This time of season, any injury to a prominent player on a non-contending club is of note. Rogers is hardly considered a lock to be traded — he’s controlled through the 2022 season via arbitration — but the Twins have already begun to turn their eye toward 2022 and beyond, trading Nelson Cruz to the Rays last week. Rogers, Jose Berrios and Michael Pineda are among the team’s other trade candidates, though any sort of IL trip for Rogers would likely preempt a trade.

It’s been another strong season for Rogers, a former 11th-round pick who has gone from minor league starter, to solid middle reliever, to an All-Star reliever in recent years. Rogers debuted with the Twins in 2016 and quickly settled in as a solid arm, but his career took off upon adding a slider to his arsenal in midway through the 2018 campaign. Over the past four seasons, Rogers has pitched to a 2.91 ERA with an excellent 31.2 percent strikeout rate against a tiny 4.9 percent walk rate. This year’s 35.5 percent strikeout rate is a career-high.

Hard-throwing lefties who miss bats and limit walks at premium rates are hard to come by — particularly when they can keep both righties and lefties in check, as Rogers can. The Twins aren’t punting on their 2022 season by any means, but it’s feasible that other clubs could put together a strong enough package that they’d be tempted to part ways with Rogers. He’s playing on a $6MM salary and ought to see a nice raise via arbitration this winter, so a trade could bring in some near-MLB help and save the team some money to spend in free agency over the winter.

It remains to be seen whether Rogers will ultimately require an IL stint, but the mention of a sprain indicates some form of ligament stretching/tearing in Rogers’ finger, which is rather ominous. Every situation is unique, of course, but Cleveland righty Aaron Civale exited a June outing under similar circumstances and has yet to return to the mound.

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Athletics Nearing Deal To Acquire Andrew Chafin

The Cubs and Athletics working to finalize a trade that would send Andrew Chafin from Chicago to Oakland, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports (via Twitter). MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand had first indicated that the Cubs were closing in on a trade involving Chafin (Twitter link). The deal is pending medical reviews of the players involved.

Chafin, 31, inked a one-year, $2.75MM deal over the winter. It contains a mutual option for the 2022 season, though it’s exceedingly rare for both parties to pick up their side of a mutual option. The A’s likely view him as a rental reliever for the remainder of the season, expecting that he’ll head out into free agency again this winter.

The Cubs have consistently taken a frugal approach to their offseason bullpen construction in recent years, but Chafin is one of their better low-cost signings. The longtime D-backs lefty has a 2.06 ERA with a 24.7 percent strikeout rate, an eight percent walk rate and a 50 percent ground-ball rate in 39 1/3 innings. It’s the best season of what has quietly been a solid career for Chafin, who carries a 3.14 ERA and strong 24.9 percent walk rate through 314 innings at the big league level.

More to come.

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Nats Receiving Strong Interest In Trea Turner

It’s been less than a week since Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo spoke about how his team’s play leading up to the deadline would determine whether the front office would operate as buyers or sellers. The Nats have gone 1-4 since those comments, including a loss to the last-place Marlins and a three-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles in Baltimore.

There’s no indication yet that the Nationals are on the brink of a broad-reaching sell-off, but Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post reports that the Nationals are receiving “a lot” of interest in All-Star shortstop Trea Turner and have not firmly ruled out moving him (Twitter thread). It goes without saying that the Nats would need an overwhelming return in order to part with Turner, who is still owed about $4.82MM of this year’s $13MM salary and is controlled via arbitration through the 2022 season.

Broadly speaking, one would think that the 28-year-old Turner is an extension candidate more than a trade candidate, given the Nationals’ perennially high payroll, recent World Series victory and general “win-now” mindset. However, MLB Network’s Peter Gammons tweeted today that Nationals ownership doesn’t have plans to green-light a long-term extension with Turner.

Absence of an extension doesn’t necessarily mean that a trade of Turner is a foregone conclusion, of course. The Nationals will in all likelihood be aiming to contend in 2022, regardless of how their 2021 campaign plays out, and Turner would be a central figure in those efforts. But it’s also certainly possible that for a player of Turner’s caliber, the Nats could extract multiple near-MLB pieces and/or controllable young big leaguers who could both deepen the roster for the 2022 season and set them up nicely in the long run.

Turner, the No. 13 overall pick back in 2014, has established himself as one of MLB’s best all-around talents dating back to a breakout 2016 campaign. He’s a .301/.356/.489 hitter 92 home runs and 190 stolen bases in that time and, in deserving fashion, finally nabbed his first All-Star nod in 2021. Turner is batting .319/.367/.521 this season and entered play leading the National League with 199 total bases on the season. No one has swiped more bases than Turner since the start of the 2016 season, and FanGraphs ranks him 20th among all position players in wins above replacement in that span.

If Turner indeed were to hit the market, it’d be a major shakeup to a fairly limited crop of available infielders. Fellow shortstops Trevor Story and Javier Baez are the most notable player available, though neither is having a great year at the plate. Other (non-shortstop) possibilities include Jonathan Schoop, Eduardo Escobar, Whit Merrifield and Asdrubal Cabrera. Story has reportedly received some interest as a possible outside-the-box option in center field, and Turner could hold similar appeal — particularly since he’s actually played 387 innings of center field in the big leagues. (Story has played only shortstop in the Majors.)

The market for infield help is still developing — as is the trade market in general, despite the deadline’s proximity — but the Mariners, Brewers, Mets, White Sox, A’s have all been linked to infield upgrades (not necessarily at shortstop). The Padres, who originally drafted Turner, seem to be in on virtually every big name that hits the market, regardless of whether their roster presents a clear fit.

The Turner rumblings come at the same time as reports that Max Scherzer is at least open to waiving his 10-and-5 no-trade rights. While that doesn’t definitively signal the organization has made up its mind to sell this week, but it’s only natural to think that after slipping in recent weeks — or at least failing to gain much ground — hopeful buyers are beginning to circle and gauge the asking prices should the Nats eventually wave the white flag on 2021. Rizzo himself last week said that if the Nats do become sellers, “everything will be on the table, I think.”

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Max Scherzer Reportedly Open To Waiving No-Trade Rights

Nationals ace Max Scherzer has been one of the most intriguing trade candidates in baseball as the Nationals have slid down the standings following a scorching month of June, but a trade surrounding him is also complicated for myriad reasons. He’s being paid $35MM in 2021 and has more than $100MM in deferred money still owed to him from 2022-28. The Nationals, historically, do not operate as sellers under general manager Mike Rizzo. Scherzer has full no-trade protection as a 10-and-5 player (10 years of MLB service, the past five with the same team). Additionally, agent Scott Boras has previously suggested that Scherzer would require some type of incentive (e.g. a contract extension) in order to waive those rights.

It would seem that at least one of those major hurdles, however, is surmountable. Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post reports (via Twitter) that Scherzer is open to being traded and would not invoke his 10-and-5 rights for the sole purpose of remaining with the Nationals. However, Scherzer could use that full no-trade protection as a way to have a say in his ultimate destination if the Nats are presented with offers from multiple clubs.

It’s not yet clear whether the Nationals are going to legitimately make Scherzer available, although a weekend sweep at the hands of a 34-64 Orioles club couldn’t have helped convince Rizzo and his staff that the Nats need to operate as a buyer. Rizzo said just under a week ago that he was approaching the deadline with a both a “buy” and “sell” mindset, remaining open to all possibilities depending on how his team played. The implication was that with a strong showing, the Nats would act as they tend to do under Rizzo: make at least incremental upgrades in an effort to push toward the postseason.

That hasn’t happened, however. The Nats are 1-4 since those comments from Rizzo, including the sweep in Baltimore, and the fact that the Nationals had to slow Stephen Strasburg’s throwing program down once again only adds another negative element to the equation. Washington now finds itself eight games below .500, seven and a half back of the division lead and 11 out in the Wild Card hunt. The generally feeble nature of the NL East and the top-heavy trio of contenders in the NL West mean that the only path for an NL East club to reach the postseason is likely via a division title. FanGraphs gives the Nats a 1.4 percent chance of making the playoffs; PECOTA is only marginally better, at an even 2.0 percent.

If the Nats do indeed make Scherzer available, he’d (obviously) be the best starting pitcher on a market that is lacking in impact arms. The three-time Cy Young winner and eight-time All-Star, who turns 37 tomorrow, has pitched to a 2.83 ERA with a brilliant 35.1 percent strikeout rate and a 6.1 percent walk rate in 105 innings this season. He’s had one astonishing meltdown that the Padres and Daniel Camarena will never forget, wherein Scherzer allowed 12 percent of the runs he’s yielded all season on one pitch to a just-called-up relief pitcher. Outside of that night, Scherzer has allowed 26 runs in 101 1/3 innings of work (2.31 ERA). He’s held opponents to two or fewer runs in 14 of his 18 starts.

It’s also worth noting that Scherzer had his Saturday start against the Orioles scratched due to discomfort in his right triceps. The injury popped up when he was taking batting practice, not pitching and Scherzer has already said publicly that he plans to make his next start. He underwent an MRI that came back clean, and (via MASNsports.com’s Mark Zuckerman), manager Dave Martinez said Scherzer’s bullpen session today went as planned. Assuming he feels fine tomorrow, he’d be in line to start Thursday’s game for the Nationals — their final game prior to Friday afternoon’s trade deadline.

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Cubs Not Actively Shopping Kyle Hendricks

The Cubs have already traded Joc Pederson and are expected to make several more deals before Friday’s 4pm ET trade deadline, but MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reports (via Twitter) that top starter Kyle Hendricks is “definitely not being shopped” and that the team would only move him if approached with a strong offer.

Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer effectively confirmed earlier this month that an 11-game losing streak had pushed his club into seller territory. At the time, Hoyer spoke generally about keeping an open mind to moves “that can help build the next great Cubs team.” So while the Cubs may not be calling all 29 other teams and actively trying to find a taker for Hendricks, it stands to reason that a team could put together an offer that makes Hoyer & Co. consider parting with its longest-tenured pitcher.

Hendricks, 31, signed a four-year, $55MM contract extension with a fifth-year option a couple springs ago and is still not halfway through that deal. He’s owed $14MM both in 2022 and 2023, and the contract contains a $16MM option with a $1.5MM buyout. As of this writing, he’s owed $5.19MM through the end of the 2021 season, bringing the total sum he’s still guaranteed on the contract to $36.19MM (including the option buyout).

It’s a more-than-reasonable price to pay for a starter of Hendricks’ caliber. The right-hander ranks 16th in the Majors with 117 1/3 innings pitched this season and ranked third among all MLB pitchers in total innings during last year’s shortened season (81 1/3 frames). He’s worked to a solid 3.61 ERA so far in 2021 and continued to demonstrate some of the game’s best command. Hendricks has walked 4.5 percent of his opponents, and while his 17.5 percent strikeout rate is below both the league average and his career average, he’s had success for his entire career in spite of below-average strikeout numbers.

Hendricks has been one of the game’s most durable starters since breaking in with the Cubs back in 2014. He’s only had two trips to the injured list in his big league career: a 16-day absence for shoulder inflammation back in 2019 and a six-week absence due to tendinitis in his hand back in 2017. He made 12 starts during last year’s 60-game schedule, averaged 30 per year from 2015-19 and is on pace for another full slate of games in 2021, having already taken the hill on 20 occasions.

An oddity in today’s game, Hendricks averages just 87.4 mph on his fastball and hasn’t cracked even an 89 mph average since the 2014 season. He relies on that aforementioned command, strong ground-ball tendencies and gobs of weak contact to find his success. There are few pitchers like that in 2021, but he’s made it work for several years now. He probably won’t ever repeat 2016’s 2.13 ERA and third-place Cy Young finish, but Hendricks carries a 3.33 ERA through 714 1/3 innings in the five seasons since that third-place finish.

If the Cubs aren’t presented with a sufficient offer for Hendricks over the next four days, it seems likely that he’ll again see his name kicked about the rumor circuit over the winter. Hoyer has pushed back in the past on the notion that the Cubs are going to engineer a full-scale rebuild, but between the offseason Yu Darvish deal and Hoyer’s acknowledgment of change on the horizon this summer, it’s clear that Chicago is taking at least something of a step back. Hendricks would have even wider appeal this winter than he does at the deadline, when more clubs are viewing themselves as contenders and when many have reset the luxury-tax concerns that are currently hamstringing their front offices’ ability to acquire players on notable salaries (e.g. Hendricks).

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Blue Jays Select Kirby Snead, Designate Jacob Barnes

The Blue Jays announced Monday that they’ve selected the contract of left-hander Kirby Snead to the Major League roster and opened a spot by designating right-hander Jacob Barnes for assignment.

Snead, 26, was Toronto’s tenth-round pick back in 2016 and has steadily put together an impressive minor league track record. He reached Triple-A for the first time in 2019 and would’ve gotten another look there in 2020 were it not for the minor league season being shut down. He’s made the most of his second go-around there in 2021, however, pitching to a 2.01 ERA and 2.28 FIP with a huge 35.5 percent strikeout rate, a 9.9 percent walk rate and a 57.4 percent ground-ball rate in 31 1/3 frames.

Outside of one lone start earlier this year, when he worked two innings (presumably as an opener), Snead’s entire career has been spent working in relief. He’s a pure bullpen addition for the Jays — one who’s never had an ERA north of 3.88 at any level to this point in his career.

Barnes pitched nine innings for the Jays after coming over from the Mets and whiffed 30 percent of the 43 batters he faced, but he also walked six and hit another (16.3 percent). Now 31 years old, Barnes looked at one point like he might be a long-term piece in the Brewers’ bullpen. From 2016-18, he racked up 147 1/3 innings of 3.54 ERA ball with solid strikeout numbers, but he hasn’t been able to recreate that production. From 2019-21, Barnes has 78 1/3 big league innings split among five different teams, but he’s pitched to just a 6.55 ERA.

Barnes keeps getting chances with other clubs, likely owing to a combination of his fastball velocity, spin, chase rate and a strong minor league track record. There’s clearly some tantalizing aspects of his repertoire — you don’t see five teams take a chance on a 40-man roster spot for a player if there isn’t — but he hasn’t found consistency over the past few years. The Blue Jays will now have until Friday to trade Barnes, otherwise they’ll have to place him on outright waivers or release him.

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Pirates Trade Clay Holmes To Yankees

The Yankees announced Monday that they’ve acquired right-handed reliever Clay Holmes from the Pirates in exchange for minor league infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Jun Park. Catcher Rob Brantly, who’d been on the roster as a Covid-related replacement player, has been returned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to open a roster spot. Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported about a minute before the announcement that Holmes was being traded to the Yankees for a pair of minor leaguers (via Twitter).

Holmes, 28, has spent the season in the Pittsburgh bullpen and pitched to a 4.93 ERA, a 23.3 percent strikeout rate, a 13.2 percent walk rate and an enormous 72.8 percent ground-ball rate. To offer a bit more context on that percentage, Holmes has pitched 42 innings this season and surrendered just 16 fly-balls (three of which were pop-ups) and 15 line drives. He’s induced 83 grounders.

Control has been an obvious issue for Holmes, who has always hit four batters and thrown five wild pitches, but he’s only allowed 10 home runs in 119 2/3 career innings (0.75 HR/9). He’s also among the game’s best at limiting premium contact so far in 2021 (86th percentile average exit velocity; 91st percentile barrel rate).

Holmes has yet to reach arbitration but will be arb-eligible for the first time this winter. He’s making scarcely more than the league minimum and can be controlled all the way through the 2024 season if he ultimately sticks in the bullpen. He’ll have to prove his mettle with the Yankees at the Major League level, however, as he’s out of minor league options and cannot be sent down without first being exposed to waivers.

For much of his minor league career, Holmes worked as a starting pitcher. He’s made just four starts in the Majors, however, against 87 bullpen appearances. Because he can’t be sent down, it’s unlikely that the Yankees would try to stretch him out at the MLB level. He’ll head into the bullpen for now, where he can give them some length. Holmes has worked several outings of one-plus or two innings at a time and topped 30 pitches in an appearance on a few occasions.

Ground-ball rate looks to be something the Yankees have zeroed in on in recent years, at least with regard to their bullpen. Zack Britton is one of the most prolific ground-ball pitchers in history, and the current Yankee bullpen sports five more pitchers who’ve tossed at least 10 innings of relief this year with a grounder rate of 50 percent or better: Albert Abreu, Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, Mike King and Wandy Peralta. At a time when the league is working to curb the use of foreign substances that increase the spin rate on four-seam fastballs and sliders, it’s perhaps not coincidental that the Yankees are seeking out another extreme ground-ball pitcher who relies on a low-spin sinker.

Yankees fans may be surprised to see Park included in this deal after he’s posted a .327/.475/.567 slash with 10 homers, nine doubles, a triple and eight stolen bases in 223 Triple-A plate appearances so far. The 25-year-old was recently called to the big league roster for the first time but only got one appearance before being sent back out.

Notably, however, the Yankees outrighted Park to Triple-A, however, indicating that he went unclaimed on outright waivers at the time of the move. The Pirates (or another club) could’ve had Park for free at that point, were they willing to dedicate a 40-man roster spot to him. The 29 other clubs passed. The Bucs will now pick up his rights (without having to dedicate a 40-man spot) and hope he can continue to build on that breakout showing he’s enjoyed so far in Triple-A this year. FanGraphs’ Eric Lonenhagen ranked Park 31st among Yankees farmhands prior to this deal, noting that his ability to play a viable shortstop an control the strike zone make him a “high-probability utility infield piece.”

Castillo, 23, had a history as a light-hitting middle infielder with premium contact rates before his production exploded in a pitcher-friendly Double-A setting this year. He’s hitting .277/.345/.504 (127 wRC+) with 11 home runs, 18 doubles and eight steals in 249 plate appearances on the year. Castillo has walked at a career-best 8.4 percent against a 13.4 percent strikeout rate. He’s another shortstop-capable infield prospect to add to the middle levels of the Pirates’ system — one whom Longenhagen ranked 21st in the Yankees’ system at the time of the swap.

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