Offseason Outlook: Hard Truths and Hamstrung Priorities
If you could simply take the same team from this year and run it back, in a full season without the disruption and abbreviation of 2020, would you do it? I know I would. I felt great about this group coming in. Despite all the setbacks and shortcomings, and despite the disappointing finish, they played .581 ball over 62 games (94-win full-season pace) and won the division.
But here's the thing: returning that same group intact just isn't an option. Which brings us to...
Hard Truth #1: The Twins are going to lose some key pieces
First of all, payroll is going to drop, here and across baseball. Everyone took major revenue hits this year, and those impacts figure to carry forward, at least to some extent. So frugality will undoubtedly be a guiding principle, near and far.
Beyond that aspect, with so many Twins players hitting free agency or escalating their salaries via arbitration, simply retaining everyone would raise payroll above $150 million, by our estimates. Even in the most optimistic of scenarios, there's just no way the Twins are raising payroll by 10% from this year.
Okay, so let's remove all of the guys we identified as tough calls, or expendable assets, in the Twins free agent and arbitration episodes:
- Nelson Cruz ($14 million free agent projection)
- Jake Odorizzi ($12 million free agent projection)
- Eddie Rosario ($10-12 million arbitration projection)
- Taylor Rogers ($6-7 million arbitration projection)
- Trevor May ($6 million free agent projection)
- Rich Hill ($5 million free agent projection)
- Sergio Romo ($5 million team option with $250K buyout)
- Marwin González ($3 million free agent projection)
- Tyler Clippard ($3 million free agent projection)
- Alex Avila ($3 million free agent projection)
That's 10 players, each of whom (with the exception of Odorizzi) played a significant role for the team in 2020. Losing all those players would be a far cry from keeping the team intact, but the good news is that the Twins don't need to lose all of them.
Here's where the front office begins to find itself hamstrung in setting and evaluating priorities.
Hard Truth #2: If the Twins retain their big-name properties, they'll have minimal flexibility to do anything else
Where will payroll land in 2021? No one knows right now, but we're setting the bar at a reduction of 10% from this year, which would put the Twins around $125 million. Subtracting all the pieces mentioned above, our baseline spending commitment for next year is about $85 million, meaning we've got something like $40 million to spend on LF, DH, UTIL, C, two SP spots and 4 bullpen spots.
Let's say we want to bring back two of the lineup's most reliable producers in Rosario and Cruz. That's about $25 million shelled out on two players, soaking up more than half of our available funds. Wanna bring back Rogers too? Add another $6 million or so. Now we've got less than $10 million to address multiple rotation spots, a critical backup infielder role, and the remaining half of the bullpen.
Not really gonna work. This year proved out once again the vital importance of quality depth. The Twins would be negligent not to account for that by building up the back of their rotation, the end of their bullpen, and the contingencies behind their uncertainty-plagued infield. (Especially at the hot corner.)
Hard Truth #3: Josh Donaldson's presence makes it very hard to justify keeping Nelson Cruz
When they handed Donaldson an historic free agent deal, the Twins knew they were signing up for four years of lopsided and restrictive payroll commitment. Just one year in, we are already feeling the impact. As the front office tries to trim down spending, and work around Donaldson's team-leading $21 million figure, they also need to invest in a capable backup option behind him. It's not Donaldson's salary alone that weighs on the Twins, but also his status as an undependable commodity. In fantasy football terms, he needs a "handcuff."
There are lingering question marks all around the Twins infield – from Luis Arráez's knee to Jorge Polanco's angle to Miguel Sanó's neck – but no member is more valuable or vulnerable than Donaldson, who turns 35 in December and has had a good chunk of his post-30 career wiped out by calf issues. Having an untested rookie like Travis Blankenhorn or a no-hit utilityman like Ehire Adrianza as his top backup is simply not palatable.
Standout free agent options to fill this role, like Kiké Hernández and Jurickson Profar, figure to land in the $7-9 million annual range, not unlike González when he first hit the market out of Houston. Signing a player like that in addition to Cruz would leave the Twins with minimal flexibility to address their rotation and bullpen.
What you've really got to ask yourself: Can the Twins afford to pay Donaldson and Cruz – two aging right-handed sluggers with inherent durability concerns and fairly similar functions – around $35 million in combined money next year? That's more than a quarter of the total projected payroll.
Having both these guys in the lineup was a luxury, and one the team probably can't necessarily justify preserving. In my opinion, they likely knew this when they signed Donaldson. He was always going to be Cruz's replacement, even if not an immediate one. Especially when you consider that keeping Donaldson healthy and on the field will likely require mixing him in semi-regularly at DH, to ease the burden on his legs. That's not compatible in the short term with a scenario where Cruz is re-signed.
Hard Truth #4: Maintaining the pitching staff's strength means relying on the offense to get right without its most established run producers
The Twins won at a .600 clip during the 2020 regular season mainly due to their pitching staff. Their arms proved a decisive advantage in the division, holding strong while Chicago's faltered down the stretch. Cleveland built its recent AL Central dynasty on pitching, which is partially why the Twins plucked Derek Falvey away from them.
It behooves this organization to invest in building upon their world-class pitching staff this offseason. With Odorizzi, Hill, May, Romo and Clippard all hitting the market, there are several key roles needing to be backfilled. And while internal options exist – Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe, Edwar Colina, etc. – it's probably best not to view any of them as Option A for important duties.
In the example below, I've got the Twins re-signing Odorizzi as fourth starter for $12 million (feel free to swap in someone at a similar level, like Marcus Stroman, James Paxton, or Jose Quintana) and Drew Smyly for $4 million as the Homer Bailey-esque fifth starter gamble (as needed, substitute Mike Fiers, Tijuana Walker, Michael Wacha, etc.). I also tried to keep the bullpen somewhat intact by bringing back Romo and Clippard, although we lose May.
As you can see, these moves – in combination with signing Hernandez (or Profar, or Jonathan Villar, or Tommy La Stella) as the backup infielder and Donaldson insurance – gobble up all of our available payroll.
We're right up to that $125 million threshold, even with minimum-salary rookies replacing Rosario and Cruz. And I get why it seems horrifying to people who see the 300 runs those two have driven in over the past couple years, and wonder how to possibly replace that offensive production.
I would submit it's not as hard as one might think. Donaldson will hopefully play more, and more effectively. Ditto Garver. Sanó can be more consistent and Brent Rooker can factor in more heavily. Plus there are intriguing right-handed options on the free agent market at OF an DH that will be much cheaper and a Cruz or Rosario. We'll cover several of them Tuesday night on Offseason Live.
The question it comes down to is whether you want to spend available funds on creating functional depth, in the lineup and pitching staff, or you want to funnel it into retaining a 40-year-old designated hitter who's been the heart and soul of your club.
It's not an easy decision. There aren't many ahead of the Twins this offseason.
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