In covering the handful of starts Michael Pineda will miss in 2020 while he serves his suspension, the Twins could simply turn to an internal option. Or, they could leverage their unique situation to lure that most intriguing of free agent specimens: the reclamation project.
In general, Minnesota isn't the most attractive destination for free agent players who have their pick out of numerous suitors. But for one specific profile, the Twins are a particularly appealing choice. That profile? Formerly successful veteran pitchers with talent who are, for whatever reason (usually health-related), simply looking for a chance to bounce back, even if on a non-guaranteed deal.
Anibal Sanchez was one such example in spring of 2018, though he slipped away. There are a few potentially similar names in this year's free agent crop that stand out to me, and I'll zero in on three of them below.
Based on their track records, and relative youth, these free agents will surely have markets of their own – especially given the low risk – but the Twins can make a simple differentiating pitch: You don't even really have to compete for a job. Come to camp, show us something, and the gig is yours for at least six weeks – a rotation spot on a team that should be pretty good, with a cutting-edge pitching coach at your disposal. Once Pineda returns, if you've performed, you'll have a role (or at worst, you'll be an in-demand trade candidate).
On those terms, I like the potential with these three.
Matt Moore, LHP
There are two reasons you might know the name. The first is that it belongs to the backup Chiefs QB who took down the Vikings at Arrowhead several weeks back. But that isn't who we're talking about here. Instead, it's another professional thrower, far removed from his glory days.
When Moore arrived on the scene as a full-timer for the Rays in 2012, the left-hander was ranked by both MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus as the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. He backed up the hype as a rookie, posting a 3.81 ERA and averaging a strikeout per inning at age 23.
The next year, Moore fully blossomed. He won 17 of his 27 starts with a 3.29 ERA and was named to the All-Star team. But from there, it was all downhill.
The next April he tore his UCL, requiring Tommy John surgery. He came back in 2015 and struggled mightily. In 2016 he returned to form somewhat, but was shipped from Tampa to San Francisco at the deadline. The 2017 season was a complete disaster as Moore went 6-15 with a 5.52 ERA for the Giants, who then flipped him to Texas for a minimal return in the offseason.
The Rangers couldn't work their magic on Moore in 2018 as he stumbled to a 6.57 ERA in 102 innings split between the rotation and bullpen. This year, he landed with Detroit on a $2.5 million deal but suffered a season-ending knee injury in his second start.
Through all of this, Moore is still only 30. His velocity hasn't diminished. And, to the extent that you can draw any positive conclusions from a two-start season, Moore did look sharp in 10 scoreless innings for the Tigers, allowing just three hits and a walk with nine strikeouts.
Shelby Miller, RHP
Much like Moore, Miller was a highly touted prospect who burst onto the scene at a young age and then faded. In this case, however, the drop-off was even more severe.
A consensus Top-25 prospect heading into 2013, Miller finished third in Rookie of the Year voting as a fixture in the Cardinals rotation, finishing with a 3.06 ERA in 31 starts. He was good again in 2014, got traded, and then followed with a stellar showing in Atlanta: 205 IP, 3.02 ERA, 3.7 fWAR (and a 6-17 record, oddly).
Miller was dealt again in the ensuing offseason – this time to the desert, where his effectiveness dried up. He posted a 6.15 ERA over 20 starts in 2016, and then threw only 38 innings over the next two seasons, besieged by elbow issues. Last year Miller inked a $2 million deal with Texas, but was cut loose ahead of the All-Star break. The Brewers brought him in for a look and released him a month later.
It's not a good sign when both those teams fail to make anything work with an arm, but perhaps Miller just need another few months of rest to get right (and the Wes Johnson touch?). He'll still be 29 next year.
Drew Smyly, LHP
Smyly really intrigues me as a fit for the Twins. He struggles with one very specific thing – the long ball – and "struggles" is putting it lightly.
In 2016 with Tampa, the southpaw allowed 32 home runs over 175 innings. His HR/9 rate (1.64) was fourth-highest in baseball. He then missed the next two seasons entirely due to injuries (including Tommy John). When he returned this year, he once again gave up 32 home runs, but this time in just 114 innings for the Rangers and Phillies – a league-leading 2.5 HR/9 rate.
When you get past the egregious gopher ball woes... there's definitely something here. Through his struggles this year, Smyly struck out 120 batters in 114 innings with his quality cutter-curve mix. The former second-round draft pick was once a young standout for the Tigers and Rays, posting a 3.24 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 395 innings over his first four campaigns.
The Twins have some cred when it comes to curing the home run bug. Smyly's former rotation-mate with the Rays, Jake Odorizzi, came to Minnesota and turned that same weakness into a strength. Historically HR-prone Michael Pineda also seemed to turn a corner midway through his Twins tenure, allowing 14 bombs in his first 10 starts this year and nine in his last 16. As a staff, Minnesota had the fourth-lowest HR rate in the majors despite ranking 24th in grounders. They're doing something right.
Smyly's a gamble, just as Miller and Moore would be. But in each case, there's a non-trivial chance the Twins come up with a real asset by opening the floor to a quarter-season audition as they await Pineda's activation.
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