Did the Twins Pivot to a Superior Plan B?
Image courtesy of Jeff Curry and Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY SportsAccording to reports, the Twins offered somewhere around $100 million to open their bidding for Wheeler, but were informed early on that Minnesota wasn't a strong consideration. Wheeler ended up signing with the Phillies for five years and $118 million, spurning the White Sox and their bigger offer (rumor has it Chicago was upwards of $120 million).
So, to even have a chance, the Twins would've needed to commit to Wheeler – who's never been an All-Star, never thrown 200 innings, never had an ERA+ better than 112 – at least $25 million annually, over at least five years.
They missed on Wheeler, and as every top free agent starter came off the board, it became apparent this wasn't going to be Minnesota's avenue for making a splash. In fact, as the inaction dragged into mid-January, with Homer Bailey and Rich Hill slotted in as rotation solutions, it appeared the team might make not make any splash at all.
A few weeks later, they have turned the $25 million they would've spent on Wheeler (if he'd have even taken it) into Josh Donaldson and Kenta Maeda, who are both locked in as long-term fixtures for a franchise steamrolling into its window of championship contention.
That's an top-tier hitter and defender, along with a starting pitcher who – in a lot of ways – is pretty similar to Wheeler.
Their career ERAs are nearly identical, their career FIPs are identical, and Maeda has an (often substantial) advantage in several other categories: WHIP, K/9, K/BB, opponents' batting average and OPS, to name a few.
Statistical profiles paint a similar picture, but stylistically, the two are wildly different. Wheeler is a 6-foot-4 athletic specimen who leans heavily on a 95 MPH fastball, while Maeda stands several inches shorter and tops out in the low 90s, craftily relying on a spin-heavy offspeed mix to induce tons of whiffs. Matthew Trueblood wrote a great piece here Tuesday explaining the righty's recipe for success.
Although the numbers make a case for it, I'm not going to say Maeda is the better pitcher. Wheeler is two years younger, trending better, and capable of pitching deeper into games. (He's thrown 100 more innings over the past two seasons than Maeda, who served in a swingman role for Los Angeles.) If all things were equal and I had my choice, I'd easily opt for Wheeler.
But, all things are not equal. Maeda costs about $100 million less, which allows the Twins to pair him with a borderline MVP-caliber third baseman. And Maeda does bring something Wheeler doesn't: experience in the heat of high stakes.
The Mets have been mostly terrible during his career, and Wheeler's never appeared in the postseason. Maeda, since coming to the States in 2016, has been – according to fWAR – the fourth-best, third-best, sixth-best, and third-best pitcher on Dodgers teams that have averaged 98 wins, won the NL West four times, and gone to the World Series twice. He has pitched 24 times in the playoffs and he has pitched WELL, with a 3.31 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 10.7 K/9 rate.
Like Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard, and Rich Hill before him, Maeda brings October seasoning to an emerging young group that showed its greenness against the Yankees last year. And his arrival causes a big ripple effect. The Twins are no longer totally desperate for both Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi to repeat their All-Star campaigns, having added a roughly equivalent pitcher. Bailey and Hill become backup plans and back-of-rotation parts. Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer are conveniently distant depth. Lewis Thorpe is a true wild-card, with opportunity but no major pressure.
The Twins didn't need to make this move. They did it because, as Thad Levine once assertively declared, they wanted to put their foot on someone's throat. While some fans will bemoan the enduring lack of an "ace," Maeda is an impact pitcher whose arrival alongside Donaldson dramatically improves an almost fully intact team, fresh off 101 wins and a home run title.
It does cost the Twins a very good prospect in Brusdar Graterol (editor's note: we think?), which is the unspoken pitfall in this discussion. He's an exciting, nerve-racking, high-upside, risk-addled rarity of a talent whose departure the team could very well come to rue. But these are the bold gambits a team takes when aiming high. It's the all-in type move that never came during the 2000s, while Terry Ryan's clubs continually fell short.
Yeah, signing Zack Wheeler back in November and calling it a day would've been cool. But instead, Twins fans have been treated to a spectacular, narrative-crushing turn of events in the offseason's home stretch that leaves no doubt as to the resolve of this front office and ownership.
It's go time. Can spring training get here already?
- Steve Lein, Carneal&Gordon, mikelink45 and 9 others like this