Twins Insider: Joyful espionage of MLB winter meetings missed as team plots free-agent moves

Staking out sources in the hotel lobby.

Running down to the bar at 1:30 a.m. to look for someone to confirm a trade rumor.

Daily meetings with baseball ops execs to run rumors by them … or to hear about how hard they are working to make a deal.

Oh, and the annual superagent Scott Boras news conference that leads to a traffic jam of humanity.

That’s all standard operating procedure at Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings, a combination of Mardi Gras and N.C.I.S. for beat reporters. The social aspects of the meetings surround you as you search for clues leading to the next big deal.

The baseball world should be headed to Dallas this week for the annual event, but not during a pandemic. And it is hard to replicate everything listed above in a virtual format.

So everyone will work from home. That includes the Twins, who have five open spots on their 40-man roster and questions in left field, the rotation, the bullpen and utility roles.

The Twins were able to avoid arbitration with five players, signing them to deals over a two-day period this week. With more than 230 players currently on the market, President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey said it’s time to gauge free agency.

“Now, we’re into December, where this is the month where you start to see whether the market’s moving a little more quickly or stagnating a bit,” Falvey said. “I feel like in the early going here, we’ve had some dialogue, but it feels a little bit slower than average for sure, so far.

“With the tender date passing, I would not be surprised if, in three or four days, it’s starting to feel a little bit more like we’re heading into winter meetings and we’re getting a little bit more traction with some of the agents and some of the other clubs.”

The Twins were able to bring back righthanders Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey, outfielder Byron Buxton, catcher Mitch Garver and lefthander Caleb Thielbar for around $16 million. They non-tendered outfielder Eddie Rosario and righthander Matt Wisler.

They have just 12 players under contract for roughly $78 million. They have five spots open on their 40-man roster and will be active in free agency. When they will be active is the bigger question. There could be more than 100 unsigned players on Feb. 1, and few teams are expected to get very aggressive in free agency in the current economic climate.

The Twins hope to bring back designated hitter Nelson Cruz, which could cost them anywhere from $12 million to $15 million, His market would heat up if the National League is allowed to use the DH again in 2021.

Mound musings

As for pitching, Berrios and fellow righthanders Kenta Maeda and Michael Pineda are all signed for next season. Righthander Randy Dobnak is under control.

Indications are that the Twins don’t feel prospects Jhoan Duran and Jordan Balazovic are quite ready to step in yet. So it appears they will be in the market for at least one quality starter and perhaps will find another Rich Hill type — if it’s not Hill — for veteran depth. Would Jake Odorizzi agree to come back for $7 million to $8 million? Or do they look elsewhere for options such as Taijuan Walker, Corey Kluber or Jose Urena?

The bullpen has openings. Trevor May signed a free-agent deal with the Mets. They will likely move on from Sergio Romo. Could there be a Tyler Clippard reunion? Will they go after a closer and let Taylor Rogers concentrate on setup work? Jorge Alcala showed promise after taking some lumps in his 2019 debut. Is Edwar Colina on the same path?

As for left field, there might not be a search for Rosario’s replacement. The Twins feel they have a candidate in prospect Alex Kirilloff, who swung a hot bat at the St. Paul alternate training site, then singled in four at-bats in Game 2 of the American League wild-card series against the Astros when he was shockingly put in the lineup. The Twins might bring in a veteran for competition, but there are inexperienced in-house options with upside in Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach and Brent Rooker.

Money matters

After having a payroll around $132 million in 2020, there’s a chance that the 2021 payroll will mirror most teams’ and come down a little bit. Twins owner Jim Pohlad, during an October interview, said owners bore the brunt of the losses during the shortened season and suggested a correction is coming.

“We all know the impact on the game last year financially was significant,” Falvey said. “It’s something we’re all reflecting and thinking about in all these decisions we’re making. … But I would say we remain pretty flexible as Jim has said on the record. He’s been very open to these conversations.”

So Falvey will explore free-agent deals and trades to fill holes on his roster, which won’t be easy because MLB has yet to announce guidelines for the 2021 season. How big will rosters be? Will there be a DH in the NL? Will the season start on time? Will major and minor leaguers be allowed on fields together?

Some of the decisions will be based on how the country transitions from a pandemic to virus mitigation. Until then, some offseason work could be affected. That starts this week, as Falvey works on his to-do list without the one-stop-shopping format of the winter meetings.

“We’re just going to need to navigate that as best we can week to week here,” Falvey said, “in the months ahead.”