Masters of Efficiency: How the 2021 Twins Acquired Their WAR
Image courtesy of Ron ChenoyThe Twins front office has proven themselves to be masters of free agent spending efficiency. This offseason, they have spent around $37.5MM, accruing an additional 7.2 fWAR (ZiPS). Baseball is not a salary capped sport, but imagine how effective the Twins would be at managing it if it were. I respect the hell out of how the Twins get their WAR. I decided to dig in and compare the makeup of the 2021 roster with previous seasons.
Not Their First Rodeo
It’s worth starting before the 2018 season to understand the evolution of the Twins consistent approach to the offseason. Prior to the 2018 season with the Twins, Falvey and Levine waited out the market and signed Logan Morrison and Lance Lynn late in the day. Neither move worked out well. Morrison, coming off an exceptional 2017 season, was hampered by injuries, and Lynn looked sweaty and uninterested on his way to a 4.77 ERA. He was later traded away to the Yankees. This approach however, foreshadowed the organizational approach to free agency which has evolved and improved in each of the seasons following 2018.
40+ WAR for the Playoffs?
There is a common maxim in baseball that just north of 40 WAR makes you a playoff contender. When comparing the 2021 and 2019 rosters (the Twins last full season), it’s easy to just make rote comparisons between players, without also examining how the units of infield, outfield, and pitching may function.
Coming into this offseason, the Twins had a significant amount of holes to fill, with Cruz, Romo, May, Clippard, Wisler, Marwin Gonzalez, Odorizzi, and others becoming free agents. An additional constraint was a moderate (self-imposed) payroll reduction, coming off a year with decreased revenues due to a shortened season and no fans in the stands. The front office didn’t blink.
In the space of 10 days the Twins signed J.A. Happ, Andrelton Simmons, re-signed Nelson Cruz, and added Alex Colome. Let’s look broadly at the cumulative impact of those moves on each aspect of the Twins roster using the Twins 2019 and 2020 counterparts for comparison.
J.A. Happ currently slots into the fourth rotation spot where Rich Hill pitched in 2020. Happ is projected 1.6 fWAR in 2021 making $8MM, a similar amount to Hill with his incentive laden 1 year deal in 2020. While Hill didn’t get the opportunity to pitch a full season for the Twins, this move is essentially a wash, with Happ having shown over the last 10+ years that he is a slightly above average MLB starter.
This pushes Randy Dobnak into the 5th rotation spot. At 1.7 projected fWAR, he is, in fact, tied with Chris Paddack for the highest projected fWAR of any number five starter. The Twins could stand to add depth to their rotation and bullpen and while it remains to be seen if the rotation has enough ceiling to dominate in the playoffs, the pitching staff as a whole is projected to be the 6th best in baseball, per Fangraphs depth charts.
There’s a ton of flux in the bullpen for 2021, with May, Romo, Wisler, and Clippard departing. The Twins have added a stable of good velocity fastball, wipeout slider guys to compete for the 8th spot in the pen, but prior to that, made another great efficiency move. The Twins turned down a $5MM option on the soon to be 38 year old Romo for 2021, instead signing Alex Colome, former White Sox closer and five years Romo’s junior for the same price.
Colome for Romo is another excellent example of the Twins efficiency leading up to the 2021 season, Colome is younger, better, and has outperformed his peripherals in each of his previous eight MLB seasons. Which back end would you rather have in 2021, Rogers, Duffey, Romo, or Rogers, Duffey, Colome? We can assume the latter, and Romo and Colome would have cost the Twins the same price in 2021.
The infield has seen a seismic shift, adding actual wizard Andrelton Simmons, pushing Jorge Polanco to 2B, where the Twins feel like he can be an above average fielder, and shunting Luis Arraez into a super utility role which limits his defensive shortcomings (and use of his ankles). To illustrate this impact, I compared the 2019 (last full 162 game season) and 2021 occupant of each infield position by projected fWAR in 2021 and compared their OAA averaged over the last 3 seasons at that position (if available). Essentially, I am trying to answer the question; what are the Twins looking at for infield quality in 2021, compared to what they had in 2019? I realize the shortcomings of using projections, but the comparison effectively illustrates the Twins accomplishment in improving both offensive and defensive production from their infield unit as a whole over the last 2 years.
SS: Andrelton Simmons projected 2.7 fWAR (averaged 9.3 OAA)
in for Jorge Polanco projected 2.7 fWAR (averaged -10.5 OAA)
2B: Jorge Polanco, projected 2.7 fWAR (no OAA data for 2B)
in for Luis Arraez projected 2.9 fWAR (averaged -4.5 OAA)
3B: Josh Donaldson, projected 3.1 fWAR (averaged 4.5 OAA)
in for (mostly) Miguel Sano 2.7 fWAR (averaged -3 OAA)
Util: Luis Arraez, projected 2.9 fWAR (average -4.5 OAA)
in for Marwin Gonzalez projected 0.9 fWAR averaged (2.3 OAA)
Net projection: +2.2 fWAR, +15.4 OAA
Will this is of course, an overly simplistic approach, the projections call for the Twins infield to improve by over two wins in 2021 (mostly subbing Arraez for Marwin). Additionally, they significantly increased the quality of their infield defense. It’s also worth noting that Marwin Gonzalez made a comparable salary in 2019 and 2020 to the one Andrelton Simmons will make in 2021.
The Other Side of the Coin: The LA Dodgers
The Dodgers mercifully ended Trevor Bauer’s free agency by signing him to a contract which will pay him $40MM in 2021 (market value-ish for his projected 4.4 fWAR). While loathe to write about Bauer, the Dodgers move is useful in illustrating the opposite of the Twins approach. The Dodgers careened through the luxury tax threshold and paid a premium for their WAR. This is a perfectly fine approach, but given that it’s not one the Twins will be taking anytime in the near future, I hope Twins fans can appreciate the nimbleness of this front office in constructing a consistently excellent, flexible roster. The Twins have likewise continued to prioritize preserving their farm system and the ability to have a sustainable winner over the next 3-5 years.
What do you think of the Twins roster makeup and balance in 2021? What are areas of concern or areas you believe need strengthening to make a playoff push (or win a single game)?
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