By the Numbers: The Twins’ Biggest Missed Opportunity
Image courtesy of © Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY SportsThe good news, friends, is that your humble author has done the hard work for you. Over the past few weeks I’ve studied the teams that made the 2018 postseason in an effort to better understand to what degree they relied on homegrown talent (i.e. drafted and signed internationally) and external talent (i.e. free agents and trade acquisitions) to reach the postseason. I looked at every player that suited up for these clubs and tracked how they were acquired and how they performed. The results were surprising and fascinating, showing one key area where the Twins have fallen behind - an opportunity they can’t afford to continue to miss if they want to return to the postseason.
Before we dive in, a few notes on methodology:
- All WAR figures are based on FanGraphs’ WAR formula. If you aren’t a fan of WAR, you may want to turn back now, but you’re reading a baseball site on Super Bowl Sunday so my guess is we’re safe.
- The 2019 Twins projections below are FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projections, which are a blend of Steamer’s projection system and playing time estimates by FanGraphs’ staff.
- Several types of averages below help summarize the postseason field as a whole, including median, unweighted average (mean) and weighted average. The weighted average favor the clubs that advanced further into the postseason (crediting 19 games for advancing to the World Series, 12 games for advancing to the league championship series, and so forth). So the Red Sox are weighted more heavily in that average than the A’s, for example.
- The “Small Market Average” is an average of Cleveland, Oakland, Milwaukee and Colorado, meant to represent the postseason clubs more closely aligned with the Twins’ revenues and spending capabilities.
Any conversation around Minnesota’s underwhelming 2018 starts with the struggles of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, but readers may be surprised by how competitive the Twins’ homegrown core was relative to those of the postseason clubs, even factoring in Buxton's and Sano’s struggles. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers:
In fact, players the Twins drafted or signed as amateur international free agents contributed 19.6 wins to the 2018 club, roughly even with the average playoff team. Among the contending clubs, the Red Sox and Rockies led the way with 23.7 and 23.5 wins respectively from their homegrown talent, while the Brewers managed to lead the National League in wins despite only 3.6 wins’ worth of production from players they’d drafted or signed internationally.
Fangraphs projects the Twins’ drafted and international signings to continue to produce at or above the level of a postseason team in 2019, but 2018 showed us that this won’t be enough to take the club to October. So if the Twins maintained pace with baseball’s best in homegrown production and still fell short, where did the eventual postseason clubs pull away?
The state of free agency has been a hot topic this offseason, and it’s no secret to Twins fans that the free agent market wasn’t kind to their club in 2018. Logan Morrison, Lance Lynn and Addison Reed fell flat, and key free agent investments from previous offseasons Ervin Santana and Jason Castro were non-factors. Let’s take a look at free agent production as compared to the 2018 playoff teams:
While the Twins got a mere 1.3 wins from players acquired via free agency, playoff teams enjoyed an average of nearly 8 wins apiece. There were outliers even within one division, with the Dodgers needing nearly 14 wins from former free agents to squeak into the postseason while the Rockies needed less than 2 free agent wins to do the same. The NL West race also demonstrates a split in strategy between larger- and smaller-market teams, with the smaller predictably relying less on free agents than their larger-market counterparts.
If Twins fans are looking for some good news, it’s unlikely their luck will be nearly as poor in 2019. FanGraphs has rosy projections for former free agents Nelson Cruz, Michael Pineda and Jonathan Schoop, but a return to the postseason will likely hinge on every ounce of the 13.5 wins FanGraphs projects the Twins getting from players acquired in free agency.
But here’s where things get interesting, because if the homegrown core still looks promising and the free agent acquisitions appear poised for fairly strong production, there’s only one player acquisition strategy left that jumps off the page as a missed opportunity for the Twins, and if you took a close look at the charts above you may be way ahead of me.
The Trade Market
While last year’s playoff teams may have had a step up on the Twins in free agency, they absolutely torched the Twins when it came to finding surplus value in the trade market. Let’s take another look at the breakdown of external production:
Outside of the trade for Jake Odorizzi, the Twins have been largely absent from the trade market, and it shows when you compare them to the best teams in baseball. Excluding midseason trades, which we’ll omit due to the Twins having very different goals in those trades than the other teams on this list, trade acquisitions contributed only 6.1 wins to the Twins in 2018, and those were largely concentrated between Odorizzi and erstwhile fan favorite Eduardo Escobar.
By comparison, 2018’s postseason teams averaged a whopping 17.9 wins from players acquired via trade, again excluding midseason trades. That’s nearly 40% of their production coming from such trades, and the number balloons to nearly 50% when you look at just the smaller market clubs. The A’s and the Indians have written the book on building a small market contender by acing the trade market, with the A’s acquiring over half their 2018 production and the Indians acquiring four of five pieces of a dynamic rotation (all of whom were worth 4 or more WAR) via trade.
If there’s one lesson to take from this review of the 2018 postseason field, it’s that effectively leveraging the trade market is critical to building a postseason contender, and the Twins have not kept pace with their competition. Twins fans have seen what can happen when trades go wrong, but we also saw in 2018 the effect that conservative trade activity can have on a club that has eyes on the postseason. Is it time to get out there and make some aggressive moves?
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