With the offseason fully underway, teams have begun to carry out their plans with an eye towards the future. While most teams are buyers or sellers, there are a few who are somewhat stuck in limbo. Perhaps no team presents a more interesting, and challenging case, than the Minnesota Twins.
By now, everyone knows the Twins went 59-103 in 2016, turning themselves around to become the first 100-loss team ever to make the playoffs the next year. After a quick exit, many pegged the Twins to be at least a strong contender in 2018, mostly due to an abnormally weak division. People were right about the weak division, and the Twins actually finished second, albeit with a 78-84 record. They were not, at any point in the season, legitimate contenders.
Much of the offseason strategy for the Twins was to make a calculated gamble, with a host of low-risk deals in both the free agent and trade markets. This was a strategy I was generally in favor of, as enough of these deals should work out to keep them competitive while not mortgaging the future. Really the only player of consequence given up was Jermaine Palacios who really hasn’t done anything to make the Twins regret their decision to deal him for two years of Jake Odorizzi.
There was a small chance most, or all of these acquisitions didn’t work out, leaving the Twins with a tinge of disappointment but no real future commitments. Unfortunately, this was how it played out, and everything went wrong for the Twins this year. The Twins’ additions as a whole didn’t pay off, but the most concerning part is the players they didn’t need to add in the first place.
A few years ago, the Twins had one of the best farm systems in baseball, dominated by top-end talents Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Jose Berrios. While all three played substantial roles in the 2017 season, only Berrios played a substantial role in the 2018 season, accumulating an excellent 3.9 bWAR. Sano and Buxton on the other hand, combined for -0.4 fWAR after combining for 5.9 fWAR in 2017. This is where most of the problem lies.
If you look at the past few World Series winners, these teams have been anchored by an offensive core. By and large, this is the easiest way to accumulate guaranteed wins just due to the risk and volatility presented by pitchers. It’s why teams will almost always prefer a hitter over a similarly ranked pitcher. In the case of the Twins, it seemed like Sano and Buxton had finally arrived after several years of inconsistency. After all, it made sense given their development timelines and relative youth.
Both players had their warts, but their floors should have been enough to sustain them as a 4 WAR combination at the very least. Sano has a career 116 wRC+ with some impressive plate discipline and notable raw power. Buxton may very well be the best defender in baseball when healthy, with innate baserunning ability founded on his game-changing speed and athleticism. The Twins were not unreasonable in thinking both of these players would continue to play a substantial role in their success, especially given their long pedigrees as elite prospects.
But, with the myriad of injuries Buxton has dealt with this year, and a midseason demotion of Sano to clear his mind and get his weight and mechanics in check, the future appears to be murky for these two. Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back there were some very obvious warning signs in both their 2017 seasons. As baseball evaluators, we all went against our best judgements and believed what we wanted to believe. Should we have expected this? No. But should we be surprised by this? Also no. Both of these things were, to an extent, in a range of possible outcomes for both players.
Maybe the odds of this happening were 1 in 100. Anybody who has ever dealt with probability would tell you this is highly unlikely to happen again. These are the same players with the same pedigree, but any rational person would say it’s no longer 1 in 100 due to past performance. The odds increase from what they were last year, naturally, but I’m not sure the odds were originally high enough to begin with. This is where things start to become concerning.
Logically, with health and a fresh slate, Buxton and Sano should be much more productive. But now there’s a legitimate chance that they don’t produce. And even worse, there’s a chance that they might not even be healthy. To say that the Twins don’t have a problem on their hands is an understatement. The front office staff obviously has more information about their health and can place more confidence in the future performance of their players than we can. But what it comes down to is nobody, not you, not me, not Derek Falvey, will know what these players are for months into next season.
This leads the Twins to a very difficult position. Years ago, 2019 would be a year where the Twins were firmly in contention, led by their then loaded farm system. While the farm system is again very good, the Twins are caught in the middle of two windows. The most valuable assets, Berrios (four years), Sano (three years), and Buxton (three years), are under too much team control to simply blow it up. But when the Twins’ next wave arrives (likely 2020/2021), these three might be nearly at the end of their team control.
The next component to look at is payroll and payroll projections. The Twins currently have $26,500,000 committed to players for next year, a very low figure. Arbitration raises are projected to cost the Twins $38,300,000, which is certainly sizable, but still only brings the Twins to $64,800,000. They could likely double this figure and still be ok, as their payroll for 2018 was $115,509,520, and in 2017 it was even higher.
The Twins will likely have no chance at Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, who seem destined for big markets and big paydays. And while the Twins can offer as much money as almost anyone, the cultural fit doesn’t really seem to be there. Patrick Corbin is likely too rich for the Twins as well, however there are some mid-tier free agents that would make sense to add. Dallas Keuchel, A.J. Pollock, and Nathan Eovaldi would all make some sense and likely wouldn’t require more than a four year commitment. The thought here is that, add maybe two of these players and at worst they’re useful. Maybe Sano and Buxton turn it around. Add six wins to a 78 win team and that already gets you to 84 wins. Assuming Buxton and Sano don’t combine for -0.4 fWAR again, and maybe get to, say 3.5 WAR, that brings you to 87-88 wins.
All of a sudden, a team that looked to be right in the middle is right on the fringes of contention again. It may not have been a dominant window like they expected, but this is a window and these are the types of players you need to add to be able to take advantage of that. Mix in a little luck and a possibly retooling Indians team, and the AL Central becomes a bit more interesting.
In addition to on field changes, there have also been some massive positive indicators from Derek Falvey and his regime. The firing of Paul Molitor was all but inevitable at some point, despite the three-year extension after the Twins made it to the Wild Card Game. Rocco Baldelli, even in his opening press conference pushed the importance of openers and appears to be data savvy. The Twins have also hired two coaches straight from the college ranks, and seem to have an intense focus on improving player development this offseason, again with a data-heavy background. Wes Johnson, the new pitching coach, comes straight from the University of Arkansas and has been described by Baseball America as a “rising star” in the field of coaching, with glowing endorsements from baseball development facilities such as Driveline.
What I’m trying to get at here is that the Twins most important acquisitions may have already been made, with a clear and evident shift towards more data driven development and decision making. It’s unclear how many wins Paul Molitor actually cost the Twins, but I can say with full confidence I have more faith in Baldelli and the new staff. Maybe they do something interesting and create a rotation of Berrios/Keuchel/Eovaldi, with the last two days in the rotation going to the bullpen. Maybe player development is finally able to consistently capture the talents of Buxton and Sano.
There’s even a litany of interesting talents set to hit the free agent market in 2019-2020. My point is this; the time to win for the Twins is now. The C.J. Cron claim they made today was perfectly fine in isolation, but hopefully isn’t indicative of a continued string of bargain bin plays to try to catch lightning in a bottle. There’s also value in pointing out that the Twins lost both Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier, both of whom served incredibly vital roles as veterans for a team primarily composed of young players. Although it’s not their first consideration, signing someone to replace some of the leadership and presence occupied by both players is still vital.
The last point to consider is that the American League is still stacked at the top, but the second tier teams (Angels, Rays, Athletics) still have major warts. Part of the problem is that with the opener becoming more widespread, both of these teams (A’s and Rays) may rapidly start losing their competitive advantage. I think it’d be wrong to consider last season the new baseline for these teams, and the good-but-not-great field has rotated yearly within the American League for awhile now.
All of these points considered, even with the uncertainty surrounding Buxton and Sano, the Twins are in a position where spending money on some of these mid-tier assets makes a lot of sense. There’s also the very real possibility that the Twins are just much better with a real manager and player development staff. The organization is making great progress under Derek Falvey, and a couple more real players could propel the Twins back into the good-not-great group for a few years, at least while they’re waiting for their next wave of top prospects. The future is bright in Minnesota, but you don’t have to look too hard to see that the present is pretty bright, too.