3 Creative Ways for Twins to Leverage Their Spending Flexibility
Image courtesy of Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY SportsIn his Payroll Analysis feature for the Offseason Handbook, John Bonnes surmises that the Twins could plausibly push payroll to around $140 million this winter, giving them up to $70 million in spending flexibility. That total would push them past their 2018 and 2017 payrolls, but only modestly so. It's a reasonable target for a team that's in championship contention and experiencing a wave of renewed fan investment.
In three shorts years since taking over as general manager under Derek Falvey, Thad Levine has already made some of the boldest free agent splashes in Twins history. The contracts given to Jason Castro, Addison Reed, Lance Lynn, Nelson Cruz and Marwin Gonzalez may not be lofty signings relative to the rest of the league, but judged against the standard set by Terry Ryan, they were tremendously aggressive signings.
With the exception of Castro, however, none of these pacts were for more than two years. The Twins reportedly backed out of the Yu Darvish derby two winters ago because of his contract length demands. Minnesota epitomizes baseball's general aversion to bulky free agent deals, and to committing enormous guaranteed sums to players in their 30s.
You know what? It's undeniably smart, especially for a team with finite payroll constraints. Ongoing flexibility is a worthy aspiration and directive for this front office. Let's explore some ways the Twins could maximize their present cash surplus while staying true to their strategically prudent ways.
Frontload a Free Agent Contract
Are the Twins going to sign Gerrit Cole to a deal pays him $40 million as a 34-year-old in 2025? Probably not. In fact, they're likely aiming to avoid any huge financial obligations down the line. But let me throw a theoretical scenario at you.
Say Minnesota is targeting Madison Bumgarner. (You can insert the name of another high-end free agent starter as you please.) He has a five-year, $100 million offer in hand from another team, with salaries evenly dispersed across the length of the contract, maybe even backloaded. Pretty standard framework.
Okay, Twins might not want to go there. But what if they proposed this contract: five years and $96 million, with $30 million salaries in each of the first two seasons, followed by an opt-out clause, and then $12 million salaries in each of the final three seasons. This gives Bumgarner the ability to make an extra $20+ million over the next two years, then hit free agency again at age 32 for another big payday. Meanwhile, if things fall apart on him, he still has three years of solid paychecks guaranteed. Basically it gives him the ability to bet on himself while maintaining security.
From Minnesota's perspective, the extra money up-front doesn't matter much, and they ensure they won't be saddled with a major payroll drain just as guys like Jose Berrios, Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Taylor Rogers are getting expensive or reaching free agency.
You can tinker around with the specific terms and numbers, but in general I think the heavily front-loaded opt-out contract is a model that could help the Twins compete for prime talent in free agency while remaining nimble.
Trade for a Hefty Salary
Teams that are willing to take on a burdensome contract often give up less in prospect capital to acquire a player. As it happens, there are several teams looking to shed payroll this winter, even – if rumblings are to be believed – heavy hitters like the Red Sox and Cubs.
With considerable short-term flexibility, might the Twins be able to land a player like David Price ($32M/yr owed through 2023) or Kris Bryant (due around $40 million his final two years of arbitration, pending his service time grievance) for a relatively light return?
Frontload Internal Contract Extensions
This might not be as exciting as flashy outside pickups, but team-friendly extensions for core players – like the ones inked with Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler in the spring – are critical to the franchise's long-term health, enabling the front office to making impactful additions year after year.
In the cases of both Polanco and Kepler, the Twins gave large immediate raises in exchange for reasonable rates and team options during the latter portions (which also happen to encompass the players' primes). It'd be great to see the front office take a similar approach this offseason, maybe even bringing it a step further.
Earlier this week, Cody Christie looked at five extension candidates, and of course Berrios was at the top of the list. The 25-year-old is projected to make somewhere around $5 million in his first turn at arbitration this offseason, but what if the Twins bumped that up to – say – $9 million, with an ensuant raise the following year? What kind of discount might that score for his first few years of free agency?
The bottom line is that Minnesota has a ton of spending flexibility right now, but it's a fleeting reality if the Twins hope to keep their core intact. They have at least seven key players in the arbitration process now, which puts those fixtures on a rapidly rising pay scale.
Moves like the ones above will serve the team's short-term and long-term goals, aggressively pursuing a winning window while maintaining the freedom to keep the band together.
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