John Shipley: Twins’ long list of offseason issues starts with Carlos Correa’s contract (2023)

John Shipley: Twins’ long list of offseason issues starts with Carlos Correa’s contract (1)

Raj Mehta / USA Today Sports

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Twins last held a piece of first place in the American League Central on Sept. 4, a tie with Cleveland after a 5-1 victory at Chicago. As the season came to close on Wednesday, that seemed like ages ago.

After tying the Guardians on that Sunday at Guaranteed Rate Field, the Twins finished their season 10-20 and, despite a 10-1 victory over the White Sox in Chicago, ended their season 14 games behind first-place Cleveland. It was a spectacular collapse for a team that had held at least a piece of the division lead for 95 days.

Only Luis Arraez was able to finish his race on top, going 1 for 1 with two walks and a double on Wednesday to finish the season batting .316 and edge Yankees slugger Aaron Judge for the AL batting crown. He is one of many important pieces coming back next season.

John Shipley: Twins’ long list of offseason issues starts with Carlos Correa’s contract (2)

Over the next week or so, there will be a narrative purporting that the Twins’ remarkable plummet — from first place to 10 games out in just 18 days in September — was deceiving, that the first-place team is still in there somewhere buried under a pile of rushed prospects and free-agent minor leaguers who pushed a wounded team over the finish line. There’s a kernel of truth there but don’t lose the plot. The Twins had their chances to pull away in the Central Division race and didn’t.

In retrospect, the series that comes to mind is May 30-June 2 at Detroit. The Twins had won 8 of 10 heading into a five-game series against the fourth-place Tigers, an ideal time to pad their division lead while the Guardians and White Sox were felled by injuries to key players. Instead, they lost 4 of 5 and only lost a half-game on their division lead.

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But that lead steadily and inexorably dwindled until it was gone.

Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine have some heavy lifting ahead of them.

The first task is deciding whether to offer Carlos Correa a long-term contract, which became an even bigger issue for the Twins over the course of the season because a) Correa was really good, second on the team in batting average (.291), homers (22) and RBIs (64) while playing great defense, and b) the Twins had their worst non-COVID attendance season in 12 years at Target Field.

John Shipley: Twins’ long list of offseason issues starts with Carlos Correa’s contract (3)

Correa, 28, can opt out of the rest of his three-year deal five days after the World Series ends and has made it clear he will because he wants a long-term deal. The rest of the offseason begins with that decision; they either have $35 million more to spend next year and need a stopgap shortstop, or they’re set at short for the next seven or so years and have solidified a lineup that proved potent when all the pieces were there.

If the Twins want to send the wrong message to fans they hope to win back into the ballpark, offering Correa an uncompetitive package — or worse, taking a pass — is the way to do it.

“More of the same,” fans will say. “That’s what the Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox do, not the Twins. They aren’t serious about winning.”

While it’s never quite that simple, it will be that simple for the Twins.

The organization might need to assess its dedication to limiting starting pitchers’ innings, which didn’t really work for them in 2022. Starters threw a combined 782⅔ innings, more than only Washington, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, and the bullpen’s combined 654⅓ innings pitched were third-most in baseball. But this is the kind of thing that tends to work itself out; if the starters pitch better (their combined 4.11 earned-run average this season was 20th in MLB) in 2023, they’ll pitch longer and the bullpen’s responsibilities will shorten.

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More important, and probably most complicated, is the fact that the Twins have a major health and wellness issue. They sent players to the injured list 42 separate times this season and finished without their starting center fielder, right fielder, left fielder, second baseman, first baseman and three starting pitchers. There’s no use in rehashing it except to point out that a team that started the season with built-in off days to keep key players ready for crunch time was without Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Trevor Larnach, Alex Kirilloff and Tyler Mahle injured at crunch time — and promptly fell apart in September.

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